Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Energy/ Environmental platforms of the ’08 front-runners

Posted by Rich Sweeney on October 12, 2007

Last weekend Barack Obama released a long, detailed energy/ environmental platform to much political fanfare. After reading it I decided to finally check out Hillary and Edwards’ plans for comparison purposes. If you’re of voting age and read this blog then I definitely encourage you to read each plan for yourself. In the meantime however, I’ll summarize some of the highlights and potential lowlights below.

** Note that this post only looks at the Democratic front runners. I went to the websites of Giuliani, Thompson and Romney and let’s just say that environmental policy clearly isn’t a “key issue” for the GOP at this point. Giuliani has come out in the debates as being pro-nuclear. Other than that, any mention of energy policy is in the context of energy security, and usually amounts to simply opening up untapped domestic oil.

What all three seem to agree on:

  1. Commit to reduce GHG’s to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050
  2. Cap-and-Trade
  3. Impose a 20% renewables standard by 2020, or a 25% by 2025 (Apparently, politicians like it when numeric goals line up with the year of the deadline)
  4. Make Federal buildings more energy efficient
  5. Bring the US back to the table at international climate mitigation meetings.

Where they differ/ sound crazy:

(If you click on the hyperlinks above you’ll notice that Hillary’s page is much much more vague and brief than Obama and Edwards’. That’s because as the clear front-runner she has no incentive to state anything concrete at this point. Expect a much more detailed policy to come if the other two close the gap in the polls, or if she wins the nomination.)

Clinton:

  • Would create a $50 billion dollar fund to promote renewables research and would force oil companies to either conduct their own renewables R&D or pay into the fund. (good idea)

Obama:

  • Overall his plan is pretty sensible. But the opening paragraph is a bit too alarmist, even for my liking:
    • “Global warming is real, is happening now and is the result of human activities. The number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes has almost doubled in the last 30 years. Glaciers are melting faster; the polar ice caps are shrinking; trees are blooming earlier; oceans are becoming more acidic, threatening marine life; people are dying in heat waves; species are migrating, and eventually many will become extinct.” (Are people really dying in heat waves right now because of global warming? And the “trees blooming earlier” part seems oddly out of place.)
  • Has a lot of really specific, but sensible and practical ways to improve conservation/ efficiency. Highlights include phasing out conventional lightbulbs and investing in the Smart Grid.
  • Obama also suggests some unique R&D funding techniques:
    • The Good: He’s the only politician I’ve ever heard suggest the US government consider using cash prizes as a way to pull innovation through the market. (Much more to come on this in another post)
    • The Bad: Obama pledges to create a Clean Technologies Deployment Venture Capital Fund run by the government. He cites a similar fund called In-Q-Tel, which develops technology for the CIA. Now the markets for intelligence technology and energy technology could not be more different. The potential future returns from efficiently curbing carbon emissions are clear to all. Furthermore, there’s certainly plenty of VC money floating around out there looking for the idea that will garner these returns. So explain to me again why the government could do this better than the market?
  • Likes nuclear but not Yucca. (Someone explain to me how that works)
  • Wants to eliminate tax incentive to drive to work. (Good idea, but will probably piss a lot of people off)
  • In general there’s a lot of stuff in here that is borderline between wise infrastructure investment and wasteful rural pork spending. Judge for yourself.
  • Oh yeah and Obama explicitly committed to auction off 100% of carbon permits (very very good idea).

Edwards:

  • If it’s hard to disaggregate the Republican’s environmental policies from their security/ foreign policies, it’s often hard to draw the line between enviro and labor concerns when it comes to Edwards. For example, he would:
    • Bind developing countries to pollution reductions (very bad idea).
    • Use trade policy to enforce agreements (see previous post).
    • Invest $1 billion to “help US automakers” advance technology.
  • Has a lot of vague, possibly good ideas to improve efficiency, including teaching farmers to better harness methane gases, better managing peak electricity, installing smart meters, and decoupling profits and production for the electricity sector.
  • In typical Edwards fashion also has a lot of gimmicks:
    • Would make the White House carbon neutral.
    • Would create a “GreenCorps” subset of AmeriCorps.
  • And also in typical Edwards fashion there’s a lot of market aversion in favor command and control:
    • Hasn’t committed to auction all permits.
    • Commits the US to produce 65 billion gallons of ethanol by 2025 (I don’t even know where to start).
    • Require 25% of all pumps to sell ethanol (ditto).

9 Responses to “Energy/ Environmental platforms of the ’08 front-runners”

  1. greg claxton said

    (Are people really dying in heat waves right now because of global warming? And the “trees blooming earlier” part seems oddly out of place.)

    Keep in mind that Obama comes to politics through Chicago, which suffered the 1995 heat wave. Given that context, heat waves make sense as a way to make global warming concrete. To me, that suggests Obama’s aware of the way global warming crosses problems: mitigation/adaptation and natural/social.

  2. Evan Herrnstadt said

    Yes, making these issues concrete is important to garnering support. And yes, Obama’s constituency is well-versed in summer heat. However, alarmist tactics can easily backfire in the context of a controversial presidential election issue.

    Blaming localized events on a long-term process like climate change is obviously fallacious. This kind of imagery writes checks it can’t cash. Using localized weather to discuss climate change opens one up to a whole range of attacks. If the heat wave is a consequence of climate change, why isn’t a week-long cold snap? In 1995, people froze to death as well.

    I acknowledge that these attempts to make climate change hit home can be successful in inciting action. However, can’t you just see an attack ad with the text “Trees blooming earlier” backed by images of cherry trees and a horror movie soundtrack? It’s probably in production somewhere as we speak.

  3. greg claxton said

    However, alarmist tactics can easily backfire in the context of a controversial presidential election issue.

    Looking at least to what Rich quoted, I have hard time seeing how that’s alarmist. If it is, I have hard time seeing how you can talk in any brief way about global warming impacts, and if you can’t do that, then you can’t build political support–after all, the impacts are the motivation for action.

    If the heat wave is a consequence of climate change, why isn’t a week-long cold snap? In 1995, people froze to death as well.

    Well, if the week-long cold snap is the sort of thing that’s going to happen, or is happening, more frequently as a result of global warming, then it seems like fair game to me. The problem to my mind is entirely a matter of not having a good way to talk about causation in a complex system. Whenever this comes up, scientists dutifully say that you can’t chalk this or that particular event up to global warming. But it seems to me–and maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone address this–that it’s equally correct to say that global warming is behind everything now, since it’s changed the context. It’s not a matter of science, it’s a matter of what we mean when we talk about causation.

    To my mind, the way out of this is to talk focus on what we can expect more of in the future, as we get more global warming. Thus, it’s legitimate to talk about heat waves because we expect (as I understand the science) higher temperatures and higher temperatures mean, to my climatologically naive mind, more of the problems associated with high temperatures, like heat waves.

    However, can’t you just see an attack ad with the text “Trees blooming earlier” backed by images of cherry trees and a horror movie soundtrack?

    Sure, but you can attack-ad anything, right? “Liberals like Barack Obama can’t take a hot summer,” or whatever. That comes with the territory.

  4. I simply meant that I think it’s dangerous to overstate your case. You can’t run around taking extreme weather events that will become more probable in the future and imply that climate change is behind them. Saying “global warming is a real problem with real consequences for Americans” then giving examples of them is different than blaming isolated incidents on climate change.

    “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone address this–that it’s equally correct to say that global warming is behind everything now, since it’s changed the context. It’s not a matter of science, it’s a matter of what we mean when we talk about causation.”

    I think that’s a pretty fast and loose definition of causation. Basically, my problem with this is as follows:

    If we overstate a claim about the impacts of climate change on such a complex system as weather patterns, we basically leave ourselves open to counterarguments every time the somewhat random system swings in the opposite direction.

    BTW Greg, thanks for posting comments here (on this post and in the past)–it’s good to be discussing these issues with people other than my co-contributors. And to be getting some actual debate going is a great bonus.

  5. Rich Sweeney said

    Both of you guys make good points. When I wrote the post, I was thinking along the lines of what Evan said in his last comment. I think that the scientific evidence that we need to do something about climate change is getting stronger every day. Americans seem to be coming along as well, and basically the only thing I can see getting in the way of decisive government action is that we over-exaggerate the case.

    While I take Greg’s point that it’s possibly equally as correct to say climate change effects everything as it is to say it effects nothing, I think economists have a responsibility to stick to our principles and not confuse causality with correlation. More generally, I cringed when I read that sentence on Obama’s webpage. Even if we take the view that global warming is a factor in all weather related events these days, it just seemed wrong to imply that carbon emissions were causing people to “die in heat waves”.

    During the global warming denial days I once watched Bob Novak turn to the crowd on Crossfire in the middle of the winter and say “I don’t care what some academic says, if you ask average Americans what they think about the temperature they’ll tell you it’s plenty cold” (approximate). If the debate regresses to who can shout the loudest or be the most folksy, we’re all in big trouble.

    With all that said, part of Obama’s appeal is his passion, and Al Gore just won the Nobel Peace Prize for a movie that many felt was too alarmist, so what the hell do I know. Thanks a lot for your comments Greg. Too often I feel like I’m preaching to the choir here.

  6. greg claxton said

    Saying “global warming is a real problem with real consequences for Americans” then giving examples of them is different than blaming isolated incidents on climate change.

    Right, and I’m trying to get to a way of talking that lets us get away from blaming isolated incidents on climate change. And, to back up for a moment, what kicked this off wasn’t Obama (or anyone) pointing to the 1995 Chicago heat wave and saying it was caused by global warming. Obama said “people are dying in heat waves,” and Rich asked, “Are people really dying in heat waves right now because of global warming?” I then added that him saying this made sense because of Chicago’s heat wave–that 1995 could (I surmise) have given heat waves a more intense meaning for him. So, I don’t see this as about blaming isolated instances on climate change, but as using isolated instances to better understand what the future holds. If the science isn’t there to say “expect more of this,” then it shouldn’t be talked about. But if the science is there, I think that specificity is important and useful.

    I also, in general, think that heat waves are (1) underappreciated as natural disasters (I’m assuming you’re at least aware of Eric Klinenberg’s “Heat Wave,” but if not, it’s totally worth reading) and (2) interesting combinations of natural and social phenomena, making them good fodder for climate change talk.

    I think that’s a pretty fast and loose definition of causation.

    Granted. But–as a very rough characterization of one sense of causality in weather systems–is it wrong? I’m absolutely confident that a climatologist would be aghast at the way I’m talking about this, but I’m almost half as confident :) that they’d agree there’s more to climate change causation than just saying “You can’t pinpoint global warming as the direct cause of any one isolated event.” The causation comes in the patterns, but the patterns are composed of … isolated events.

    And, to be clear, I agree with your concerns. I think we’re faced with a Scylla and Charybdis of overstatement and understatement, and my own sense is that people trying to make climate change specific are too often undercut by people hewing too closely to understatement by reflexively invoking the impossibility of connecting a particular event to system-wide changes.

    Also, feel free to walk away from this at any time. :) I’m just getting out of being a local clean energy activist in my small downstate Illinois city, so a lot of this is built up internal dialogue. I feel this tug between over- and understatement very acutely.

  7. greg claxton said

    Hey, I’m happy to have a place to spew. Although I cringe when I see my nicely low-tech smilies get upgraded to images.

  8. Evan Herrnstadt said

    Agreed on the smilies. Ridiculous. Nice post Rich, I like the jab at the GOP. Sometimes the truth can be very partisan. I hadn’t yet noticed the Obama permit auction pledge. Which is great, I don’t want the first attempt to end up like the EU-ETS. I’m considering wallpapering my room with carbon permits.

  9. Evan Herrnstadt said

    Also, as an Iowan, I feel obligated to apologize for the existence of ethanol. Oh, John Edwards and his folksy ways.

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