In recent posts, I’ve wondered aloud if the stalled policy and political action on climate change presented a window for alternative proposals to gain a fresh hearing. After all, as Tom Yulsman, noting the groundhog day element to the most recent global talks, asks:
Who was it who said that insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”?
I sense that many people close to this debate are prepared to risk insanity rather than consider an alternative approach to decarbonization. I base this in part on some of the negative reaction to a bipartisan proposal floated last week, and to the exchanges that emerged in this thread, which boiled down to a why would an energy innovation centric framework be any more viable than a cap and trade or a carbon pricing centric framework? What’s the evidence the former would do any better than the latter?
Fair questions. But what I was trying to get at is whether or not a new approach was something that could even be debated in good faith. That requires one prerequisite: being open to a completely different mindset on how to best tackle climate change. Or to put it another way: being willing to reject the existing mindset because it is not winning the day and shows no evidence it can do so anytime soon.
Over at Dot Earth, one reader, recognizing the failure of the existing “narrative” to carry the day, shows he’s open to something new (my emphasis):
The depth or irrationality and hostility over climate science has me pretty convinced that it is futile to try and further refine a narrative or sales pitch about the rising risk for climate change. It just seems like a Sysiphean task when we are dealing with a large part of the population that believes our President practices the Muslim faith and might not actually be a native born American despite his birth certificate. People believe what they want to believe, not reality. I’m not suggesting the scientific community stop their work and talking about it and arguing with the deniers. Unfortunately that has to go on at some level.
It seems like we need to change the subject and develop a narrative about why it’s a positive thing to move to a green energy future and economy; it’s not only for climate. The other post about the Kansas experiment is a good example of this. Maybe once people get past their fear that all this climate change talk is a threat to the “American Way of Life”, then they will be able to view the science rationally. Ultimately, the positive argument has its limits it would seem. My sense is we have to have some kind of regulatory system that puts a price on carbon. I’m not sure a positive vision is enough, but I think it’s an essential step that might make it possible for other steps to follow.
This last remark about a “positive vision” I highlight because it’s similar to the logic that we often heard with respect to the congressional cap and trade bill, and which I was sympathetic to: just get the ball rolling and other steps (domestically and internationally) will follow.
Well that ball is dead. There’s no longer a game. There’s not even the pretense of a game on the global stage. So all those progressive steps that were promised by the legislation’s supporters are not going to happen. Where does that leave them?
Well, why not try a new ball with some life in it and get another game going? For that, let’s go to one of the willing players: Teryn Norris, president of Americans for Energy Leadership and a former senior advisor at the Breakthrough Institute.
Norris, in response to a question that Andy Revkin posed earlier this week to an email group that included him, wrote (and I’m excerpting, with his permission):
I think [Ezra] Klein’s analysis was relatively accurate in describing how the politics of an energy innovation agenda could be significantly stronger than cap and trade. The reasons are many, and I won’t attempt to review all of them here, but suffice it to say that while cap and trade is most centrally about climate change, energy innovation speaks to a much broader and more powerful set of public concerns: economic competitiveness, national security, job creation, and technological development (and the potential for cheaper forms of energy).
With sufficient investment, we can move renewable technologies along the cost-curve to the point where they can actually compete with (heavily-subsidized) fossil fuels… In the process, the U.S. develops home-grown energy sources that lessen our dependence on fossil fuel imports, creates new clean energy sector jobs, reaps the savings of improved energy efficiency, and recaptures its technological competitiveness in the global economy. Who can argue with a proposal like that?
It’s no wonder that federal investment in clean energy technology consistently polls higher than any other single energy policy proposal. As I wrote in National Journal, “Even before the Gulf oil spill, a poll by Pew Research in March found that 78% of the public favors increased government funding for research into clean energy technologies. When compared to alternatives such as carbon pricing, technology investment fares as the most popular energy policy proposal.”
Regardless, cap and trade is dead for the foreseeable future, and the type of proposal outlined in “Post-Partisan Power” offers one of the best possibilities for substantive reform. Al Gore, Reed Hundt, and John Podesta may also be heading in this direction, having adopted their own slogan similar to make clean energy cheap, “lowering the cost of clean.” This is just the beginning of a shift that may take years to complete. But in my view, those who would attack this possibility from the outset — especially those within the climate movement — are being short-sighted at best and intentionally destructive at worst.
Here’s the way I look at it: there’s no game in town right now. Norris and his team see an open court and are starting their own game, with their own ball. Some people are starting to come by and watch what unfolds. The other guys who held the court before don’t like that. Well you lost and got kicked off. What are you going to do now? Hurl insults from the stands, or take on the new guys?
Drought, like global warming, is a slow motion event that humans can’t get seem to get ahead of. Or properly grasp. For a good historical case study examining how the Maya, the Vikings, and the U.S. (in the lead-up to the Dust Bowl) each responded to drought, see this paper by Ben Orlove, who observes:
From the comparative history of the past, it can be seen how fragile human societies can be and how resistant they can be to changing established patterns of action; it can also be seen that most people somehow survive in both a biological and a cultural sense.
The big difference today, obviously, is that we know this history and also have some ability to see into the future, as this new study suggests:
The United States and many other heavily populated countries face a growing threat of severe and prolonged drought in coming decades.
What’s notable about this research by Aiguo Dai, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, is that there’s a global warming angle:
The detailed analysis concludes that warming temperatures associated with climate change will likely create increasingly dry conditions across much of the globe in the next 30 years, possibly reaching a scale in some regions by the end of the century that has rarely, if ever, been observed in modern times.
Before going any further, it’s important to point out that modern times (especially in the U.S.) are not the best measuring stick, which this definitive paper succinctly explains in its abstract:
Severe drought is the greatest recurring natural disaster to strike North America. A remarkable network of centuries-long annual tree-ring chronologies has now allowed for the reconstruction of past drought over North America covering the past 1000 or more years in most regions. These reconstructions reveal the occurrence of past “megadroughts” of unprecedented severity and duration, ones that have never been experienced by modern societies in North America.
This in no way diminishes the threat of natural occurring droughts worsened by anthropogenic global warming, which NCAR’s Dai lays out in his new study. Those findings are bound to make a splash in the media and blogosphere today. To understand why, here’s Dai in an early MSNBC report:
We are facing the possibility of widespread drought in the coming decades, but this has yet to be fully recognized by both the public and the climate change research community. If the projections in this study come even close to being realized, the consequences for society worldwide will be enormous.
So it’s a safe bet that the hook to this story is going to be climate change. Fair enough. Dai makes that explicit in his paper (which people should read). But he also concludes on this note:
Given the dire predictions for drought, adaptation measures for future climate changes should consider the possibility of increased aridity and widespread drought in coming decades.
I don’t expect that message to be emphasized in the spot reporting of the study or much discussed by climate bloggers, but given the history of prolonged droughts and civilization, here’s hoping it echoes in the halls of policymakers and planners.