Matthew Stepp is a senior policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank.
Extreme weather has become the new normal. Despite another year of unprecedented drought in Midwestern states, historic wildfires and devastating storms such as Hurricane Sandy, there hasn’t been a groundswell of support for climate-change policy from Middle Americans. The problem is not that Middle America is indifferent to the well-being of the planet or more frequent natural disasters; the problem is that most climate and environmental advocates are indifferent to the needs of Middle America.
Many environmentalists argue that the best way to address climate change is for Americans to change their lifestyles and make sacrifices for the good of the planet. Americans are told they must consume less, waste less and spend more to buy clean energy. While David Brooks’s “Bourgeois Bohemians” may be able to retrofit their homes with solar panels and drive Chevy Volts, most of us can’t.
The recession has Americans prioritizing the economy over the environment. Gallup noted in March that since 2009 Americans have favored economic growth over environmental protection, after nearly 30 years of public opinion showing the opposite.
Yet the same month, a survey revealed that 72 percent of Americans think addressing climate change should be a priority. In other words, most Americans want action against climate change, but they are hesitant to support policies that force them to make lifestyle changes.
This doesn’t stack up well against the climate policies that most environmentalists overwhelmingly support. Had Congress passed cap-and-trade legislation in 2009, energy prices would have increased as much as 20 percent in some states, according to an analysis by Thomson Reuters Point Carbon. A national Clean Energy Standard would raise electricity prices by up to 30 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration. And the myriad regulations and mandates implemented at the state and federal levels to support clean technologies mean higher energy costs, while today’s clean-energy subsidies mean higher taxes or straining an already stretched federal budget.
Little surprise then that policymakers and voters are wary of climate-change policy; it’s become a hair shirt that Americans are expected to wear for the “good of the planet.” Middle America has long been told what not to do: not to buy incandescent light bulbs, drive gas-guzzling cars and trucks, or use dirty energy.
Instead, many Americans want policies that give them viable clean-energy choices to fight climate change without making it harder to pay the bills.
Luckily, such a strategy is not only possible, it is also the only way for the United States to play its role in mitigating climate change. This Middle America climate-change strategy follows two principles.
First, the policy goal should be to provide clean-energy choices that are no more expensive than today’s carbon-based fuels. According to an April report from the Breakthrough Institute, a California-based think tank, wind power (without subsidies) typically costs 15 percent to 73 percent percent more than an advanced natural gas plant. Utility-scale solar power costs upward of 73 percent to 248 percent more. Costs are significantly higher when expensive energy storage is added in. Electric vehicles can cost up to twice as much as a gasoline equivalent and don’t provide the same range and refueling flexibility as gasoline-powered cars. In short, today’s clean-energy technologies are simply not cost- and performance-competitive, even with subsidies.
Second, the best way to make clean energy ready for prime time is through public investments in innovation. Climate-change policy must aggressively support developing better clean-energy choices, not propping up today’s Edsels. Look no further than the shale natural gas boom. For almost 30 years the federal government aggressively invested in the research and development of breakthrough drilling techniques and partnered with industry to demonstrate new technologies. The result? Between January and May, U.S. carbon emissions fell to a 20-year low; 48 percent of that resulted from substituting coal for cheap shale natural gas, while little, if any, came from deploying subsidized wind and solar, according to Michael Levi, director of the climate change program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
No one is against clean-energy innovation, but support cannot be fleeting or shallow. Proposals cannot be tossed into the budget as a soon-to-be-forgotten line item. And “clean-energy innovation” can’t be used as rhetoric to sell tired policies. Instead, if we are to get affordable and effective clean-energy technologies, federal support needs to shift away from propping up inferior technology and toward funding the research and development necessary to achieve superior technology. This will require at least three times the current federal investment in such R&D as well as a cohesive policy strategy that links technology development to commercialization.
To those who say we can’t afford this in a time of budget constraints, one answer would be to shift much of the estimated $11 billion spent this year on subsidizing high-cost clean-energy technologies and the roughly $5 billion in tax breaks provided to mature fossil fuels to clean-energy research, development, prototyping, testing and demonstration projects.
As long as environmentalists keep pushing a policy agenda that fails to provide Americans with better choices, voters and elected officials will keep kicking the can down the road. A smarter strategy would be to reenvision U.S. climate policy as a vehicle for innovating cheaper and better clean-energy options for all Americans, not just those who can afford them.