When a team starts focusing on the next game, it’s usually a sign that they've lost the one they're currently playing. The analogy also works for those who deal with climate policy, and two talented writers have articulated this situation well.
Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus wrote a great piece in Slate today that explains how, in the past year, decades' worth of progress towards a global carbon policy completely fell apart. But the article isn’t interesting because it documents how progress stopped; it's interesting because it focuses on why it stopped. The two authors make several astute points, but three are extremely noteworthy.
1. Low-emission energy technology isn’t here yet
Both Shellenberger and Nordhaus say cost is keeping alternative energy sources from being legitimate alternatives. “Wind energy, the cheapest renewable technology, still costs 50 percent more than coal or gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency,” they write. Anyone who has paid attention to the renewable energy world over the last few years knows that major progress is being made to make it more affordable, but still the curve for affordability is only getting steeper as the world remains in a recession and deficits remain a hot political issue.
2. Doomsday scenarios don’t move the ball on policy
Anyone who has gone to a major climate conference or even watched an anti-oil protest on television knows that there is a ton of passion on the side of those wanting to wean the world off fossil fuels. And while that passion may be based on legitimate facts, science and projections, it is not always productive when it comes to crafting policy. “These efforts have only resulted in the intensification of the climate wars and increased the polarization of the issue,” write the two commentators. As Washington now deals with debates about God’s role in global warming, and other polarizing debates surrounding climate change, it’s easy to see the truth in the article by Shellenberger and Nordhaus.
3. Our energy challenges are only going to intensify
I know I just wrote about not scaring people, but the statistics coming out of India and China are a bit frightening. As those countries continue to develop and grow, there will be serious challenges when it comes to energy. Shellenberger and Nordhaus describe the situation as the “basic math of global emissions,” and they call it “unforgiving.” The two writers explain that even if we make significant progress on energy and emissions, energy demand will double in the next 50 years and, “if developing countries can't get energy from cheap low-carbon sources, they will get it from fossil fuels.”
These realities are not pleasant and certainly come with challenges. But just like someone who wants to pay off a large debt, the first step towards making progress is to look at what has been working, what hasn’t been working and what lies ahead. That is exactly what must happen in the next chapter of the climate policy drama.