Now that Congress has reversed itself and decided that offshore drilling is OK after all, the debate has shifted to whether opening up new oil reserves in previously protected wild areas of the United States will actually bring relief at the gas pump. Republicans say it will but offer no evidence in support. Democrats say it won’t–what domestic drilling will do is make a lot of oil companies and their investors very rich, without much change in gas prices.
This shift toward domestic drilling recognizes an inconvenient truth that even Al Gore hasn’t acknowledged: Americans are too stretched by the growing economic crisis to support policies that stop global warming by making fossil fuels more expensive. It was widely admitted when the energy cap-and-trade bill was introduced in the Senate in June 2008 that it would make energy more expensive. In fact, that was the whole point of the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act (pdf file)–to punish waste and reward conservation by making dirty energy cost more.
In a recent article in the LA Times, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger opine that this approach is political suicide:
In a tacit acknowledgment of their defeat, some green leaders, such as the Sierra Club’s Carl Pope, have endorsed the Democrats’ pro-drilling strategy. But few of them seem to realize the political implications. The most influential environmental groups in Washington — the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund — are continuing to bet the farm on a strategy that relies on emissions limits and other regulations aimed at making fossil fuels more expensive in order to encourage conservation, efficiency and renewable energy. But with an economic recession likely, and energy prices sure to remain high for years to come thanks to expanding demand in China and other developing countries, any strategy predicated centrally on making fossil fuels more expensive is doomed to failure.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger have been characterized as “eco-contrarians,” but unlike the “drill baby drill” crowd, they’ve built their reputation on constructive solutions to the climate crisis instead of needling anyone who disagrees with them. The new politics of the left is moving away from command-and-control legislation (which worked well in the 1960s world of economic abundance) and toward a highly focused use of government funding where it will do the most good. Instead of the Right’s call for small government, the new left calls for smart government. Nordhaus and Shellenberger are the founders of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank. Part of their mission statement reads:
The Breakthrough Institute was founded in the 2003 on the premise that the complaint-based, interest group liberalism born in the 1960s and 1970s was failing to achieve the broad social and ecological transformations America and the world need. Its founders, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, argued that if America is to realize its potential for greatness we must create a new vision and agenda relevant to the new challenges we face. Breakthrough’s tagline, “The Era of Small Thinking is Over,” represents our aspiration to break from the ever-narrowing logic of complaint-based issue organizing, which puts thinkers and advocates into thought silos.
In the LA Times article, they lay out their solution to the climate crisis:
A better approach is to make clean energy cheap through technology innovation funded directly by the federal government. In contrast to raising energy prices, investing somewhere between $30 billion and $50 billion annually in technology, infrastructure and transmission lines to bring power from windy and sunny places to cities is overwhelmingly popular with voters. Instead of embracing this big investment, greens and Democrats push instead for tiny tax credits for renewable energy — nothing approaching the national commitment that’s needed.
The US spends an anemic $3.5 billion annually on energy research and development, down from $8.5 billion in 1976 when the first oil shocks hit. For a country that uses 25 percent of the world’s energy supply, this is sadly inadequate. In leaving energy largely in the hands of the private sector, we’ve abandoned the life-and-death issue of climate change to the short-term thinking of the free market.