by Planning Engineer
Debates on policy issues around climate and energy often feature opposing sides talking past each other.
One side cries that either we switch to superior clean renewable technologies or we face climatic doom. The other side responds that is there is no problem and we couldn’t fix it anyway. In the debate over climate and energy policy two independent major factors stand out. The first is our understanding around the probability, degree and immediacy of adverse effects from man-made Climate Change. The second factor impacting policy determinations concerns the suitability of today’s various available “clean” energy sources as policy options. Since the policy implications are driven by two major factors there should be at least theoretically four distinct policy perspectives. Unfortunately most debate seems primarily to feature two factions and major policy concerns may get lost in the noise. This essay will provide a framework classifying the potential perspectives and discuss related issues in that context.
Factor 1 Risk of Anthropogenic Climate Change
The first classification is between those holding the perspective that climate change poses clear risks and that immediate action is warranted and those who believe that adverse projections are premature or too extreme. Clearly this is a gross oversimplification that in general should be avoided, however it will be used to speak generally about policy options.
Factor 2 Suitability of Current Renewable Technology to Address Climate Change
Basically we will split perspectives between those who believe a transition from fossil fuel technology can be accomplished without undue difficulty and those who believe that such a transition will be extremely challenging and difficult. Again there are a range of perspectives and complexities in the real world based on understandings around the capabilities and costs of “clean” technology; however the nuances of those concerns will be ignored to develop the basic taxonomy for policy options.
Taxonomy of Perspectives
Using the two factors above, four differing groups emerge as presented in the table below.
|Easy/beneficial transition to renewable/clean resources||Costly/burdensome transition from Fossil Fuels|
|Lukewarmers, Delayers, Deniers||NURTURE(3)||DELAY(4)|
Policy Implications of the Perspectives
ACTION(1) – Given that climate change poses a serious risk and current technology can avert the risk, action is warranted. Potential policy options would include measures such as forced retirements of coal plants, renewable portfolio standards and other mandatory compliance measures. EPA’s Clean Power Plan emerges from this perspective.
CHALLENGED(2) – Confronting dangerous climate change without good resource options presents policy makers with serious challenges. The difference among perspectives classified within this group may be the most diverse. Policy options include considerations as to major changes in how modern society functions as regards economics and energy consumption. Also included in this grouping would be support for out of the box technology, as exemplified by the Google Engineers’ call for achieving the “impossible” with currently unknown disruptive technologies.
NURTURE(3) – Removing the urgency but recognizing the availability of underutilized beneficial technology, would pit progressive policy options against market approaches and raise questions as to why beneficial technology is not being readily adopted. Policy actions would seek to encourage beneficial change. Renewable portfolio standards would also be an option from this perspective as well as other less compulsory incentives. Policy responses might be to educate and could also include proof of concept, demonstration programs, tax breaks, subsidies, penalties and the like.
DELAY(4) – Recognizing the inadequacy of current “clean” technologies and understanding that there is time to react, allows the benefit of delay and further study. Policy responses from this square would include broader more strategic research on all fronts. Given that internationally efforts have been made from the ACTION(1) perspective, those should be fully evaluated by others and assessed in order to focus on the best alternatives.
Risks if the “Correct” perspective is Unheeded?
If ACTION(1) is correct – In this scenario the worst response would be to DELAY(4). The debates between ACTION(1) and DELAY(4) proposals are the most vociferous. Those minimizing concerns around global warming and those put roadblocks up against adopting change represent serious threats when focus and broad consensus are needed to avert disaster. Cooperative policy efforts to mobilize and bring forward workable mitigation plans would be of prime importance.
Policy perspectives from a CHALLENGED(2) perspective, depending on underlying values, may bring about results competitive with those taken under an ACTION(1) approach. Ignoring that “clean” technology works may be a benefit if your desire is to change society and you prefer non-technological resolutions. Research in new areas may bring about answers which are better than existing “clean” technology, but assuming the ACTION(1) scenario is correct, such policies would represent a bigger gamble.
The Policies springing from an NURTURE (3) approach and also proposals from DELAY(4) could have some near term benefits and would support a response to climate change but at a slower initial pace than optimal. However well-crafted polices from these perspectives could likely provide significant future benefits.
If CHALLENGED(2) is correct – If this were the actual scenario, ACTION(1) may be the worst response. In addition to wasting considerable resources the ACTION(1) focus will limit flexibility and out of the box approaches. As adopted policies based upon inadequate technology fail to address climate problems and create economic and power supply problems we will find ourselves in a much worse position than we are in today.
Policies developed under DELAY(4) or NURTURE(3) perspectives may help in this situation to the extent that they involved research and programs of robust value in the long run.
If NURTURE(3) is correct – This is the best case scenario all around as fears of climate change are exaggerated and “clean” technology works well. Policies providing pressure and incentives to adopt workable “clean” technologies should have far reaching benefits. Policy actions from all of the perspectives have the potential to be beneficial in the long run and while some may be sub-optimal none will likely have significant long lasting negative consequence.
If DELAY(4) is correct – If this scenario is true the worst response is ACTION(1), forcing the adoption of inadequate “clean” technology. The economic and social impacts of costly new inadequate technology and the abandonment of existing resources could have dire consequences. Taking a huge economic hit to retire existing facilities and building inadequate “clean” renewable facilities may leave us weakened such that we lack resources and will when real otherwise addressable risks materialize. The impacts of CHALLENGED(2) based policies may have value if their associated costs have not been extreme and similarly Limited NURTURE(3) policies may be both cheap insurance and of educational value.
This framework suggests that given any significant uncertainty as to the risks of climate change or the ability to mitigate change with today’s “clean” technologies we should be very hesitant to adopt over focused and precise policy objectives whose underlying justifications may depart from reality. Ignoring pending climatic tipping points because of a false belief that existing technology is inadequate for the task at hand could lead to unnecessary environmental disaster. Widespread efforts to mandate inadequate technology and abandon existing infrastructure to confront exaggerated environmental problems could cripple economies and tragically delay third world advancement. Perhaps the worst case would be marching rapidly to ineffectually address a very real climate risk with inadequate technology and then having to face the environmental consequences with depleted infrastructure and damaged economies. Today’s policy debates often seem to overly focus on the either/or when in fact the problem is more multifaceted allowing for a greater range of response. It may be prudent to consider more multipronged strategies for balancing energy needs with climate impacts.
Hopefully, this taxonomy raises many issues for discussion in the comments such as: Why do people clump in the perspectives ACTION(1) or DELAY(4)? Does the framing of debates under an understanding of ACTION(1) versus DELAY(4) push us towards unnecessary polarization? Following “consensus” science and the understandings of energy “experts” should we expect the CHALLENGED(2) perspective to be dominant? Why isn’t it the major perspective? Might it be easier to argue either ACTION(1) or DELAY(4) against CHALLENGED(2) rather than pairing them in discussions? Should we be as skeptical of climate experts speaking on energy technology as as we are of energy experts speaking on climate? Do both get fair hearings from policy makers and the public? What are the likely risks and consequences from our current policy approaches? Should policy be broad based and have components of each perspective? Are there other factors that should be used to classify policy perspectives? This piece by necessity used gross oversimplifications, how important do nuanced differences become as we consider clean energy policy?
JC notes: This is a guest post; as with all guest posts, please keep your comments civil and on topic.