Cleaner Energy Is America’s Future — and It’s Already Taking Shape In Some Unlikely Places

January 26, 2017  • David Monsma

Since the election, a cascade of dour announcements has filled my inbox about what the new Trump administration will do to the environment. The most solemn predictions are about how Congress and the president will roll-back or undo, among other things, what President Obama has done to deal with climate change. While these warnings are not wholly unwarranted, and we are likely to see some truly remarkable attempts to remove important regulations designed to protect public health and the environment, the political handwringing is overwrought. This is not the best mindset for pressing ahead to foster a cleaner energy economy and infrastructure under a changed political reality.

The most incredulous skepticism about climate change science and moving toward a more efficient and cleaner energy production system in the U.S. does not come from the business community, oil and gas companies, or even the Republican main street. “Hundreds of American companies, including Mars, Nike, Levi Strauss and Starbucks” as well as solar and wind power companies are seeking “common ground” with the new president to continue to innovate and invest in a low carbon economy. Not all those joining the president’s cabinet are in denial about climate change – Exxon CEO and Secretary of State designate Rex Tillerson has publicly acknowledged the goals of the Paris agreement; Congressman and Secretary of Interior designate Ryan Zinke stated that climate change is real during his confirmation hearing as did Governor and Secretary of Energy designate Rick Perry. If we learned anything during the political transition, it is that we do not know how the new president will govern. We do not know how President Trump will respond to climate change science; not yet and notwithstanding the ham-fisted decision to revisit Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines.

The ten congressional districts that produce the most wind energy in the U.S. are Republican.

The ten congressional districts that produce the most wind energy in the U.S. are Republican. “Ironically,” as Marilu Hastings of the Mitchell Foundation in Texas points out, “Texas is in a position to surpass the requirements of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan with no appreciable increase in wholesale cost, in real terms, or decline in grid reliability, according to a pair of 2016 studies by the Brattle Group.” In fact, Texas produces more new renewable energy than California and, as Drew Darby, a Republican member of the Texas state house puts it, “Republicans all over the country ought to be paying attention to what Texas did.”

No, the sharpest opposition to climate change science and any kind of cleaner energy standard is a hardcore ideological argument manufactured by a small, self-selected group of anachronistic billionaires and their political helpers. Shrouded in the notion that climate science is a “hoax” or that policies and regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will hurt economic growth – a key tenet of their special dogma – these tub-thumpers know that affirmatively addressing climate change requires progressive, market-oriented environmental policies using sensible legislation to promulgate rational regulatory rules. Unfortunately, that is exactly the kind of legitimate exercise of government that extreme laissez-faire ideologues want to stop.

Political action committees like Donors Trust and think tanks like Heartland Institute or Competitive Enterprise Institute are not just opposed to environmental regulations – they are anti-statists.  These organizations trumpet Speaker Paul Ryan’s claim that the economy is “hyper-regulated.” They portray their well-funded lobbying operations as pro-business but their raison d’être is to oppose government regulation, even when science, business and the public agree on a widely understood and needed corrective course of action such as the need to limit greenhouse gas pollution.

The energy economy is changing for the better but there are still some true believers who can’t seem to mass enough carried-interest, capital-gains-deducted wealth based on a retrograde energy value proposition that pollutes the air and overheats the planet — 2016 was the hottest year  since recordkeeping began in 1880. Despite the obvious success of using market-based approaches to improve the environment and reduce pollution, including the potential to tax or price carbon emissions, the denizens of superseded laissez-faire capitalism cannot endorse moving in the direction of a climate-smart energy economy because it would contravene their superstitions about government and free markets. Moreover, to move forward in accord with the Paris Agreement or EPA’s Clean Power Plan upends their truly paternalistic way of thinking. It is an ideological bent that no longer holds much economic sway, however.

Reducing carbon emissions does not inhibit economic growth, and the technological and business innovation behind cleaner energy is itself fast becoming a major economic driver. President Obama makes this point as clearly as anyone who minds the economic calculus in the latest issue of Science:

[The] “decoupling” of energy sector emissions and economic growth should put to rest the argument that combating climate change requires accepting lower growth…In fact, although this decoupling is most pronounced in the United States, evidence that economies can grow while emissions do not is emerging around the world.
— President Barack Obama

Setting aside for the moment the obvious culture war and national division between at least two bumptiously smug “bubbles” in America – one that is noticeably elite and one that is arguably disaffected (both are angry) – there are a lot of goodhearted Americans who are not wildly political or politically leaning one way or the other, left or right, conservative or liberal, libertarian or socialistic, sectarian or secular. Folks in Alabama, Maryland, Texas, Iowa, New York, California and Colorado (all places I have lived) want good things to happen for everyone. And one set of public goods they tend to agree on is the desire for a clean and healthy environment, good jobs and affordable energy. Not one or the other, all of the above.

Most voters don’t particularly enjoy riding huge swings on the electorate pendulum every four to eight years although they have come to expect it, and they do tend to vote that way. Even so, hardworking Americans know from their own civics lessons and life experience that we have governments branches (at the local, state and federal level) that are not very efficient, and we have a market system (with trade and globalization) that is hard to predict and not always fair. We know that government and markets don’t always work well together but when they do, it should help our nation and all people prosper. That is the trust that the public holds for government and elected officials.

Cities, states, investors and entrepreneurs also shape our response to environmental challenges, and they also happen to be some of the most dedicated progenitors of renewable energy.

The shift in public opinion and business perception across the nation is fairly analogous to the way Americans came to understand why smoking is bad for your health and banned it from work and public places. The ideological denial of climate change has taken the same hackneyed approach as the tobacco industry’s dogged lying about the health risks posed by cigarette smoking. The billionaires that are against cleaning up energy and their likeminded political drones share a similar reactionary belief system, so facts and science don’t matter. What is surprising, though, is that a lot of otherwise conservative business leaders, investors, insurance companies, mayors and governors are already leading in the direction of a sustainable energy economy.

There are other good reasons why the arch anti-climate political PACs won’t get their way. Federal policy is not the sole arbiter of legitimacy or good public policy, although it does sometimes have legal supremacy in these United States. Cities, states, investors and entrepreneurs also shape our response to environmental challenges, and they also happen to be some of the most dedicated progenitors of renewable energy, distributed energy services and technological innovations in consumer choice. So, as it happens, our grasp as a nation of the seriousness of climate change has reached its apex just at the time when our ingenuity in developing and producing cleaner energy is climbing higher. The obvious choice is to unleash the innovation of the markets in concert with just the right policy options to both revolutionize how we produce, get and use energy of all kinds and, at the same time, draw down dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emissions.