On a Gloomy Landscape for U.S. Energy Policy, Experts See Rays of Hope

The conventional wisdom holds that the next two years will be hostile for energy initiatives in the U.S. Congress. Some Republicans, newly empowered by the mid-term elections, are talking about conducting investigations into climate change science and, the thinking goes, both parties are likely to be focused on reducing the nation’s historic budget deficit.

But in a discussion at AAAS, a trio of influential energy policy experts offered an unconventional view: While broad, ambitious measures like cap-and-trade may be dead, the new Congress may create a chance for progress on a range of energy initiatives—conservation and efficiency, vehicle electrification, perhaps upgrading the nation’s archaic electricity-transmission grid.

“Start adding these things up together and before you know it, you get pretty far down the road to achieving your goals,” said David Conover, a former energy official in the administration of President George W. Bush and now senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Conover’s remarks came during a 90-minute panel discussion, “Outlook for Climate and Energy Policy in the New Congress,” held 15 November at AAAS. In addition to Conover, the panelists were Robert M. Simon, staff director for the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and Jon Krosnick, a scholar of political science and public opinion at Stanford University. The discussion was moderated by NPR science reporter Richard Harris. The event was the last of four lectures in this fall’s Science & Society: Global Challenges” series. It was sponsored by the Georgetown University Program on Science in the Public Interest, the American Chemical Society, the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Congress and association’s Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.

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David Conover

To be sure, the speakers offered a generally sobering view of the policy and political environment in Washington, D.C., and the limited prospects for heading off climate change in a timely way. Broad legislation to address climate and energy stands no chance of advancing when the new Congress convenes next year, they said. The cap-and-trade approach to controlling greenhouse gas emissions is dead for the foreseeable future. And nobody even mentioned the possibility that the United States would approve any major global climate agreements.

And yet, they said, it’s difficult to assess the future because the situation is so complex. Though the overwhelming consensus of scientists globally says climate change is real, many Republicans elected to Congress this year denied it, expressed doubt about it, or said nothing about it. In some states and regions—in coal-producing areas, for example—even some Democrats have not supported comprehensive climate and energy legislation or have remained silent about the issues. Meanwhile, public opinion polls show that large majorities of Americans continue to endorse the view that climate change is real and should be addressed by government; polls also show that as the anticipated household cost of action goes up, support declines.

Climate and Energy: Revised Expectations

Just a few years ago, the outlook for addressing energy needs and climate change was much more optimistic, said Conover, who served as the Bush administration’s principal deputy assistant secretary for policy and international affairs at the Department of Energy.

The compelling Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was released in 2007. That same year, there was a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court affirming the right of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to a regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. And Democrats had just taken control of Congress. But then came the biggest economic meltdown since the Great Depression, and the policy landscape changed fundamentally.

Many analysts foresee a time of intense political conflict ahead, with science possibly caught in the scrum. [See related story.] For example, Republicans have signaled that they may conduct formal investigation into climate science. Some science leaders, including AAAS Chief Executive Officer Alan I. Leshner, are warning that budgets for federal S&T endeavors could be cut 5% to 10%.

As the political lines are being drawn, mixed signals from the public add uncertainty to the forecast. One poll reported a sharp drop in public belief in human-driven climate change. But to Krosnick, the Stanford scholar who studies the politics and public opinion of climate change, diverse poll findings result to a considerable extent from different wording in pollsters’ questions rather than from confusion among the public. His own polls, funded by top news media, universities, and government agencies, show slight declines but continuing strong support for action on climate change.

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Jon Krosnick

Krosnick detailed the polling results at the panel discussion and in a separate appearance 16 November at the AAAS Leadership Seminar in Science and Technology Policy:

  • In 1997, Krosnick’s team found that 79% of Americans believed that global warming was happening; while that number peaked at 85% in 2006, and has fallen most recently to 75%.
  • Polls for individual states all show more than 60%—and as much as 99%—of the public believe that climate change is happening. Even in Oklahoma, a conservative state where the oil industry is strong, his research has found that that 86% of the public believe warming has been happening in the past century. Krosnick’s results show that states such as Wyoming, South Dakota, and Mississippi are at the high end of support for more government action on climate.
  • In 2006, 80% of the public said that human actions were causing changes in the climate; that number rose to 85% in 2007. Now, despite more than two years of profound economic turmoil, the number remains at 75%.
  • In 1997, 49% of respondents said government should do more about global warming. That number peaked at 70% in 2007, but within days after November’s election, it still stood at 62%, according to Krosnick’s findings.

“I believe that these results… suggest there is a strong mandate from the public for the government to take action,” Krosnick said at the panel discussion. “And if you wonder why the government is not taking action, the answer is not ‘blame the public.’ And it’s not ‘nobody cares.’ There’s as much priority placed on this issue [among the public] as there is placed on issues that the government is pay a lot of attention to.”

During the panel discussion, he cited his new survey, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, which found that when a hypothetical candidate says nothing about climate change, the candidate’s support declines; when the candidate expressed skepticism about climate change, that decreased support even more. And the latter finding held true for Democrats, Republicans, and independents.

Krosnick saw an impact on the 2010 election results in stark contrast to the conventional wisdom. “The failure to take green positions probably cost both Democrats and Republicans victories they could have had because… the vast majority of them said nothing about climate,” he said. “So this was a missed opportunity.”

A Disconnect Between Polls and Reality?

But Krosnick’s conclusions drew a skeptical response.

Harris, the panel moderator, pointed to a recent poll by the Pew Center for the People and the Press which showed than when the public was asked to rank 20 priorities, climate change came in last, far behind the economy, jobs, and combating terrorism.

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Richard Harris

Conover insisted that while the poll results might be scientifically valid, they did not reflect the reality on the ground. While Republicans almost unanimously rejected climate change in their campaigns, they scored an historic victory in the election, he said. “We have 80 new Republicans in the House—how much better could they have done?”

In his conversations with members of Congress, Conover said, he hears a common theme: “‘I never hear anything about it [addressing climate change] in my town meetings,’” the elected officials tell him. “‘The only thing I hear in town halls is: No, don’t tax my energy.’

“The idea that there’s this group of people out there supportive of action on climate change is probably true,” Conover said, “but those aren’t the same people who are showing up and yelling at their member of Congress…. Unfortunately, the lesson that a lot of members are going to draw is that cap-and-trade is dead and that cap-and-trade cost a number of House members their seats.”

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Robert M. Simon

Simon, staff director for the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, took a middle view: Some polls, he said, suggest that 50% or 60% of the public wants Congress to do something about climate change. But the key question may be how much they’re willing to pay. When asked if they were willing to pay $10 a month to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, support actually rose, Simon said, apparently because people had expected the cost to be higher. But when asked if they would be willing to pay $35 a month, he said, “then suddenly support took a nosedive.”

Krosnick said that dovetailed with his own research, which has found that 50% of Americans are willing to pay $150 a year or more toward the goal of reducing emissions 85% by 2050. That’s in line with a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study which found that the comprehensive Senate climate change bill which died earlier this year would have cost Americans an average $79 to $146 a year, averaged over 2010-2050. [The CBO found that the cap-and-trade bill sponsored by U.S. Representatives. Henry A. Waxman (D-California) Edward J. Markey (D-Massachusetts), and passed by the House in 2009, would have cost the average household $175 a year.] Those costs are far lower than the costs asserted by many opponents of climate action.

“There is a complexity to the public’s view,” said Simon. “The public does value protecting the climate and realizes the benefits of protecting the climate. But there is this economic conditionality built into the way they think about it. If they are persuaded there are useful things to do that don’t cost a lot of money, they could be very supportive of it. But if someone wanted to argue the other side, the clear the way to do it is to exaggerate the costs and then the public does get worried about it.”

A Surprising Basis for Bipartisan Agreement

Even if the new Congress is beset by gridlock and political infighting, the experts on the AAAS panel suggested that progress on energy initiatives might remain possible.

One critical example: The EPA is expected to move forward with new regulations for greenhouse gas emissions, which do not need congressional approval.

International developments could provide another source of pressure. An oil-price spike could raise support for more aggressive energy legislation, the panelists said. And as nations such as China, India, and Brazil accelerate their advances in climate and energy, the United States will come under increasing pressure to match their progress and investments. All of those factors could work against gridlock and in favor of bipartisan action.

“People are acutely aware of the kinds of investments being made in advanced energy technologies by other countries that are economic competitors,” Simon said. “One of issues that does act as a spur in energy policy… is the specter that we could be left behind.”

Meanwhile, Krosnick said, polls show that large majorities reject the argument that climate and energy initiatives will cost America jobs.

Given these conditions, bi-partisan agreement could develop on a number of energy issues, the panelists said. Both Obama and Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), currently the Senate’s Republican leader, have expressed support for electrification of the nation’s vehicle fleet and increased use of nuclear power. And when discussing electric vehicles, Conover said, the policy discussion must include updating the nation’s archaic and inefficient electricity-transmission grid.

Similarly, vehicle efficiency standards are already in place, and there’s bipartisan support—and support from industry—for making buildings and appliances more efficient. If a carbon tax of some sort becomes part of a deficit reduction package, Conover said, that could be a further contribution to limiting harmful emissions.

“There’s a tremendous amount we can agree on,” Simon said. “You start adding these things together and you do begin to get both a real effect on carbon prices and also you get people more comfortable with the fact that there really are technology solutions that can come into play.”

Both Simon and Conover concurred, though, that political caution has slowed progress in dealing with climate and energy issues that are critical to the nation’s future. Conover, in remarks that drew applause from the audience, urged stronger political leadership.

He urged the president and congressional leaders to talk candidly with the public about these issues. “This is not a free lunch—we’re going to have to make investments here,” Conover said. “In fact, most of us alive today aren’t going to see any benefits from the investments…. The real point is to protect our children and grandchildren, and we ought to take this and do it. We need some amount of political courage to stand up and say these things to the American public. And then you take the tough votes and you move on.

“If we try to do this it on polling and focus groups, we’re really never going to do it.”

Links

View a video of the 15 November panel discussion, “Outlook for Climate and Energy Policy in the New Congress.”

Read a related story on prospects for science and technology in the coming year.

Learn more about the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Congress and the Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.