As any student of algebra or politics quickly learns, an equation with many variables is much harder to solve than an equation with one or two. The intertwined issues of energy security, climate change and economic growth pose some of the most difficult challenges the current Congress must face.
Alas, none of them can effectively be tackled alone, and apparent solutions to one can aggravate another. There are many dilemmas, and there are no silver bullets.
Reducing our vulnerability to another oil price shock and limiting our emissions of greenhouse gases will require higher energy prices, at least in the short term. But the faltering economy has depressed demand and reduced prices. Most citizens welcome these declines and argue that we should not raise prices during an economic downturn.
Scientists tell us that we must begin to slow and reverse the growth in greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade if we are to keep temperature increases within tolerable limits.
Yet economists tell us that the cost of climate stabilization will be lower if we can avoid premature retirement of large capital investments and can wait for the development and deployment of new technologies. Many of these technologies will be delayed, however, as long as energy prices remain low.
Some groups argue for a favored solution to one of the major problems, ignoring or minimizing its impact on the others. Others, often the loudest voices in the policy arena, advocate for single technologies or resources — renewables, nuclear energy, carbon capture and storage, domestic drilling, electric transportation — when questions of cost and/or readiness limit the near-term potential of each of them.
Still others craft elegant policy solutions with little regard for the political realities of passing legislation.
As Marianne Lavelle of the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity reports, by the end of last year an estimated 2,340 lobbyists had been hired to influence climate change policy — more than four for each Member of Congress. Anyone who works on Capitol Hill knows how valuable lobbyists can be in helping to explain the impact of legislation on their clients or members, but it is safe to assume that most are not putting the national interest first.
To exacerbate the political difficulties facing the president and Congress, most of the options that will make a real difference involve large costs now for future benefits. But American voters are notoriously averse to deferred gratification, and the time horizon for elected officials is often short.
In the face of these competing goals and policy dilemmas, leadership of extraordinary skill and vision is required. Economic recovery must be the top priority, but avoiding or deferring action on climate change and energy security will merely set us up for future economic problems.
President Barack Obama has outlined legislative and administrative actions that are at least first steps worthy of the magnitude of the challenges. Congress needs to respond in kind. Partisanship that reflects the different values of the parties has a place in the debate. Partisanship designed only to tear down the other party does not.
One technique that has proved useful in Aspen Institute policy dialogues is to start by focusing on the underlying values stakeholders have in common rather than on the interests that divide them. With few exceptions, everyone wants to strengthen the economy, reduce energy vulnerability and mitigate climate change. Keeping those shared values in the forefront can make discussions on subordinate issues more tractable.
Equally significant, and almost always overlooked, is the potential value of partisan or political division: The differences underlying conflict can be a source of creative new thinking. Once the facts are discovered and arguments debated, Congress is expected to get it reasonably right — probably not perfect, but not stubbornly divided by ideology alone.
A good place to start would be to acknowledge at the beginning what everyone normally acknowledges at the end of a legislative process — that no one gets everything they want, and the perfect is the enemy of the good. For a group to jeopardize a larger solution by insisting on their position on a single issue would be irresponsible.
Many of the issues wrapped up in the energy-economy-climate knot are susceptible to compromise. For example:
Setting caps on future carbon emissions now is important, but the rate at which they take effect can be adjusted in light of the current economic downturn.
A 100 percent auction of carbon allowances — a policy beloved of theorists — can be achieved over time instead of immediately, granting a declining percentage of allowances to current emitters to cushion the impact of higher prices and ease political opposition.
Increasing access to domestic oil and gas reserves, both on- and off-shore, is not an all-or-nothing proposition.
Enhancing the electricity grid to bring remote and intermittent renewable power to market is possible if producers, consumers and owners of intervening transmission lines — and state and federal regulators already marking their territory — can sacrifice a bit of self-interest in favor of the national interest.
The difficulty of the economy-energy-climate conundrum is matched only by its importance. To borrow a phrase, it’s too big to fail. Resolving it will require a kind of leadership and vision not often seen.
The temptation of individuals or parties may be to respond to certain interest groups or to play to their bases, but in that direction lies failure and a decline in the popularity of both parties and both branches of government. The general public is not likely to be tolerant of officials who prevent action on broad solutions.
David Monsma is the executive director and Jack Riggs is a senior fellow in the Energy and Environment Program at the Aspen Institute.