Sunday, July 20, 2014

In a U.S. flying apart, regional climate action is central

This is the second part of a review of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard, a seminal book about the real political boundaries of the continent.  This part covers the implications of regional divisions for climate change policy in the U.S. and North America.  I suggest that readers first take in part 1 for a basic description of the regions.

When the landmark federal climate bill narrowly passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009 it illustrated deep regional divides on global warming policy in the U.S.  For most of the country one could almost predict how a representative would vote by the region from which they hailed. 

“ . . . the measure received near-unanimous support in New Netherland, the Left Coast, and Yankeedom,” Colin Woodard writes, while “the Far West offered near-unanimous bipartisan opposition, joined by the overwhelming majority of Appalachian and Deep Southern lawmakers.”  The exception – “Tidewater and The Midlands were divided.” 

That perfectly expresses the regionality of U.S. climate politics, and one that continues to hold.  The U.S. would have a carbon-limiting framework if it were up to people in the three climate-supportive regions.  Indeed these are exactly the regions that are pioneering regional climate policy in the U.S.  New York and the New England states instituted the nation’s first carbon cap, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative for power plants. California has the first economy-wide carbon cap in the U.S., while British Columbia has instituted a carbon tax. Efforts are underway to bring carbon limits to Washington and Oregon. 

Meanwhile states making up the Deep South and Far West are hotbeds of climate change denial and obstruction.  When climate policy strategists look for a winning pathway to resurrect a federal climate bill - the first effort died in the Senate in 2010 - they write off most representatives from these regions.  They look to swing votes from Tidewater and the Mid-Atlantic-to-Midwest swathe of The Midlands. 

An indicative exception is Colorado, much covered by El Norte.  Latinos when polled express greater concern about global warming than any other ethnic group (including non-Latino whites).  This bodes well for the future of climate policy in the Southwest. 

For the nation as a whole the picture is more troubling.  The centrifugal tendencies seen in the federal climate vote are only intensifying as U.S. regions spin off in sharply different directions.  Washington state studies the effects of sea level rise on coastal communities, while North Carolina bans discussion of the topic from coastal planning. 

“Few (regions) have shown any indication that they are melting into some sort of unified American culture,” Woodard notes.  “On the contrary, since 1960 the fault lines between these nations have been growing wider, fueling culture wars, constitutional struggles, and ever more frequent pleas for unity.” 

Of all issues, global warming seems to exhibit the most centrifugal tendencies.  A recent poll shows climate has become even more divisive than abortion.  While national, the regional breakdown is predictable.   The increasing inability of Americans to agree on climate and a range of other topics has frozen action at the federal level.

In complete contradiction to the political gridlock, the acceleration of global warming impacts urgently calls for action.  It seems a hopeless dilemma for climate advocates, who do the best they can working at state and local levels.  If anything, the situation should underscore the critical importance of enacting effective state and local climate frameworks. 

There are two ways to look at state carbon policy efforts.  One sees passage of state policies as primarily significant in building momentum to eventual federal action.  So the internal efficacy of the policy is not so important as the larger political and symbolic impact.  The second sees state policies as important not only for the potential larger impact, but also as significant policy measures to achieve substantial carbon reductions on their own.  So efficacy of the policy becomes a prime consideration.

We should hope that enacting policies in states such as Oregon and Washington will provide national momentum, and that the national picture will improve sufficiently to pass federal policy by 2018 or so.  But with prospects for a Republican Senate in 2014, continued national divisions and an uncertain 2016 presidential result after eight years of a Democratic White House, conditioning state policy design on national policy success is a risky game.  It may be the 2020s before a federal carbon limit can pass.

Thus state carbon policies must be designed to be internally effective.  In other words, they should be geared to reduce state carbon emissions to levels consistent with the need to keep overall global temperatures under 2°C, the line at which catastrophic feedbacks become likely.  It should not be assumed that state policies have prime significance as leverage points to pass an eventual federal policy that will really get the job done.  State policies should fully model what a federal policy should do in terms of carbon reduction necessities.  Their successful implementation in ways that demonstrate actual economic benefits will be the most powerful driver for passage of national climate policy.

Economic success is crucial.  Pro-climate states must show they can outcompete anti-climate states in the marketplace. They must demonstrate that policies that cut carbon provide better economic performance by improving efficiency and bringing new technologies to bear.  There are many studies that indicate this is the case, for example with the BC carbon tax.  

That leads to a further critical point.  State and provincial policies can go far to reduce carbon emissions.  But to reduce emissions deeply enough and fast enough to stay under that 2°C limit is highly challenging.  Emissions must be reduced at least 2 percent annually over a long period, and cuts of 6 percent per year would be required to stabilize climate by 2100. Accomplishing these goals with carbon caps and pricing alone could raise competitive difficulties and shift polluting activities to other nations.  See these posts on BC and Britain. 

Climate policy opens another avenue though, generation of substantial revenues. For a carbon framework to have a realistic chance of meeting the 2°C goal, a significant share of the revenues must be invested in effective low-carbon solutions.

The most effective would be to create a large pool of low-cost capital to finance mass-scale, deep energy efficiency retrofits that capture opportunities at a 20-year rate of return, rather than the general 3-year low-hanging-fruit projects that typify efficiency investments.

Large loan guarantee pools could de-risk private capital investment in low-carbon solutions including renewable power generation, power grid modernization, sustainable fuels production and agricultural practices that build soil carbon. 

A tremendous upgrading of transit and options to auto travel by individual drivers is also a high-return low-carbon investment.  Options can include van and ride pools, telecommuting, bicycle and pedestrian access, and measures to site housing close to jobs.

Investments in forest carbon storage, whether by outright public purchase or conservation easements, are highly necessary for climate stabilization.  Financial models that govern industrial forestry will not allow the long harvest rotations needed to adequately increase forest carbon reserves. Buying forest carbon in competition with board feet becomes expensive and can only go so far. 

These investments would  build state economies and new economic sectors.  States and regions can make themselves investment engines to build new low-carbon economies that indeed do demonstrate the competitive edge of pro-climate states. 

There will be large temptations to use carbon revenues for many other underfunded needs of fiscally pressed state governments, such as education, or to simply rebate the money, as does BC.  Some level of rebating is needed to defray the impacts of higher energy prices on low- and middle-income people.  Meeting state funding gaps is another important goal, but this should not be done on the back of climate policy.  Elected leaders must offer overall revenue solutions. Carbon revenues should be spent on carbon reduction. 

In a nation seemingly flying apart on multiple issues, none more than climate change, it is crucial that state and regional policies do the most effective job they can.  They must be designed to meet ambitious carbon reduction goals consistent with the needs of climate stability and our children’s generations.  Let us hope that eventually the national balance will tip to an effective carbon limit.  But for now in a U.S. that is flying apart, state and regional climate policies are central.  They must be made to work as if they are the only game in town. For some years to come they probably are. 

The final installment will cover how to win on climate in the climate-intractable regions of Far West, Greater Appalachia and Deep South, as well as in swing regions The Midlands and Tidewater. The imperative is to join in building a broader progressive coalition advancing economic justice and democracy, one that makes rapid clean energy transition a key goal to achieve those ends.   

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