The Massachusetts Legislature made news over the weekend by passing a farsighted energy bill. Among other measures, the “omnibus energy bill” makes unprecedented commitments to hydropower and offshore wind and compels electric utilities to incorporate modernizing energy storage systems into the grid by 2020.
But aside from its statutory particulars, the bill captures an interesting snapshot of the politics of climate change action. We can locate the bill in a landscape framed by two political axes: one axis that calibrates expanding energy supply versus curbing energy demand, and a second that compares economic motives for action with moral imperatives.
While the letter of the law expresses the fiscal exigencies of today, the spirit of the law responds to a challenge from future generations.
On the supply end of the first axis, people argue for policies that drive the development of clean energy technologies. Their premise is that we can create and exploit new energy sources that will ultimately displace the carbon-based fuels implicated in global warming. Entrepreneur Elon Musk, a pioneer in electric cars and solar power systems, personifies the belief that advanced technology can lead the fight against climate change.
The demand end of the axis is inhabited by advocates of sustainability, reduced consumption, carbon taxes and major reforms of our economic system. From this viewpoint, climate change is both a cultural and structural problem outside the reach of technological fixes. Proponents call for rethinking our transportation systems, shorter work hours, less corporate influence on the political process and forgoing excess consumer goods. Prominent among the many who have written about the need for systemic reform of the economy are author Christian Parenti, economist Juliet Schor and activist Naomi Klein.
The new energy bill definitely landed closer to the supply end of the range. The initiative to increase the use of hydropower in tandem with onshore wind signals confidence that we can grow the clean power supply. The aggressive procurement of offshore wind and the nod toward energy storage are particularly in keeping with a mindset that values cutting-edge technology as a means to expand the energy portfolio.
As to reducing demand, the bill recognizes the importance of energy efficiency and includes some energy-conserving measures, such as requiring repair of gas leaks. But it doesn’t compel anyone to change their lifestyle. It asks us neither to rethink our habits as consumers nor to shrink our personal carbon footprints. A provision to require time-of-sale home energy audits didn’t make the cut. A carbon pricing amendment, intended to ramp down the consumption of fossil fuels, was added in the Senate but then withdrawn for lack of support. Asking Americans to scale back their energy habit is politically hazardous.
Now consider our second axis, a scale that measures the degree to which the climate change crisis is perceived as economic or moral in nature.
At one end, climate change is a purely economic problem. Economists compare the cost of making the transition to renewable energy with the cost of adapting to climate change as it happens. They look at the environmental cost of continuing to extract and burn fossil fuels versus the cost of writing off the wealth bound up in untapped reserves. Computer models crunch data to gauge the effectiveness of incentives and penalties that could drive the adoption of clean energy.
At the other end of this axis are those who believe that, rather than being the upshot of any economic calculation, fighting climate change is an ethical imperative. They see the economic factors as secondary to the responsibility borne by today’s societies to protect and preserve global ecosystems. Those advancing this argument include Al Gore, activist Bill McKibben and, most notably, Pope Francis, whose encyclical Laudato Si drew from sacred texts to make a moral case for decisive action on climate change.
...the bill is still admirably ambitious. Obscured in the thick legal parlance, you can sense an aspiration to epochal change.
All appearances indicate that economics, as opposed to morality, was the proximal impetus behind the omnibus energy bill. Affordable electricity is a political precondition. The legislation assumes the cost curve of renewables will bend under the pressures of the market as efficient supply chains fall into place. Legislators don’t speak of meeting the moral challenges of climate change, only about meeting the targets for emissions reduction that the Global Warming Solutions Act requires. And the omnibus energy bill lacks the broad sweep of New York's innovative Reforming the Energy Vision program, which aims to develop new, non-traditional business models for utilities.
That said, the bill is still admirably ambitious. Obscured in the thick legal parlance, you can sense an aspiration to epochal change. The prospect of a revolutionized energy infrastructure, one in which clean energy sources dominate fossil fuels, is implicit in this legislation. That suggests the authors must have been thinking beyond the spreadsheets. While the letter of the law expresses the fiscal exigencies of today, the spirit of the law responds to a challenge from future generations.