from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Two Paths Forward on Climate Change

November 07, 2012

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Climate Change

United States

Heads of State and Government


The past week has been huge for people who want to see the United States go big on climate change. First Hurricane Sandy vaulted climate change back into the public debate. Now the reelection of Barack Obama means that there will be someone in the White House who cares strongly about the issue. The combination creates an opportunity to press for climate action.

That makes it all the more critical for people who care about climate change to get things right. If they remember one thing, it should be this: they will need to build coalitions if they want to go big.

The contours of the sort of policy that might have a shot at becoming the foundation for a coalition aren’t too tough to figure out. They probably look a lot like what President Obama advocates when he talks about pursuing an “all of the above strategy”. That would blend serious action to curb emissions from fossil fuel consumption with steps to help facilitate safe expansion of U.S. oil and gas production. (That, incidentally, looks a lot like what John McCain advocated in 2008, suggesting that it has the potential for bipartisan appeal.) Indeed now would be a great time to start telling people who are newly concerned with climate change that there are serious approaches to the problem that they can embrace that don’t require radical revisions to how they think about the world.

Yet many of the loudest voices on climate change, particularly in the aftermath of Sandy, appear to have other ideas on their minds. To them the lesson of recent weeks seems to be that now is the time to redouble those strategies that appeal most to those who are already charged up about climate action. That means renewed efforts to block pipeline, shale, and other oil and gas developments – despite the fact that a substantial majority of Americans are opposed.

The instinct is understandable, but it is ultimately likely to be counterproductive, for two big reasons. The first is a matter of substance: blocking U.S. oil and gas development would have barely any impact on either U.S. or world emissions, and might make things worse. Curbing U.S. oil would nudge emissions lower, but since U.S. production is likely to primarily displace production from others, the impact will probably be very small. More U.S. gas production, meanwhile, is currently reducing emissions by displacing coal, which is good climate news.

All of this means that you need to do considerably more than block oil and gas development if you want to really bend the U.S. emissions curve. What you need is to go directly after emissions from U.S. fossil fuel consumption in a big way, whether that’s through an explicit price on carbon, a clean energy standard, or something else. And since that eventually requires action from Congress, you need to build coalitions. I’m not suggesting that advocates for climate action need to satisfy every member of the House and Senate. But really big steps will eventually require collaboration that extends far across party lines – and putting together coalitions in this vein will inevitably require some support for U.S. oil and gas.

Now some advocates will have a ready response: taking a hard line on oil and gas now gives them something that they can trade when it comes time to deal later on. That’s not a crazy way for some people to take when they think about strategy. But it’s disastrous if it becomes the dominant (or most publicly prominent) approach. The country needs people who will actively articulate a way forward that can be widely embraced – one that, incidentally, probably looks a lot like the “all of the above” strategy that the President has advocated (though not always been able to fully pursue) and that so many have nonetheless mocked.

Moreover, insofar as advocates are merely being tactically shrewd in taking a hard line on oil and gas, they will need to be prepared to compromise in the end in order to get a serious carbon price or clean energy standard through. Telling your grassroots base that U.S. oil and gas development spells certain doom for the planet is not a great way to set that endgame up.

Those who want serious action on climate change should keep one more thing in mind. Four years ago, when the financial crisis hit, many smart analysts said that the opportunity to go big on climate change would return when the economy got back somewhere close to normal. Their mistake wasn’t in that analysis – it was in thinking that the return to normal was only a couple of years away. The economy is now slowly limping back to health, and while it’s far from being repaired, a considerably stronger economy is a real prospect when you look four years ahead. People who want serious action on climate should probably still be looking at the next year or two as an new opportunity to rebuild support for climate action and to begin to craft new coalitions, much as they did in the few years before President Obama was first elected. Doing that requires presenting a vision that people can embrace without completely overhauling their views of the world. Building that foundation will maximize the odds that it will be possible to make big and necessary things happen when the time is really right