06 May 2011

The Green Blind Spot

Dave Roberts at Grist has post up critiquing Matt Nisbet's report in which he reveals a lot about the mindset of many American greens (of course, to the extent that Grist represents this community).  Roberts' critique clearly shows that greens have a huge blind spot when it comes to technology, it just doesn't factor in their calculus.

Roberts explains the world along two dimensions power politics on one end and ideas on the other:
Imagine, if you will, a spectrum: On one end, there are those who see politics as a battle of interests, a raw contest of "power politics" waged with the weapons of money and influence. "Post-truth politics," one might call it. On the other end, there are those who see politics as a battle of ideas, wherein the cleverest messaging and policy proposals attract the most reasonable people and public support, and win. Obviously there's a mix of the two, and one can come down anywhere in between on the spectrum.

In Nisbet's telling, the green movement has devoted itself to power politics when it's actually involved in a battle of ideas, and it's losing. It needs new ideas, new policies, new messages, not just more organizing and spending and lobbying. Cap-and-trade was always doomed because it's the wrong idea at the wrong time. That's why Nisbet tries to show that supporters of the climate bill were as powerful as opponents. If he can show that the sides were evenly matched in the battle of interests, then the only thing that can explain the loss is bad ideas.
Roberts thinks that Nisbet is focused to much on "ideas" and not enough on "power politics."  What is missed here is that policies lead to real world impacts, and all of the political power and good ideas in the world are impotent if they do not lead to practical action.  And absent an effective policy framework -- call it an "idea" if you want -- action will not occur.

Let's explore this with a thought experiment.  Imagine if there were in fact a cap-and-trade policy in place.  Imagine further that the government committed itself to getting off of fossil fuels and nuclear power, and had committed to high speed rail and even $7 $8.80 dollar-a-gallon gasoline.  Let's go further and imagine a near-universal commitment to green values among the public.  Surely, Roberts would find such a set of circumstances to be near nirvana.

We actually don't actually have to imagine such a set of conditions, they exist in a place called Germany.  And guess what?  German rates of decarbonization over the past decade have been exceeded by those in the United States.  How can that be if in Germany the political battle over climate has long been won?  Could it be that Germany climate policies are flawed in some sense?  That Germany needs some new ideas?

Decarbonizing the global economy is ultimately a technology problem.  It is simply not a problem of power politics or ideas, but rather, in implementing a set of policies that lead to technological innovation.  Roberts comes close to getting this, but doesn't make the connection, preferring to see technological change as a mere matter of political choice and not as a function technology itself:
Cheap fossil fuels have shaped America's infrastructure, industry, politics, land use, consumer habits, and self-image for over a century. They're woven into the fabric of U.S. history, commerce, and governance. Relationships among fossil-fuel execs, lobbyists, and politicians date back generations. Even if advocates for change can argue convincingly that there will be winners from the shift to a low-carbon economy -- more winners than losers, even -- the fact remains that many of the future losers currently wield enormous influence and the future winners don't yet exist, are not yet organized, do not yet have a history of cultural affiliation and financial common interest with politicians.
As the case of Germany shows, winning a political battle over green values does not compel policy outcomes related to specific technologies (in this case, I mean specifically accelerated decarbonizion to levels consistent with low stabilization levels).  The marriage of politics and policy in a way that accelerates decarbonization remains far away, in Germany and the United States.  So long as greens continue to ignore the central role of technology, and the role of policy in stimulating that innovation, they will find themselves in political battles with only the prospects of Pyrrhic victories.