Take the Hill: The Political Science of Energy Economics

by Bruce Hagen, Director, BCL Clean Energy Business Engagement and GO Team Programs at Citizens’ Climate Lobby

Here on earth, gravity rules. Its invisible hand governs the movement of every mass.  Struggle uphill. Glide downhill.  On the battlefield or the playing field, it’s good to have gravity on your side.

Energy economics is no exception.  Remember the labyrinth game, where you turn the knobs to tilt the board and guide the shiny little ball to the goal?  Energy politics is like that. The economic playing field is politically tilted in favor of fossil fuels.  Direct subsidies, tax breaks, and a free pass to use the sky for waste disposal has enabled oil, coal, and gas to create great economic power for America.  And the fossil fuel industry converted some of their great economic power into political power, to keep a tight grip on the knobs, and the energy playing field tilted in their favor.

This monopoly was okay as long as fossil fuels remained cheaper, and cleaner, and safer than alternatives.  But they haven’t.  Despite advances in scrubbing soot and smog from smokestacks and tailpipes, air pollution still attacks lungs.  Strip mines poison streams.  And now greenhouse gasses threaten the foundations of our economy if not our planet.

Fossil fuels remain popular because the downstream pollution costs aren’t reflected in the price of products that cause greenhouse gas emissions, and people gravitate toward products with lower prices.  But poor Baby Downstream ends up paying for Ol’ Man Upstream’s free lunch.  Meanwhile, on our tilted playing field, the blue-green ball we call Earth races toward the hole.

Low-emissions alternatives struggle against this tilted economic gravity, which makes their comparable products look more expensive. Unable to touch the nobs, clean energy advocates have built little ramps --subsidies, mandates, and moral suasion-- to counter the tilt.  The ramps work where applied: they have helped clean energy prove its capacity to painlessly replace fossil fuels.  But the ramps are inefficient and unstable.  For example, tax credits have “free riders” who take credit for purchases they would have done without the credits. And subsidies are easy targets for legislators looking to cut a budget.  With this unpredictability, investors lose confidence, overcorrect, and plunk!  Another promising technology down the hole.

Most important, these little ramps are not enough. The little ball --our powered planet– still accelerates downward. It’s time to take control of the knobs of power.

We’re  starting with a laser-focus on the fastest and safest way to level the field: put a price on climate pollution with a bipartisan Carbon Fee and Dividend law.  CFD levies a steadily increasing fee on fossil fuel extraction and imports that returns all net revenues to households via monthly per capita dividends.  An econometric study by the prestigious, nonpartisan Regional Economic Modeling, Inc projected that, in twenty years, CFD would cut greenhouse gas emissions to half of 1990 levels, while creating a net 2.6 million increase in jobs.

To enact CFD, we’re recruiting, training and inspiring a non-partisan movement of citizen volunteers to be more powerful than the fossil fuel lobby.  This is Citizens’ Climate Lobby.  CCL’s secret weapon: building productive working relationships with every Member of Congress, their staff, and their community leaders.  Most importantly, we form these relationships based on appreciation and respect, even for those who disagree with us.  This strategy has led to the formation of the House Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, which requires members to join in bipartisan pairs.  Membership is up to 56, and Caucus member votes have already defeated a Republican anti-climate amendment.

Our nonpartisan trend has advanced to the point where several oil companies, including ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP, have announced support for CFD through the Climate Leadership Council, a business-oriented conservative group.  Their hands can help steer toward a healthy climate.

We can take control of Capitol Hill and restore enough nonpartisan democracy to solve humanity’s most profound crisis.  Once we do that, anything will be possible.