Las Vegas Sun

June 16, 2019

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Brookings expert: Congress should tackle climate policy

For Adele Morris, the Obama administration’s actions on climate change were a concern.

It wasn’t that Morris opposed the intent of the administration’s moves — cutting emissions of greenhouse gases, reducing use of fossil fuels and so on. It was the way the administration went about it.

“All of these things were executive actions, and that meant it could be undone,” said Morris, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in climate research. “And it’s much easier to undo a rule that hasn’t taken effect than it is to promulgate a new one.

“So I think we’re seeing an outcome that was very predictable had any Republican won the next election. It’s probably more tweet-driven than it would have been under a Ted Cruz administration, but we would have seen a lot of the same outcomes.”

Morris has been on the leading edge of climate policy since the 1990s, having joined Brookings in 2008 after a 20-year career in the federal government. Among her roles, she served as the senior economist for environmental affairs at the President’s Council of Economic Advisers during the development of the Kyoto Protocol.

In her latest blog post, Morris argues that for the U.S. to establish meaningful and lasting policies on climate issues, congressional action will be needed.

During a visit last week to UNLV, Morris sat down with the Sun to discuss her work and address a key question — with Congress being so polarized and climate being such a divisive issue, is bipartisan agreement feasible on the issue?

You and your colleague Samantha Gross wrote that “those of us who understand the regulatory process knew the risks” of the Obama administration’s strategy on climate. What were those risks?

It’s worth kind of reviewing all of the things the Trump administration has been unraveling that were key initiatives of the Obama administration. From there, you can see what it was about those Obama administration actions that made them relatively easy to undo and fairly predictable that that would happen if we were to have a Republican in the White House.

We’ve got the announcement of the intent to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, the moratorium on coal-leasing on federal land, an endeavor to undo a rule that would control methane emissions from oil and gas operations on federal land, a revisiting of the fuel economy standard increases that were contemplated by the Obama administration, and then the big one probably is the unraveling of the Clean Power Plan, which was arguably the signature initiative of the Obama administration’s climate action plan.

Why did they do those actions? It was in part because early in the Obama administration, in 2008 and 2009, there was a legislative initiative sponsored by Reps. (Henry) Waxman and (Ed) Markey to establish, among other things, a cap and trade program across the U.S. economy for greenhouse gas emissions.

That bill passed the House, but it floundered in the Senate. And right in the midst of that was the onset of the financial crisis and the Great Recession.

So after that legislative effort crashed and burned, the administration never really went back to that approach in any full-throated way. Instead, it pursued the regulatory approach using existing authority under the Clean Air Act.

But it was authority that was untested, and this was quite a production by the EPA. Those of us who are familiar with the rulemaking process felt for the folks at the EPA having to go this route, because it’s extremely complicated and is subject to litigation.

They have to go state by state and set emissions standards for every state. Then, every state has to develop an implementation plan and submit that to EPA for approval. And meanwhile, because this authority was untested in the courts, there was litigation.

Therefore, the standards wouldn’t have possibly taken effect until 2023 at the earliest.

So it was an intrinsically flawed process if what you were trying to do was make solid policy in the space of one or two presidential terms.

How can Congress reach anything resembling middle ground on this issue?

If politics remains so polarized and so dysfunctional, we won’t. We’re going to get the endless squabbling and the seesaw rulemaking.

Where we’ll see things move will not be through policy, it will be through things like capital markets — investors stopping investing in high-emitting industries because the banks will become shy of that, as will insurers and ratings agencies and large investor groups. And we’ll have more and more litigation around climatic damages, like where you see cities suing some of the major oil and gas companies.

So we’ll see an amplification of that kind of thing. I think that can move markets and change behavior, but I think it’s grossly inefficient relative to a well-designed, federally implemented price on carbon that investors can take to the bank when they want to employ new, cleaner technologies.

Why is it less efficient to allow the market to decide on climate?

It’s absolutely appropriate for investors to ask hard questions. That is the job that good investors do, and that’s the discipline of the market in a capitalist system.

I’m not saying that’s inefficient. What I’m saying is it’s speculation on the part of all the actors in the market.

So you might have a great idea for a low-carbon technology, but the risks associated with investing in it are hard to gauge because you don’t know what’s going to be the policy driver for the demand for your product.

You can say, “Well, technology is going to fix this problem.” OK, yes it’s true that renewables are getting cheaper, but the price of oil is low and people are buying lots of SUVs. That shows that technology can move demand for fossil fuels forward or backward, and it’s not something I would hinge the fate of the planet on.

So I think it behooves Congress to grapple with the problem in a rational, adult way, examine the options and the trade-offs, and if you have a concern — whether it’s the well-being of coal-reliant communities or low-income households or American competitiveness — we are developing policy ideas that can greatly ameliorate those concerns.

What are some examples of those policy ideas?

Primarily owing to low natural gas prices and other factors, the demand for coal and the production of coal have been going down in the U.S.

Coal’s getting backed out. We’re seeing coal-fired power plants retired, and they’re not coming back. Exports are a little volatile, but not a long-term growth market.

So what is happening in coal-reliant areas? They’re suffering. They’ve lost jobs, they’ve lost an economic base. Some of these areas are quite rural, and there’s not a lot of other economic activity.

So they’re already hurting, and there’s no resources being deployed in a significant way by the federal government to do anything about it besides what I’d argue are fairly empty promises.

But if you had, say, a carbon tax, yes it would amplify the existing trends, but you’d have revenue you could use to supplement the pension and health care benefits of the workers. You could give them a lifetime stipend to make them better off, and they wouldn’t have to work in the coal mines to get it.

For young people, there’d be educational benefits and investment in local communities. You could do a vigorous reclamation of the disturbed lands. And that would help people who are hurting build a better life.

If you have all these regulations, they’ve got nothing with the same outcome. So you might as well put a price on carbon and get the revenue and help people.

How do you feel about the idea that climate policy can and should be handled by states and local governments?

I applaud the work of state governments and mayors who want to take a leadership role.

But I think there are a number of reasons why that is not a substitute even to a close proximity to federal leadership.

One, a certain amount of state and local action is going to be acceptable. But when it becomes very ambitious, and what you’re doing is placing much more significant regulations or price signals on emissions on across the economy of your state, capital is mobile. And if you have industrial activity and you have higher cost than your neighboring state as a result of your climate ambition, you’re going to induce activity to move elsewhere. And that’s not going to be acceptable to your voters.

So I believe that intrinsically, state ambitions are going to be limited. Maybe it works in an economy like California, but I don’t think it’s going to work where you have strong competitors that are right next to each other.

I also think you need action by the climate change-skeptical states. It’s not going to solve our problems if California gets cleaner and cleaner, and nothing happens in the industrial Midwest or the fossil fuel-producing states.

And the final thing is if you think about the problem globally, it’s so important that the U.S. leads diplomatically. I’ve been a negotiator for the United States in the climate treaty process, and I can tell you that what position the U.S. takes internationally is very consequential and very influential. All eyes are on the United States, and only the administration can sit in the chair for the U.S. Michael Bloomberg can’t sit there. Jerry Brown can’t sit there. It has to be the U.S. State Department or the president leading in those venues.

Do you ever find yourself feeling like this is a hopeless cause?

Well, I can’t say I’m never disappointed by the day’s events. But I am convinced this is not a problem that is going to go away by itself. We’ve got to grapple with it.

The Republican Party is the only major political party on the face of the earth that continues to neglect or deny the compelling science of climatic disruption, and I don’t believe that’s sustainable.

I’m convinced that the future of the Republican Party cannot be of continued reliance on a hoax theory. So I’m also convinced there will be a market for solutions, and that’s the market I want to contribute to with my research.

I view myself as somebody who’s trying to set a rich table full of good analysis and solid research ready to go when we are in the business of trying to do serious work on this issue.