This was originally posted on National Journal's Energy Expert's Blog in response to the question "What's Holding Back Energy & Climate Policy?"
As the recent failure on gun control showed, favorable public opinion does not translate into legislative success in a divided Congress. Despite the fact that study after study demonstrates large majorities of Americans favor action on climate change and they want more clean energy, we’re unlikely to see energy or climate legislation pass anytime soon.
We won’t get comprehensive climate change legislation until a majority of House members and a supermajority of Senators not only see it in their political interest to take action, but also come to general agreement on what the shape of action should look like.
However, I take issue with the premise that climate and energy policy are therefore dead in the water. In the absence of congressional action, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has rightly exercised its court-ordered authority to control greenhouse gas emissions. With the White House’s blessing, EPA pursued an aggressive regulatory agenda during the President’s first term, and with the prospect of carbon rules for existing plants in the offing, EPA action is poised to become the centerpiece of President Obama’s environmental legacy.
To that end, the “sea change” moment may have already occurred. Massachusetts v. EPA (2007) gave EPA the legal mandate to regulate carbon and other greenhouse gases as pollutants. Given the urgency of climate change and what is at stake, it would be more satisfying to launch a grand piece of legislation memorializing our nation’s resolve on this issue. However, this is a situation where it may be wiser to focus on playing the cards in hand rather than wishing for cards that don’t exist.
The other positive factor in the mix is the tremendous reduction in cost achieved by mainstream renewables like wind and solar. Just as shale gas has transformed our view of our nation’s fossil resources—the achievements in wind and solar have transformed our view of renewables from “expensive” to “affordable and plentiful.” As long as policymakers don’t undo the policies supporting their expansion, market momentum will propel wind and solar to an ever-increasing role in electric power.
While there are clearly risks and potential setbacks ahead, the combination of increased regulatory pressure on carbon and industry cost reductions will likely keep our public policy headed in the right direction. Will that be enough to get us off the course we’re on to a 6-degree shift in global temperature? Probably not, but progress today will form the basis for making the changes necessary when the factors that drive legislative success are better aligned.