It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
Niccolò Machiavelli’s words from his 1532 work, The Prince, have never rang more true than now. Just ask President Joe Biden, whose climate agenda and proposed clean energy policies are the largest “new order of things” we’ve seen in America in our lifetimes. For the world, decarbonizing economies to respond to the climate crisis — as agreed via the Paris Climate Agreement — is likely the largest single undertaking in human history.
Stop in the Name of Love (of Money)
By opposing President Biden’s Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP), Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) casts himself as the visible face of the enemies Machiavelli noted. Manchin is doing quite well under the current order of things through the backing of the coal, oil, and gas interests who have done extremely well themselves for decades.
Public polling consistently shows broad-based support for federal actions to promote alternative/renewable energy sources and implement tougher standards that limit power plant and vehicle emissions. The CEPP was polling strongly all year, since being announced last fall. Yet our legislative system empowers one man — doing the bidding of a handful of industries — to hold absolute sway over energy policy.
Which takes us back to Machiavelli. A vast majority of Americans know climate change is a growing threat and present danger. They expect to fare better in a world with cleaner air and fewer heatwaves, wildfires, floods, and damaging storms fueled by climate change. But facing an onslaught of misinformation funded by fossil fuel interests, most Americans fall into the realm of “lukewarm defenders” in the Machiavellian view. Whereas coal, oil, and gas interests are a highly motivated, fully funded, and well connected bunch.
The Winter of Our Discontent
To make things worse, America and the rest of the world are headed for a winter that will test the mettle of even the most ardent clean energy proponents, as foretold by columnist Thomas Friedman and others. Great Britain and Europe are already facing an energy crunch that is causing natural gas shortages and price escalation that forebodes dangerous and unsettling months ahead.
Writing about the impending energy crisis, Fareed Zakaria argues transition strategies are needed to get us by until solar and wind (with battery storage) are robust enough to be our primary energy sources. I can somewhat (if reluctantly) buy his case for natural gas as a transitional strategy to get completely off of coal. And I especially concur with investing to fix methane leaks in ~1,400 fossil-fuel plants world-wide. (While it stays in the atmosphere for less time than carbon, methane’s greenhouse effect is 80 times worse than CO2. So, reducing methane quickly is an effective way to make a meaningful dent in global warming.)
It’s a difficult dynamic. Methane emissions make relying on natural gas as our primary energy source far more harmful than most people recognize. And, yet, Zakaria and Friedman are probably right about the lack of immediate alternatives.
You Can Get There from Here
So, implementing a new order of things is devilishly difficult. And managing a complex transition is even tougher. But to move from lukewarm supporter to persevering proponent, there are points to learn and internalize.
- No more coal. It’s the dirtiest fossil fuel burned to generate electricity, and we’re finally kicking the habit. This winter will be especially trying, but there can be no going back.
- Fix methane leaks. Embracing natural gas as a transitional strategy must come with targeted investments to curtail leaking from the world’s fossil fuel plants. This must be a tactical investment and not a later excuse to prop up the natural gas industry indefinitely.
- Don’t forget storage. To take full advantage of solar, wind, and other clean renewables, we must develop a distributed energy storage network that can level out intermittency associated with renewables today. It was good to see Georgia Power and the Georgia Public Service Commission moving forward on that. Vehicle-to-Grid technologies are also an attractive way to use electric vehicles to build storage capabilities on the grid.
- Use less. By far the most environmentally responsible approach is not solar, wind, nuclear, natural gas, or anything yet to be invented. It’s consuming less energy to reduce demand for all fuels. We can achieve this with LED lighting, smart thermostats, super-efficient HVAC systems, energy-saving appliances, improved insulation, walking and biking, and just better conservation habits. Most utilities have incentives and rebates to help you make energy-saving investments, like these programs from Georgia Power.
- Shift demand. Even when we use electricity, shifting activities like drying clothes, charging an EV, or running power tools to off-peak hours reduces the maximum demand the power grid must meet. With enough households and businesses taking part, utilities can decommission coal and natural gas-fire power plants much more quickly. Collectively, these solutions are called Demand Response. Utility companies help by providing incentives through time-of-use plans, such as Smart Usage, Plug-in EV, and Nights and Weekends rate plans from Georgia Power.
In our state, a program called Drawdown Georgia brought together scientists and policy experts from Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, Emory, and others to identify the top 20 climate solutions for solving the climate crisis in the southeast. Rather than looking out to a mid-century time horizon, the program focused narrowly on actions that could be taken now, in this decade, to eliminate 35% of Georgia’s carbon emissions by 2030. The non-profit I lead in my community, Sustainable Newton, is committed to maximizing those in our county.
The world — and our state — have the proven solutions we need to address the climate crisis. And, as I outlined above, there are steps each of us can take right now — today — to help make it happen. But, as the political struggle in Washington shows, we need systemic change on a more fundamental and lasting basis.
A Market-Based Solution We Can All Agree On
Today, companies that extract, process, distribute, sell, purchase, and burn fossil fuels have little incentive to make transformational changes to their business model. Even faced with irrefutable scientific evidence about the dire human implications from their activities, the fossil fuel industry has chosen for decades to refute science with misinformation and has only accelerated the rate of greenhouse gas emissions into our environment. Where states like California have imposed strict emissions standards and other regulations, oil and gas companies, utilities, and car makers have been forced to adapt. But, it is not happening fast enough nor on a large enough scale. And most conservatives will fight or only grudgingly accept government regulation as the primary solution.
To spur the innovation and accelerate our transition to clean energy, economists, policy analysts, and lawmakers from both major parties agree we need to place a price on the public health and environmental costs of carbon-based energy. With a revenue-neutral Carbon Fee and Dividend program, we can create a market-based incentive for companies to transition to clean, renewable energy sources, while distributing the revenue raised as a dividend to ease the temporary cost burden on households while green energy ramps up to scale. The Citizens Climate Lobby has been lobbying for a price on carbon for over a decade, with broad and growing bipartisan support in government, as well as from businesses and individuals.
At the Risk of Sounding Machiavellian
What now? Let’s finish that excerpt from The Prince as Machiavelli explains the root causes for only lukewarm support:
This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.
Clearly, laws must change at some level, and a Carbon Fee and Dividend is the best chance we have for bipartisan support and corporate buy-in. You can help by writing or calling your senators and representatives to demand it be included in current legislation.
On the second point about readily believing in new things, we don’t have the luxury of time for long experience. Electric and/or fuel-efficient vehicles and trucks, rooftop and utility-scale solar, reduced food waste, a plant-forward diet, retrofitting our building for energy efficiency, a greater effort to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics… These are all steps we need to take en-masse. We can all lead by example. Every determined person or business is an inspiration for others… a way to accelerate our leap to the experience necessary to transform what we think of as normal.
But enough of Machiavelli. Let’s hear from another sage (if less wordy) philosopher, Yoda:
Do or do not. There is no try.Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back