Last week, the New York Times told its readers something they didn’t want to hear. Unions, for all they accomplished in the past century, will fade into irrelevance in this century if they don’t embrace dramatic change.
This week, Times is saying something similar to another devoted section of its readership: the greens. A feature on climate change argues that it may be time for the green movement to rethink some of its core policy goals—most notably, carbon-trading schemes. Echoing a running Via Meadia theme, the author argues that plans to promote green energy by making “dirty” energy more expensive are misguided, as well as a political non-starter. Despite the fervent wishes of most greens, Americans haven’t warmed up to the notion that paying more at the pump is somehow virtuous and beneficial. Instead, we ought to try an “investment program” aimed at making cleaner fuels cheaper and more accessible to the average consumer. And what is the cheapest clean energy? Natural gas, which can be extracted via fracking:
Even natural gas, a hotly debated topic among climate experts, helps make the point. Thanks in part to earlier government investments, energy companies have been able to extract much more natural gas than once seemed possible. The use of natural gas to generate electricity — far from perfectly clean but less carbon-intensive than coal use — has jumped 25 percent since 2008, while prices have fallen more than 80 percent. Natural gas now generates as much electricity as coal in the United States, which would have been unthinkable not long ago.
The successes make it possible at least to fathom a transition to clean energy that does not involve putting a price on carbon — either through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program that requires licenses for emissions. It was exactly such a program, supported by both Barack Obama and John McCain in the 2008 campaign, that died in Congress in 2010 and is now opposed by almost all Congressional Republicans and some coal-state and oil-state Democrats.
To describe the two approaches is to underline their political differences. A cap-and-trade program sets out to make the energy we use more expensive. An investment program aims to make alternative energy less expensive.
Although a step in the right direction, the piece has its share of problems. We’re still not convinced that many of the flashier alternative-energy programs it touts are ready for prime time, and we’re even less convinced of its arguments about the role that government should take in funding green energy research. But it is good to hear voices in the green movement challenging the orthodoxy that expensive energy for all is the best way forward.