Climate change is having a moment.
It’s hard to untangle cause from effect, but some combination of the backlash against Trump, worsening environmental disasters, youth-driven protests, and the bold aspirations of the Green New Deal have pushed the climate conversation onto center stage.
While the debate continues over whether the sweeping economic and environmental justice proposal is good policy or politics, a number of centrist and even conservative groups pushing for action on climate also sense a shift of the Overton window here. Groups like DC think tank ClearPath see a chance to advance carbon-free energy policies that may not be so audacious, but could achieve broader support—and, in their own estimation, would be more effective in combating climate risks.
ClearPath’s executive director, Rich Powell, says the most important role the US can play is in creating carbon-free energy tools that are cheaper and better than the polluting options already on the market.
ClearPath, launched publicly in 2015, argues that the government needs to invest heavily into early research for advances in energy technologies like advanced nuclear, grid energy storage, and carbon capture systems on fossil-fuel plants, employ some light support to move them into the marketplace—and then get out of the way.
It’s far from clear that could accelerate progress at the rate now required to address growing climate risks. But in an interview with MIT Technology Review, Powell explains why he believes it's the most promising approach on a global scale, why more Republicans are coming around on these issues than the rest of us seem to realize (and reports seem to show), and why we shouldn’t hold our breath for an apology from the GOP for decades of climate denial.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
How would you articulate ClearPath’s theory of change on climate?
If it’s unlikely, and frankly a little bit unfair, to ask the developing world to make a preference for clean over cheap, then the challenge is how do we merge clean development and economic development? How do we make it so that a choice for clean is actually just as cost effective and just as high-performing as a choice for a heavily emitting source? And that is a technology problem.
Our view is that the first priority is this innovation challenge, and channeling as much as possible of the political capital that exists to fight climate change to that. And that it also means using the US as a test bed for these new technologies.
It sounds like that starts with more significant, more focused government R&D funding for early-stage stuff?
We think that government should be primarily focused on breakthrough energy technologies as opposed to incremental energy technologies. Let’s not spend more dollars making an existing wind turbine technology 1% more efficient. Let’s focus resources on making [wind energy kites] or floating offshore work.
I certainly agree with the broad point that innovation will play a crucial role. But I worry it can only do so much. For instance, if we are able to use R&D to drive down the cost of carbon capture, that’s great. But it’s still going to represent an incremental cost, so what would incentivize existing plants to build them?
I think the 45Q tax incentive [which provides a tax credit of $50 for every metric ton of carbon dioxide buried underground and $35 for every ton put to work in other ways] is obviously is really a good place to start. It’s a pretty rich incentive, actually, though it’s a little bit unclear whether it’s enough to incent a lot of [carbon capture and storage] retrofits. But I think it’s plenty to incent the building of new integrated CCS plants. And then I think we see how far that kind of push policy brings the cost down, and then we reevaluate.
The leading conservative approach to addressing climate change is a price on carbon. But you don’t support that, right?
Yes, just look at the name.
It’s a very difficult sell, frankly, really broadly but for conservatives in particular, since it’s called a tax. If you look at the modeling, the primary things a carbon tax does are to incent more coal-to-gas switching, some renewables, and a bunch of energy efficiency.
It focuses on making traditional energy expensive as opposed to clean energy cheap, and we think for global impact we need to be more focused on making clean energy cheap.
Doesn’t government funding for R&D mean picking winners and losers?
We would say government should only pick winners, no losers. [Laughs]
Okay. If that works out, that’s great.
I think virtually every economist, including conservative economists, would agree that public spending on R&D is a pretty clear public good. I think most folks would actually argue we have a suboptimal level of investment, at the very least in basic research.
The great US success story in decarbonization has, of course, been the shale gas revolution. We spent $500 million at the Department of Energy on basic and applied R&D, in a public-private partnership. And then we did a tax incentive, a $10 billion alternative production tax credit, which sort of brought shale gas into the market.
We’re 27% down in power-sector carbon emissions since 2005, and most of the analysis shows at least two thirds of that has been due to the shale gas revolution.
Do you think that having a conservative group advocate for certain sets of carbon-free technologies, like nuclear and hydro, is a path to common ground and compromise with liberals, who are pushing for more solar and wind? Or is there a risk that we just end up politicizing technological tools even more?
I’ll put on my partisan hat and say, “Liberals started that.” Now I’ll take it off and say, “In the last Congress, we saw a tremendous amount of bipartisan policymaking on clean energy, the most since 2007.”
We saw new legislation introduced on advanced nuclear, advanced carbon capture, including direct air capture, and advanced storage technologies. (See “One man’s two-decade quest to suck greenhouse gas out of the sky.”) And every single thing that passed was a very bipartisan bill, and signed into law by arguably quite a partisan conservative president.
I think it shows that the innovation space on all of these technologies is pretty broadly open and very bipartisan.
Can a Republican in Congress today talk openly about climate policy and still get reelected?
If you take a look at the rhetoric in this Congress, there’s been agreement that the problem is real, has a serious human contribution, and that there ought to be a significant focus on solutions. That has been a significant and rather rapid evolution. Republicans are just able to talk about this in a very different way than they had been before.
Do you think there has to be a broader reckoning in the Republican Party to retain intellectual credibility with their base over climate change? Are they going to have to come out and say, yes, we misled you?
It has not been my observation that politicians come out and say anything like that to their base. So I think the prospects for that are not strong.
Regardless of where the Republican Party now stands on the issue, several decades of misinformation or distortion or whatever you want to call it has certainly created a large number of people out there who do still think that climate science isn’t true. So do you think that there will have to be some kind of action or shift in the rhetoric?
In terms of directly taking on the climate issue with voters, this is kind of a low-salience issue with everybody. What we often say, and we’ve got quite a lot of polling to back up this, is that this is an issue that really will help conservative policymakers with their small-r Republicans, independents, and moderates. Increasingly in our focus groups we’re finding that even conservative Trump voters are no longer okay with just outright dismissal of climate science. I think they’ve just seen too much weirdness in the past year to say, “Oh, we shouldn’t be thinking about this as a problem.”
Now they might have rather limited views about what to do about the problem, and humans’ role in the problem. But they want their leaders to open-minded and thoughtful and proposing solutions.