S&R interviews PCAP's Bill Becker – Part 1

During the Democratic National Convention, I had the opportunity to interview Bill Becker, the executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Program (PCAP). Over the course of the interview, the topics ranged from PCAP’s recommendations to the next President and Congress to the national security implications of global heating to cap-and-trade carbon emission markets to climate science and fossil fuels. What follows is the first part of the interview where Becker talks about what PCAP does, what its recommendations are, and what the United States needs to do in order to respond to the looming climate crisis.

In the interests of disclosure, I’ve rearranged the order of the questions and answers in order to group them logically by topic instead of chronologically.

S&R: Can you give me a brief rundown of what PCAP is and what its purpose is?

Bill Becker: PCAP is a project of the University of Colorado, the Wirth Chair, to produce a 100 day action plan for the next President of the United States on climate change. We’ve been going since January 1st 2007, eighteen or nineteen months now. We published our first plan in December of last year, 2007. We’re going to publish the final plan in October of this year. The first plan had more than 300 policy ideas and programmatic ideas. It’s easily the most comprehensive blueprint for federal private leadership that’s out there right now. What we’re finding is that a lot has changed since last December – the politics has changed, there’s been some new science, Jim Hansen has been more aggressive about what we need to do, so we’re updating all of what we proposed in December and we’ll release it very shortly.

S&R: You released your last plan in December, and you said that a whole bunch of things have changed since then. Can you give me some examples?

BB: One is Jim Hansen, who says that we need to get to 350 ppm [of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere]. We’re already over that, so that’s going to be quite a feat. The Warner-Lieberman Bill failed in the senate, so we don’t yet have a climate cap-and-auction or cap-and-trade bill in place. The Bali [conference] has happened since we published the report where nations have committed now, in December 2009, to come back together and figure out what we’re going to do after Kyoto. And there are some other things. The energy bill in December passed with new CAFÉ standards and some good features on appliance efficiency and so on. So all of that has changed and it impacts what we proposed in December and we’ll reflect that in the new one.

S&R: You’re talking to both Presidential candidates, and last night you said to the Green Constitutional Congress that you’d already talked to Congress some. What’s the response been so far?

BB: It’s been very positive. No promises, and we haven’t asked for any. You know, with more than 300 ideas it’s impractical to suggest that anybody’s going to sign up to them all, but they’re certainly using it. We see some of the ideas and even some of the language beginning to show up, or has some time ago shown up, in the platforms of the campaigns. So it’s good. The reception has been positive.

We met with Obama himself and his policy director Heather Higgenbottom last October, way back then when there was still a lot of people in the field for President. And then we met with John McCain’s senior staff starting late last year. And we’ve been in touch with the senior advisers of both campaigns since then. On July 1 we held in Washington D.C a briefing on the security implications of climate change for the senior advisers of the campaigns and both campaigns were well represented at that. We had six scientists, two admirals, and other national defense experts on hand. It was a day long briefing that went really, really well. So they’ve been engaged. We’ve been engaged. Very positive.

S&R: What would you say are the top five or ten recommendations that PCAP has made?

BB: The first thing is that the President, in his inaugural address, in those first hundred minutes of the administration, needs to stand up and send a signal to this country and to the international community that there’s a new sheriff in town and that this country is going to be a leader again and a collaborator with other nations in solving [climate change]. That signal needs to go out right away, and the whole world and this country will be watching for that signal.

The second thing is that the President needs to begin to exercise the authority he has under current law to begin to change federal policy, how federal government uses energy. There’s a considerable amount of executive authority already in the President’s hands to do some good things. We’ve done a legal analysis of those authorities and we’ve identified to the President, or rather he’ll be able to find out from our studies, what he can do without waiting for Congress.

Then I would recommend that the President challenge Congress to return to him a cap-and-trade bill – a cap-and-auction bill is a better way to put it – within a hundred days. We need to send the signal to the world that we’re serious about this. We need to get that debate behind us. We recommend a certain kind of auction bill, by the way, and we think that the President needs to set standards for the kind [of bill] he wants to see on his desk. It needs to be transparent. It needs to be equitable. It needs to be adjustable because market conditions will change and we may not get the price right all at once. It needs to be a 100% auction – we shouldn’t be giving allowances away. And we recommend that it be an upstream cap-and-trade, which means we’re permitting or auctioning allowances to the 1500 or so places where fossil fuel comes into the economy. That’s the mine mouth, the well head, the port for natural gas, and if you do that, you’re avoiding having to permit 15 or 20 thousand entities and you’ll get rid of all this complexity that’s been built into the legislation so far – the off ramps and price caps and all this kind of stuff. It becomes much easier to administer and a much more manageable system. So those are a couple things.

Then we think the President needs to champion a very controversial move – to stop subsidizing fossil energy. It’s only something that Congress can do, but the President, with the bully pulpit and leadership skills, needs to see that happen, and I’ll tell you why. It’s not just because it makes no sense for us to be paying one another to emit carbon, and that’s what we’re doing – taxpayer money is going to oil companies or coal companies – but it’s also because it makes no sense on one hand to put a price on carbon through a cap-and-auction system so that you’re correcting market signals so the market can do it’s magic, but on the other hand you’re distorting market signals by subsidizing the same fuels you’re trying to cap. It makes no sense from a public policy or economic standpoint. It’s a tough battle. Last December, the Senate and the House tried to pay for tax subsidies for solar and wind by shifting fossil energy subsidies over, basically oil company subsidies. The oil industry rose up, opposed it, the White House said it would veto it, and it failed. So it’s not going to be an easy fight, but the President should lead it.

The next thing the President should do is get control of the carbon emissions of the federal government itself. It’s the world’s largest energy user. It produces about 2% of the U.S. carbon emissions. The federal government has incredible procurement power – what it buys, it’s such a huge consumer that it can change the marketplace. If it starts buying plug-in hybrid vehicles, if it establishes a sustained, large market, that encourages manufacturers to invest in producing those [plug-in hybrids]. So the federal government has a long ways to go and can, we think, become a carbon neutral enterprise, certainly by mid-century. That’s no mean feat, but we think it can be done.

The President needs to set out a whole new set of energy metrics, a whole new set of energy targets for the country quite different from the ones we have now. We need to cut our petroleum use in half by 2020. We need to get 25% of our electricity from renewables by 2025. We need to increase our efficiency 2.5% a year. These kinds of metrics. Our President needs to stand up and recalibrate what the nation’s energy goals are. So those are a few of the things.

S&R: If you could think of the single greatest element that’s missing from the conversation over climate change in this country, what would it be?

BB: The opportunity. I don’t mean to be mercenary by that, but the fact is that in building this new economy and in sustaining it there’s probably the largest global opportunity for helping people, for creating jobs, for earning income, for economic stability – probably the largest opportunity we’ve ever seen. We have 2 billion people in the world without electricity. I mentioned earlier today the cheapest way to get them that electricity is with distributed solar and wind rather than building transmission lines and centralized power. That’s a huge market and so far we’re just sitting on the sidelines for the most part. We yielded the solar market to Germany, the wind market to Denmark, and more solar market to Japan.

We invented those technologies in this country. We’re still the most innovative country in the world by any stretch of the imagination. We’ve got more Nobel laureates, more national laboratories, we have more scientists – 100,000 scientists and engineers on the federal payroll for crying out loud. This is a huge opportunity, and I think if people move from fear of change, from fear of not knowing what the new economy is, and understand that we will come out much stronger as a nation and as people and as employers and employees at the other end of that transition, then I think that we’ll be able to mobilize the country to do the right thing.

I think right now there’s too much fear of change. Some of it results in skepticism that there is any problem, some of it results in inertia about doing anything about it, so we need to talk more about the positive side. This is a tremendous opportunity for this country and for the world. It has humanitarian dimensions. We heard today [at the Rocky Mountain Roundtable on Energy and Climate Change] that the two great problems are the environment and poverty in the world today. We can address both at once by helping get clean technologies for electricity and clean water to the people of the world, rather than building more coal plants or more fossil energy production projects to give them the energy they need. So it’s the opportunity argument I think we need to make.

S&R: How hard do you think it will be for Congress, or whatever organization it delegates, to sit down, go through the tax code and federal law, and pull out the subsidies, hidden or otherwise?

BB: It’s going to be hard. But I think it’s not Congress.

We’re suggesting that the President task the Office of Management of the Budget, the Department of Treasury, a task force, essentially, to begin pulling the curtain back on the ways in which we subsidize carbon. A lot of them are very, very subtle kinds of subsidies, and some of them are very, very popular subsidies. A good case in point is the home interest deduction on McMansions. [Congressmen] John Dingell put a bill in to eliminate the home interest deduction on homes over a certain size – the really, really huge homes – and to gradually reduce that deduction until you got down to 2500 or 3000 square feet. But the point is that [the home interest deduction] is a very popular subsidy that is actually encouraging people to build larger homes which use more electricity and produce more carbon emissions.

Some of [the subsidies] are sacred cows, and we’re not suggesting that the President stride into the field and start shooting sacred cows. Some of them need to be herded in different directions, we think. Not all subsidies can be or should be eliminated – some of them are necessary for national security. A good case in point is policing the Persian Gulf oil lanes or the Strategic Petroleum Reserve – those should be maintained.

The point I try to make on subsidies is that we need to stop paying one another to do the wrong things. We need to remove perverse subsidies from the system, and by perverse I mean those things that encourage the bad things like carbon emissions. We need to stop them. The process we’re recommending is an inventory, publicly put on the Internet where everyone can see it, of the subsidies that are identified that are encouraging carbon use so we get a national discussion of which we should jettison. The President could even form a Presidential commission to recommend which subsidies to get rid of and do a base-closing kind of procedure – all or nothing. Put a bill into Congress and either take the package or you do none of them. That eliminates some of the political pain of picking out certain constituencies.

S&R: If you can’t get federal action on those things for one reason or another, do you have a plan to get those kinds of things implemented in a bottom-up strategy instead of a top-down?

BB: Well, the bottom-up is already happening, of course. There are 850 mayors who pledged to meet at least Kyoto targets. There are 21 states that have passed renewable portfolio standards. There are 31 [states], I believe, that have climate action plans in place or under development. So the states and localities have already exerted leadership and I expect they’ll continue. As you know, there’s several regional cap-and-auction or cap-and-trade plans in place or coming into being. If there’s a silver lining to a lack of federal leadership these past years, and it’s hard to find one, but if there is one it’s that governors and mayors and even some businesspeople are beginning to take ownership of this issue and beginning to act on it.

I don’t think we’re going to see the failure at the federal level that you’ve asked about. I don’t think, with the international mandate to do something about this, with the growing scientific evidence, and with the growing physical evidence in this country of severe weather – flooding and forest fires and all of that, which I believe are the early signs of climate change in this country – I don’t believe the President or the Congress could fail to act in some way. It may take longer than we like, but they can’t take too long and I’ll tell you why.

When we and others talk about the need for bold and urgent action, we’re reflecting what the world community has said developed nations must do to solve this problem. The IPCC says we need to level off, globally, carbon emissions. We need to stop the growth of carbon emissions by 2015. That’s six years, only six years after the President takes office. That’s not a lot of time because that implies a major change in our economy – a transformation. Jim Hansen says next year is going to be the most important year perhaps in civilized history because the Congress and the President need to not only set the tone but set the policy for rapid change in our economy to a brand new, low carbon or carbon-constrained economy. 158 nations got together before Bali last year – the U.S. was not one of them – but they believe that the developed nations need to cut their carbon emissions between 25 and 40% by 2020. That’s a huge number.

Our carbon emissions in the United States are heading in the opposite direction – they’re going up 1.2 to 1.5% a year. The Energy Information Administration projects that under business as usual they’ll go up 35% by 2030. That’s precisely the wrong direction. So this is not going to happen as it needs to happen without federal leadership. The states and localities can do so much, but we need a unified federal policy, we need consistent policy, and we need leadership.

Tomorrow: S&R interviews PCAP’s Bill Becker, Part 2
Wednesday: Part 3

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