02 October 2008

Steve Rayner: Dear Mr. President, Deal with Climate Change

Steve Rayner, climate policy expert and lead author of The Wrong Trousers: Radically Rethinking Climate Policy (PDF), is featured in this month's Wired Magazine. He's on the "2008 Smart List: 15 People the Next President Should Listen To" (no matter who wins).

Read this carefully, for Rayner is onto something. He declares that cap and trade won't work and that new technology investment is critical. Here is Professor Rayner's letter:

Mr. President:

The outgoing administration failed to come to grips with climate change out of fear that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would damage the economy. But the decision to deal with climate change doesn't lend itself to cost-benefit analysis. It is a strategic choice, like the decision to get married. You have an opportunity to define the nation's character and upgrade its infrastructure -- and bold action would be consistent with America's historical role as a leader in innovation. It would also encourage India and China to participate in the effort. Here are a few points to keep in mind.

Cap and trade won't work. The market for carbon offsets is widely touted as the best way to curb greenhouse gases. This would be fine if time were unlimited. However, the best available science suggests that we need to stabilize emissions by mid-century. That's too soon for carbon prices to rise enough to drive the R&D necessary to enable cleaner alternatives to compete with fossil fuels. It doesn't help that the cap-and-trade approach relies on underdeveloped monitoring and accounting systems that inevitably leave plenty of wiggle room for unscrupulous speculators to work the system, amassing fortunes while achieving nothing for the atmosphere.

New technology is critical. The only plausible way to curb emissions in the next few decades is to accelerate the development and adoption of low-carbon energy sources. Rather than setting targets for greenhouse gases, we should establish goals for installed technology, beginning with the most energy-intensive sectors, like electricity generation, ground transportation, and cement manufacturing. Similarly, international cooperation on emissions reduction should focus on the handful of countries responsible for the lion's share of the problem. In the US and elsewhere, R&D funding should be directed toward technologies that otherwise might not come online for up to 20 years. This would fill the gap between the turnaround timeline for venture capital (three to five years) and for basic research (beyond 20 years).

Let the market decide. No amount of public investment will succeed if politicians are allowed to pick the winners. The program must be designed to widen the choices available to the market, not to preempt them. There is no silver bullet, but we can develop silver buckshot. The point is to ensure that money flows to a variety of options from which the market can select, not just the one that's being developed in the district of a powerful member of Congress.

Mr. President, this strategy is not just about throwing money at the problem. It will be necessary to review a wide range of policies that affect technology development and deployment, including intellectual property, defense procurement, taxation, and performance standards. Moreover, stabilizing the atmosphere does not address the legacy of past emissions. It is equally important to invest in infrastructure that will head off damage from extreme weather events caused by the climate change we've already set in motion.

Twice in the past century, the US dragged its feet before confronting threats to our civilization in the form of two world wars. But when it finally committed itself, it shot straight into the leadership position and dealt decisively with the problems. Climate change poses the same sort of challenge -- and opportunity -- at the beginning of the present century.


Steve Rayner

Steve Rayner is Professor of Science and Civilization at Oxford University.

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