Environmental Technology vs. Environmental Policy

To rehash a point I make with perhaps annoying frequency: People’s political ideas do not arise from dispassionate reasoning about how best to achieve desirable goals, but are in fact more like disjointed involuntary reactions arising from emotional attachments to various groups, symbols, and self-conceptions. This leaves people with bundles of political ideas that have contradictory premises, and leads to analytically confused conversations about policy.

I’ve been thinking of this in the context of environmental policy recently. The irony here, for me, is that the people who are very excited about the potential of green-energy technologies are usually the same people who support environmental policies to restrict our use of carbon-emitting energy sources; while the people who oppose those restrictions also tend to be highly skeptical of green-energy’s potential. This is because, to put it very crudely, the base version of the ‘liberal’ disposition on energy comes down to “positive attitudes about things with the word environmental in them” while the base version of the ‘conservative’ disposition comes down to “negative attitudes about things with the word environmental in them.” So optimism about green energy gets clustered with liberal environmental policy, etc.

But I was thinking about how, rationally, the clustering of ideas ought to be just the opposite, when I came across Noah Smith’s post for The Atlantic’s website about the steady progress in solar technology:

A technology is in the pipeline that has the potential to eliminate CO2 emissions entirely. Solar power, long believed to be unworkably expensive, has actually been falling in cost at a steady exponential rate of 7 percent per year for the last three decades straight. Because of this “Moore’s Law for solar”, electricity from solar panels now costs less than twice as much as electricity from coal, and only about three times as much as electricity from gas. Furthermore, technologies now in the pipeline seem to ensure that the cost drop will continue.

Within the decade, solar could be cheaper than coal. Within two decades, cheaper than gas. When that happens, assuming we also have electric cars, it is game over for carbon emission

I very much hope Noah is right, as should every single person in the world, except for, perhaps, people who own the rights to oil and coal sources. But the irony is that, if Noah is right, this fact weakens the case for placing restrictions on and increasing the costs of carbon-emitting energy sources (as Noah himself, who often leans left, argues).

Let’s go back to the basics of environmental policy. The reason environmental policy is tricky is that providing cheap energy is a hugely morally important thing (because the price of energy is reflected in every good we consume and every trip we take, and so is one of the major determinants of how well middle and lower-income people are actually doing in life), and protecting the environment is a hugely morally important thing (because too much climate change could do enormous and unpredictable harm, perhaps especially to poorer parts of the globe), and these two goals are in conflict right now, because our cheapest energy sources are carbon-emitting. So there’s a dilemma. Two reasonable people can disagree about environmental policy if they disagree over how best to weigh, value, and trade off the various environmental and economic costs and benefits of any policy. But once solar power becomes cheaper than oil power, this dilemma will completely evaporate, because cheap will equal clean.

Now, solar power is definitely going to become cheaper than carbon-emitting energy sources at some point. It seems to be on a relatively consistent cost decline thanks to technological progress. And since there is a fixed supply oil, coal, and natural gas in the world, and their extraction relies on mechanical technologies that are less ripe for innovative technological improvements, these won’t see such a consistent price decline in the future. The only question is when solar power will get cheaper. That’s up for some debate.

Now, it seems to me that if solar power is going to take a long time to get cheaper than oil, then this strengthens the case for higher emissions taxes, etc., right now, because that means that there’ll be a long period of time in which, otherwise, if we don’t take action, we’ll be contributing more and more to climate change. But if solar power is going to get cheaper than oil relatively quickly, say within 15 years, that weakens the case for greater restriction on carbon-intensive energy, because the amount of extra damage we can expect from emissions from their continued, relatively unrestricted use is accordingly less. In other words, the better the prospects of solar technology, the lower the environmental costs of permissive environmental policy will be; and the worse the prospects of solar technology, the higher their environmental costs will be. So, all else equal, the more optimistic you are about solar technology’s progress, the less supportive you should be of restricting our use of carbon-intensive energy sources right now. In a more rational world, then, green-energy technology boosters would be the green-policy skeptics, and their detractors the opposite.

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I know I’m not an expert in environmental policy, but my inclination here is to be, as it often is, slightly toward the laissez-faire side of the consensus of my progressive-minded friends. A relatively laissez-faire position on environmental policy is, unfortunately, often associated with a denial of the scientific consensus on climate change. But I think my disposition can rest on two more reasonable ideas:  (1) I value cheap energy more seriously. Making the accoutrements of a comfortable middle class lifestyle more affordable, and promoting continuous and robust economic growth, are really, hugely morally important things, which my friends, who largely grew up in relative comfort, who don’t have their own families yet, who don’t own cars, and who don’t necessarily think about the myriad ways in which the price of energy is incorporated into the prices of everything else, tend to underrate. If increased fracking could lower energy prices, lower the middle-class’s cost of living, and help boost the U.S. out of its current devastatingly slow economic recovery, that’s a very, very big deal that must be taken extremely seriously. (2) I’m more optimistic about our technological future. Not only do I expect that solar power can progress so quickly that pure economic self-interest and market forces will make us green up very quickly, even without restrictive government policies, I’m also excited about the, in my view, under-discussed potential for geo-engineering to help reverse some global warming, if it turns out that its extent and costs will be very high.

Given these potentials, it is not likely to be worth, in my view, dampening developing nations’ growth or the U.S.’s recovery from its own devastating recession, through much more restrictive policies on the use oil and natural gas right now. Does this sound like a “Lord grant me chastity and continence, but not yet” argument? Sort of. But one thing that sets St. Augustine and the modern world apart is technological progress. If it’s true that technological progress means that it is very costly to be chaste and continent today, and much less costly to be chaste and continent tomorrow, then there really is a good argument for delayed chastity — in our case, one last natural gas binge over this coming decade.

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