How Global Warming Went Cold in America

Even before liftoff, the fight against global warming has become grounded in America. Whenever a potential breakthrough appears on the horizon, either the left or the right throws a challenge to stall the solution.

Consider shale gas. Newly-nominated energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, has backed it as a bridge to a carbon-free future. Shale gas emits less than half the carbon dioxide in power generation as coal does. But with its methane content leaking into the environment, peer-reviewed studies indicate that shale gas can cause as much, if not more, global warming as coal.

Shale gas is also used in transportation. Here too studies assert that methane causes equivalent warming as gasoline-powered vehicles. Some states, like North Dakota and Pennsylvania, prefer the economic benefits of shale, whereas California, which too has abundant reserves, is more concerned about the environment.

Environmental group, the Environmental Defense Fund, is hedging bets by claiming that it is hard to judge, with existing data, whether shale gas is more harmful than coal or gasoline. The Sierra Club on the other hand is virulently against fracking. The debate lingers on.

The anti-fracking lobby wants purist solutions, like electric cars, wind, solar, and energy efficiency. But Bjorn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, argues that the electric car does virtually nothing to tackle global warming. His contention is sure to be contested by proponents of the electric car.

Wind and solar are widely considered among the most carbon-free technologies, but they are expensive and unreliable. Large-scale wind and solar farms require expensive transmission infrastructure to connect to the electricity grid whereas household solar has not gained widespread adoption. Despite attractive subsidies by states like California, consumers remain leery of high upfront costs and long payback periods.

In energy efficiency, smart meters have gained the most traction. Around 20 million smart meters, enabled by massive government subsidies, have been installed in the country. Pacific Gas & Electric's deployment in California though has incited locals so much that smart meters have been tarred. Health hazards ascribed to smart meters may prove to be unfounded, but privacy concerns appear sound and need to be addressed.

Another issue is that once smart meters are up and running, there is no independent audit of their business case. Billions of taxpayer dollars were spent on them. Neither utilities nor regulatory bodies can be expected to be objective enough because both are vested in the deployments. This sector too is flailing.

Hybrid vehicles is the lone bright spot. More than a million non-plug-in hybrid Prii (Priuses) ply the roads, mostly in the liberal west coast and northeast. But with the country now becoming inured to $4-a-gallon oil, gas-guzzling SUVs, minivans, and trucks are selling like hot cakes.

America's obsession with the new, new thing has also prevented us from launching our version of the Prius. Would that be too copycat? But that is precisely how the Japanese, and now the Koreans, built their robust car industries, by first imitating, then adapting, and finally excelling. Sure, the Chevy Volt is a plug-in hybrid, but it uses a lithium-ion battery, which is expensive and unreliable, unlike the field-proven nickel-metal hydride battery of the non-plug-in Prius. Toyota has now come out with a plug-in hybrid version of the Prius, equipped with a lithium-ion battery, but the company expects initial sales in the U.S. to be just 15,000 units a year, much lower than those of conventional Prii.

As carbon-mitigation technologies struggle, some people like Tom Friedman of the New York Times have proposed levying a carbon tax. But this is an explosive subject for the right. President Obama might have been able to institute a carbon tax and maybe even a cap-and-trade regime when he enjoyed strong majorities in both houses of Congress. Instead he expended his political capital on health reform. After losing Congressional control in 2010, both the carbon tax and cap-and-trade were shelved. Despite his reelection, and electoral gains in the House, Congress is still gridlocked. The right labels cap-and-trade as cap-and-tax, portraying it as an unbearable strain on a still-stuttering economy. Without Congressional approval, the president cannot impose a carbon tax, or even other measures such as a federal clean energy standard.

The one thing he can do is to limit tailpipe and smokestack emissions through the Environmental Protection Agency. But the current automotive standards are already so stringent that making them even more so could hobble industry. And technologies to burn coal more cleanly are either in infancy (carbon capture and storage) or expensive (coal gasification). A breakthrough could take many years.

A significant portion of the country is still struggling. The rest is preoccupied with consumption. Conservation has traditionally been alien to America's psyche. Simple measures practiced around the world, including Europe, such as switching off lights after oneself, daylight harvesting, or drying clothes in the sun cut no ice with us. Climate change has receded so much from our minds that neither candidate brought up the issue in last year's presidential debates.

Only after re-election has Obama started talking about it. His last energy secretary, Steven Chu, was a scientist who funded numerous big renewable-energy projects. Many of these, most notably solar company Solyndra, went belly-up, embarrassing the administration no end. The incoming energy secretary too is a scientist, but perhaps a bit more pragmatic than Chu. His support for fracking is already drawing the ire of Obama's green base. Hobbled from the start, it remains to be seen if, and how, Moniz can bring climate mitigation back from the cold.