The End of the Big Bang

New York -- Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica, the new head of the United Nations climate process, began her remarks at the Clinton Global Initiative by stating a simple -- and once stated, obvious -- truth. "We will not solve the climate crisis with a big bang agreement." The world, Figueres said, is not going to come together in a single grand bargain that will
commit nations to the full range of needed emissions reductions in any one meeting -- not this year in Cancun, not next year. The problem is going to be solved piecemeal, step by step, and the challenge, she said, is ensure that this "progressive process" meets the urgency of the problem. Figueres pointed out that the world will spend 26 trillion dollars on new energy investments in the next few decades. What matters is whether that investment is carbon based or clean.

Jonathan Pershing, the chief climate negotiator for the Obama Administration, made the same point at a second forum -- that the era of the massive, top-down climate agreement had ended with Copenhagen. What's not clear, though, is whether the United States knows how to play in this new context.

Pershing repeated traditional American concerns about ensuring that countries like China verify their commitments -- even though we haven't really made any of our own. One U.S. investor in Asia told me that the reaction of his Chinese friends to this position was amusement. Acutely aware that China is now making much larger investments in clean energy than the U.S. for selfish economic reasons, Chinese leaders chuckle when the U.S. says "If you won't verify that you are competing with us, we won't try to compete with you."

That's not a very good way to win a race. And this is going to be a long race: a marathon, not a sprint. That's really the most important lesson of the failure of both Copenhagen and the comprehensive U.S. Climate bill. Pricing carbon will indeed be the final nail in the coffin of our dependence on coal and oil. In our chess game against big carbon, carbon pricing is the move that leads to checkmate. Those who lead coal and oil are not fools. But unless you are playing a "fool" you do not get to checkmate while your opponent has almost all of his pieces on the board. You have to knock off most of his bishops, knights and rooks, but here in the U.S., coal and oil still rule the roost, our reliance on them intact. That dependence is their power piece.

Interestingly there are 19 states which get more than two thirds of their electricity from coal. Three more are among the top five coal producers. Twenty two states, then, are currently part of the coal bloc. Twenty two states -- each with two Senators -- is, ironically 42 votes. Enough to guarantee that no climate bill which is committed to moving beyond coal could pass this Congress.

We'll need to greatly reduce our reliance on coal fired electricity, and increase the economic importance and political clout of low carbon and renewable energy, before a meaningful price will be put on carbon from electricity. But we don't need to despair. We're well-positioned to win this chess game, and to start making major progress today.

Perhaps we can't pass a meaningful price on coal's carbon, but we can make the coal industry clean up its mercury, its sulfur, its nitrogen, its soot. Those pollutants have been regulated by the Clean Air Act for decades. Old power plants were grandfathered, but this exemption has now been thrown out by the courts. More than three quarters of our coal generation fleet is more than 30 years old, ready to be scrapped. Unless utilities get away with irrationally investing huge amounts of money in scrubbers and other control equipment for these clunkers, they will be retired, and even coal-dependent utility executives admit that many of today's coal plants will be gone before 2020.

Oil's policy vulnerability is not so much the pollution it causes. It's about how most oil comes from places like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, and the economic and foreign policy threat that our dependence on imports creates. But Big Oil also has powerful pieces on the chess board. We've got to knock them off one move at a time. We won't put a price on the carbon in gasoline until Americans know that they have practical, available alternatives to gas-powered cars and trucks.

We ought to be able to get rid of many of the tax giveaways that fatten oil's power and profits, We ought to be able to hold companies like BP responsible when they kill their workers and poison their neighbors. If you want to drill in deep water, you at least ought to be liable for any damages you cause -- not just the piddling first $75 million.

As Figueres said, the danger with a chess game you must win one move at a time is that it can take more time than we have. We need to focus on how fast we are moving, not what we think the final moves look like. We need to play smartly, but also aggressively and quickly -- and above all we can't afford to make another run at a quick Fool's Mate. It's not on the board.

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