State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Toward a Pragmatic Climate Policy

After decades of starts and stops, greenhouse gas pollution is now firmly placed on America’s political agenda. A half of a century after the first Earth Day- environmental protection has long been an established part of government’s fundamental functions. We expect government to keep our air, water, and land clean and free of poisons. Just as we pay taxes to pay for police, fire response, and education we also pay for environmental protection. We expect value for that money.

Public opinion polls for decades have shown strong support for environmental protection across age groups and political affiliation. Pollution could be seen and smelled in the air, water, and land and in the 1980’s we began to understand its impact on our health and wellness. Then came climate change: an invisible form of pollution that was created everywhere and whose impact would come in the future. In the 1980’s and 1990’s we could model climate change, but we couldn’t measure its impact since much of it was over the long term. Today we can see and experience the impact of climate change. The projected impacts of those 1990 climate models have proven to be true. If anything, the models under-predicted the severity of the impact.

And wonder of wonders, the consensus we have long seen with other environmental issues is finally building on climate change. This week’s New York Times included an interesting discussion of young Republicans and climate change. According to Times reporter Lisa Friedman:

President Trump has set the tone for Republicans by deriding climate change, using White House resources to undermine science and avoiding even uttering the phrase. Outside of a handful of states such as Florida, where addressing climate change has become more bipartisan, analysts said Republican politicians were unlikely to buck Mr. Trump or even to talk about climate change on the campaign trail at all…That, several strategists warned, means the party stands to lose voters to Democrats in 2020 and beyond — a prospect they said was particularly worrisome in swing districts that Republicans must win to recapture a majority in the House of Representatives. The polling bears out … prediction of a backlash. Nearly 60 percent of Republicans between the ages of 23 and 38 say that climate change is having an effect on the United States, and 36 percent believe humans are the cause. That’s about double the numbers of Republicans over age 52.

What this means is that over the next decade the debate over climate change will finally shift from the ludicrous discussion of its existence to the more critical one about what to do about it. My view on this is we must cast preconceptions aside, check our preferred regulations and carbon taxes at the door and approach this climate policy with an open mind. As a species, we have never before accidentally heated our planet, or deliberately cooled it down. It took us a few centuries to understand we were heating things up; it will take a while to figure out how to clean up our act and which solutions can be implemented without destroying our way of life. In the developed world we like the way we live, and we need to address climate change while maintaining the modern conveniences we’ve built our lives around. We need to be practical, open to learning, be willing to fail and maintain our capacity to learn. What we need is pragmatic climate policy. We need a Green New Deal that mirror’s FDR’s series of policy innovation experiments and while ambitious targets are useful, decarbonizing America’s economy by 2030 as some plans promote is infeasible and would disrupt our way of life.

Massive investments in government and university basic research and green infrastructure could work. The choice of investments will be critical, and we need to be able to justify investments in terms of clear and widespread environmental and economic benefits. We should expect some political horse-trading and we will need to accept it. The moonshot brought lots of federal funding to Texas and Florida. NASA’s huge budget made it through Congress and we made it to the moon. As long as the R & D is competent and the infrastructure investment is cost-effective and free of corruption, the impact of federal funding on global warming will be real and that is the prize we must focus on.

My view is that the key infrastructure need is in modernizing the electrical grid and building micro-grids that can be “knitted together” as a smart grid but kept distinct to enhance resiliency. Transportation infrastructure should include charging stations, which should be private but stimulated with public funding. It should also include mass transit systems including car and ride shares, electric busses, light rails, and rail. We will also need to invest in the infrastructure needed to protect us from the impact of the climate change we have already baked into the atmosphere. Our shorelines need protection. The flood controls we set up to protect our farms and river towns must be strengthened and rebuilt.

The key research needs are in energy storage and solar cells. The cells and batteries must become lighter, smaller, cheaper and more efficient. They also need to be less toxic and less dependent on rare materials.

How we do this, and which other technologies need to be developed should remain an open question. My views and biases are obvious, but like everyone else, I need to be willing to listen and learn. We need to avoid ideological attachments to big government or the private sector. Conservatives and progressives need to avoid rigidity and Democrats and Republicans need to take climate policy and de-politicize it. These days all public policy seems to take a back seat to partisan competition. Everything is run through the political distortion machine. Let’s go back to the 1970s and remember when environmental protection was a bi-partisan issue. Breathing and keeping poisons out of our bodies ought to be bipartisan goals.

The fossil fuel industry and the many people working in it must not be discarded during the transition to a decarbonized energy system. These businesses must be encouraged to get into the renewable energy business and the people now working in the current energy system need to be trained to work in the new system. Let’s not make the same mistake we made when our economy transitioned from manufacturing to the current brain-based service economy.

For all this to happen we will need something we have not seen in the 21st century: a functional federal government. We need a president who can inspire like JFK and forge legislative consensus like LBJ. It would also help if the president had the dogged determination and strategic sophistication of FDR and the moral authority of Abe Lincoln.  Is that asking for too much? The current crowd not only doesn’t measure up, but they also don’t come close.  In addition to a great president, we will need a Congress as concerned about the nation as their own re-election.  I know it all seems more than a little unlikely.

But America has endured leadership lapses throughout its history. Things got bad enough that we suffered through a long and bloody civil war. Just when it seemed like nothing could work, we somehow produce a Lincoln or an FDR. In today’s world of instant communications and global connectivity, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the constant images of the world as it buzzes by. It’s hard to imagine a new path is feasible. A practical approach to climate change will need to rise from the ashes of decades of hyper-partisan discord over climate. I often say that the human species is ingenious and not suicidal. This would be a good time for America to demonstrate that instinct for survival and pragmatic invention.





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Ashwani Vasishth
4 years ago

While I agree with Dr. Cohen’s basic premise, and echo the call for a PRAGMATIC approach to Climate Policy, I urge readers to consider that we are past the time for a gradual transition away from fossil fuels.

Listen to Bill McKibben ( in his Do the Math Tour talk (search YouTube). We HAVE NO CHOICE but to stop extraction of fossil fuels right now. Renewables ARE growing at a record-breaking rate, but we MUST commit to a straight-up policy of “No More Fossil Fuel Infrastructure” immediately.

If we take pragmatism seriously, then this is the only place we can take a stand.

Alex Krowka
Alex Krowka
Reply to  Ashwani Vasishth
4 years ago

There is nothing pragmatic about stopping the use of fossil fuels right now. We need to focus on reducing and eliminating emissions from their use, such as through CCUS. As said above, “decarbonizing America’s economy by 2030 as some plans promote is infeasible and would disrupt our way of life.” Renewables are indeed growing at a record-breaking rate, and that’s fantastic, but they’re barely making a dent in the global energy mix.

David N. Hoffman
David N. Hoffman
4 years ago

I am reminded simultaneously of the parable about the two frogs, one thrown into a pot of boiling water and the other into the pot of slowly heated water, and the observation by Winston Churchill, that America can always be counted on to do the right thing… after trying everything else!

As we are surely akin to the second frog, let’s hope that we are still the Americans Churchill knew us to be.

A good place to start is for each of us to think of the smallest thing we can do to reduce climate change – do it, rinse and repeat.

Thomas Becker
Thomas Becker
4 years ago

“Pragmatic” to the author appears to mean only supporting ideas and “facts” the author and his fellow intelligentsia approve of. People who have a different perspective need not apply to the “pragmatic” club.