Popes, Robes and Paychecks

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind in the climate world.  The impact of the Pope’s Encyclical is still being measured, even as it moves off the headlines.  Fundamentally, the Pope has upended the political dynamic of the climate debate.  To date, the climate issue has been largely debated in a two-dimensional echo chamber reinforced by calcified ideological presuppositions: it’s the economy versus the environment.  Despite the fact that many of us like to think that this perceived trade-off has long-since been vanquished, political debates can sometimes be immune from evidentiary influence.  What the Pope has done is add a third dimension — morality — to the binary debate.  Intergenerational equity and the regressive impacts of a changing climate have long been preached, but not by a preacher with such a megaphone.  This third dimension can be particularly impactful on the U.S. climate debate precisely because neither side in the binary struggle can exclusively claim or wholly dismiss the moral message.  The Pope’s visit to Washington in September will put this dimension back on the radar screen of policymakers at a time when opponents of action continue to hang their opposition on perceived short term economic considerations alone.

In the U.S., it seems almost inevitable that the Supreme Court will have a major say in how we meet the climate challenge.  Many are pointing to the Court’s invalidation (sort of) of the EPA’s power plant mercury emissions rule as a sign that the Administration’s upcoming rule to regulate CO2 emissions from existing power plants might be heading for trouble.  Without getting into the legal weeds, the Court’s invalidation of the EPA mercury rule probably is less indicative of how the Court might rule on the upcoming carbon rule than does the Court’s upholding of the Affordable Care Act the same week.  One of the principal legal challenges to the EPA’s Clean Power Plan is based on the fact that Congress managed to pass two versions of the same law with underpins EPA’s claim of authority to regulate GHG emissions.  One version said that EPA cannot use the relevant section of Clean Air Act (Section 111) if it had already regulated a given pollutant (like CO2) under different section of the Act.  The other version said that EPA cannot use Section 111 to regulate a given source is that same source (like a power plant) was already regulated for any pollutant under a different section of the Act.  Opponents of the carbon rule argue that because power plants are regulated already for things like mercury under a different section of the Act, then they cannot be regulated under Section 111 for any pollutant.  Just like in the ACA case, a literal reading (one version anyways) of the Act would seem to invalidate the carbon rule.  However, in the ACA case Justice Roberts found that despite the literal wording, the most reasonable view of Congress’ intent was not consistent with (or limited by) the literal wording of the statute.  In the case of the carbon rule you not only have conflicting language, but the version relied on by the opponents almost certainly will be seen as inconsistent with what Congress intended as it drafted revisions to the Clean Air Act meant to, well, clean the air.

Also last week, a study was released showing that a surge in solar installations in Georgia in the first three months of 2015 resulted in the creation of 3,000 new jobs.  This job growth stemmed directly from changes in Georgia law meant to make it easier for consumers to add solar panels to their homes and businesses (see “Southern Cooking”, below).  While this factoid may seem unrelated to “Popes” and “Robes”, I think it is not. The fact is that the demand for clean energy is growing rapidly – for all sorts of reasons.  Businesses are being created and consumers are expecting more options when it comes to how they consume energy.  Clean energy is part of a strong, national social and economic “revolution” (maybe not so unlike same-sex marriage?) that I believe is likely to overwhelm politicians and a lethargic regulated electricity sector.  The pathway to reducing emissions and transforming our energy economy toward a more climate friendly direction is becoming clearer and stronger.  It cannot be reversed.

Popes, Robes and Paychecks all seem to be leaning toward a more climate friendly future.


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