In environmental and energy policy, business interests often play an important role. Businesses have the resources to invest into lobbying for their preferred positions. Environmentalists often complain about the advantages that polluters enjoy in the political process due to their ability to “buy” policies with campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures.

In recent American environmental policy, the most important period of lobbying by business was undoubtedly the 2009 effort to enact a comprehensive federal climate policy. The Waxman-Markey bill (American Clean Energy and Security Act) would have imposed a cap on America’s greenhouse gas emissions and enabled emissions trading, along with a dizzying number of complementary policies. The legislation passed the House but failed in the Senate.

Due to its significance, the 1,400-page legislation was the subject of much business interest. In a recent paper with two Columbia doctoral students, Sung Eun Kim and Joonseok Yang, forthcoming in The Journal of Public Policy, we tried to understand patterns of business lobbying by exploring the behavior of electric utilities. Because the electricity sector is responsible for about 40% of carbon dioxide emissions in America, this sector has a strong interest in the design of any federal climate policy.

We found that both the expected winners (renewables and, to a lesser extent, natural gas) and losers (coal) from federal climate policy lobbied aggressively through trade associations. However, we also uncovered a crucial difference in their individual lobbying efforts: while the expected winners often lobbied individually as companies, the expected losers did not. Specifically, renewable energy and natural gas use were strong predictors of lobbying behavior, whereas coal use was not.

This result is initially surprising, but upon closer inspection it makes a lot of sense. Among electric utilities, coal users had a strong and homogeneous interest in weakening or preventing climate policy. Given this shared interest, collective action through trade associations made a lot more sense than individual lobbying. After all, even the largest electric utility in America could not expect to have much effect on the policy individually.

At the same time, users of renewable energy and natural gas would have gained from constraints on carbon dioxide emissions. However, electric utilities in these winning segments had heterogeneous interests and a keen interest in securing particular policies that would have favored their own technology and business model. Gambling on the possibility that the bill would pass, these electric utilities engaged in individual lobbying to ensure that the final legislation would reflect their interests.

These results have one troubling implication for (the already so depressing) prospects of American climate policy: if expected losers work together to lobby while expected winners focus on pursuing their particular interests, the asymmetry in favor of the opponents of action grows stronger.

Low oil prices are the talk of the day in environmental and energy circles. Some environmentalists probably despair over rising gasoline consumption and SUV sales in America, while others note that low prices reduce the profitability of extracting oil and gas from unconventional sources, such as as tar sands. Yet others discuss the possibly negative effects of low oil prices on clean energy.

For policymakers in emerging economies, low oil prices present an important opportunity to remove environmentally destructive and economically costly fuel subsidies. Just a week ago, The Economist advised pollicymakers to “seize the day” and use the opportunity afforded by low oil prices to rationalize the pricing of gasoline, diesel, and other fossil fuels.

It’s easy to see why this is important. According to the International Energy Agency, annual subsidies to fossil fuels now total a whopping USD 550 billion per year. These subsidies lower the price of fossil fuels and encourage over-consumption.

What is worse, these subsidies are mostly handed out by emerging and developing economies — just imagine the opportunity cost of this wasteful government expenditure. Half a trillion dollars would go a long way toward improving education, healthcare, and basic infrastructure, with real gains for the poor. Fossil fuel subsidies, on the other hand, are a regressive policy that benefits wealthy households relying on motorized transportation and consuming lots of electricity and liquid fuels. The removal of fuel subsidies is a textbook case of a genuine win-win policy.

So why are governments not acting? The removal of fuel subsidies turns out to be a political nightmare. Fuel prices are concrete and visible, and increasing them threatens to create social unrest. A government that removes fuel subsidies risks losing political power if citizens see high fuel prices without any corresponding gains. That’s why efforts to reform fuel subsidies have been so difficult.

In my work with Andrew Cheon and Maureen Lackner, we have also found that domestic institutions can be major driver of fuel subsidies. Countries with national oil companies can hide the fiscal cost of fuel subsidies in the company bottom line, as the presence of a national oil company removes the need to subsidize fuels from government expenditures in a transparent fashion. At the same time, the regulation of fuel prices is deceptively easy for the government: a national oil company can simply be told to set the price at a certain level.

Despite these challenges, some governments have already seized the opportunity and cut fuel subsidies. Encouraging and important examples include Indonesia and India (gated content), where newly elected governments have used the opportunity afforded by low oil prices to act. When oil prices are low, the pain of a price increase from subsidy removal is limited. If the government can also develop a robust strategy for using the saved expenditures in ways that benefit the people, the subsidy reform can succeed.

We don’t know what future oil prices will be, but they will probably continue to fluctuate. One of my core priorities for the future is to develop and test strategies to enact and implement fuel subsidy reforms that can weather political storms. Here’s a concrete example of a major policy problem that political scientists can solve in collaboration with governments and other practitioners. That’s a pretty exciting prospect.

Here in the United States, many of us are by now used to depressing news about anti-science posturing by Christian fundamentalists. From evolution to climate change, anti-science fundamentalists attempt to undermine public education and scientific progress. These efforts not only stifle scientific invention, but also fuel opposition to effective policies, such as carbon taxes.

Unfortunately, the United States is not alone in this regard. I recently read a terrific and terrifying column by one of my favorite Indian writers, Ramachandra Guha, titled “India already the myth-making world superpower.” While India’s success as the provider of information technology service has contributed to talks about India’s scientific prowess, Guha argues that nothing could be further from the truth.

He surveys a series of fantastic claims made at the 2015 Indian Science Congress: that ancient Hindus had mastered plastic surgery and were able to conduct nuclear explosions. The evidence for these claims would come from a far-reaching interpretation of sacred scriptures.

These individual claims may not represent the consensus view among Indian scientists, but it is still troubling that scientists of all people are willing to make nonsensical statements in the public. In the United States, it is rarely the scientific establishment that undermines its own capacity to generate knowledge. In India, prominent scientists attack the foundations of their chosen profession.

For anyone concerned about climate policy, this is a particularly troubling situation. As China’s emissions begin to peak, all eyes are now on India, where the potential for an emissions explosions is large due to population growth and economic growth. While economic growth will remain India’s priority for decades to come, there are many opportunities for cost-effective climate policies that abate carbon at a negative or low cost.

Scientific literacy is surely not a major determinant of energy policy anywhere, but basic awareness about science can still support rational climate policy in the long run. So, let’s hope both India and the United States come to terms with science.

The picture below is from a village on the road from Lucknow to Sitapur. The village is only 30 kilometers from Lucknow and, as expected, there is a power distribution line running through it. However, the existence of this line does not mean that the villagers have access to electricity. None of the households in this particular hamlet is electrified even though many of them live within meters of the distribution line in pucca houses that could be easily electrified.

Photo Credit: Bhartendu Trivedi, MORSEL India

Photo Credit: Bhartendu Trivedi, MORSEL India

To the left of the power line pole is a small solar panel that provides electricity to a single streetlight used to illuminate the surroundings of the small Hindu temple next to it. The red sign states the name of the local politician who claims credit for this achievement.

When we saw this scene, we talked to a few of the villagers how they feel about the electricity supply in the village. To our surprise, the villagers were not in any way dissatisfied with the government’s rural electrification policies. Even though they were living next to a power distribution line and had received no help with household connections, the villagers did not see anything wrong with the government’s replacing proper household connections with a simple temple light. According to the villagers, they simply did not expect the government to provide electricity. After all, no government had done so in the past either.

This is an unfortunate situation of very low levels of political accountability. Since the villagers have never benefited much from the government’s policies, they do not see anything wrong with the lack of household connections in a village that already has a power distribution line. The idea that the government would be responsible for providing basic energy access simply does not occur to the local population. In fact, the local community’s expectations are so low that politicians can claim credit for a single streetlight without being attacked for failing to do their job.

Uttar Pradesh has in recent years made progress in rural electrification, but the reality is that village electrification does not say much about electricity access in the households. There is a real need for innovations by social scientists to strengthen the accountability of politicians to the local population. One would hope that if large numbers of villagers began to demand better services and punish ineffective governments by voting against them, politicians in the future would not get away with this kind of behavior.

In the past five years, off-grid solar power as a strategy of rural electrification has become a popular idea — and for a good reason. More than one billion people remain without electricity today, many of them in remote rural communities far from the national electric grid. At the same time, the rapid decrease in the price of solar panels has created new opportunities for commercial off-grid electrification.

While off-grid solar power is far from replacing grid extension as the main mode of rural electrification, it can no longer be dismissed as a trivial strategy. In Bangladesh, for example, more than three million solar home systems have been installed for residential use. Companies such as OMC Power in India and Off-Grid:Electric in Tanzania have secured major commercial investments into their businesses.

But what are these companies delivering? As a first step to answering this question, I and my collaborators (Aklin, Bayer, Harish) conducted a survey of the rural customers of Mera Gao Power (MGP) in the Barabanki district of the state of Uttar Pradesh, India.

MGP is a company that provides villagers with two bright LED lights and a mobile charger in exchange for a monthly payment of 100 rupees. In a randomized controlled trial funded by the International Growth Centre and SPEED India, we evaluate the demand for MGP service and its socio-economic effects. The customer survey is an initial effort to understand what MGP is achieving through its work.

The survey report is available on my website. The most important observations about the consumer experience can be summarized as follows:

• By far the most common reason for subscription was the improved quality of lighting. In contrast, mobile charging and fuel expenditures were much less important.

• The most common use of MGP lights was outdoor lighting. In a typical household, one of the two lights was placed outside at night.

• Overall, households were satisfied with MGP service. The main complaint was the behavior of MGP staff, suggesting that further training could improve customer experience

• Willingness to pay for additional services, such as a fan or a television, was low.

These findings are interesting for several reasons. First, they show that the frequently cited benefit of reduced kerosene expenditure is not a major reason for adopting solar power. Instead, rural customers want improved lighting. This is important because much of the discussion on the benefits of solar power has focused on fuel savings. Our experience with the MGP service suggests, instead, that the key advantage of solar power is simply better lighting.

Second, MGP seems to have adopted the optimal service package. There is little demand for additional services even among customers. While this result may initially appear surprising, it is important to remember that MGP customers are among the most deprived households in rural India. Wealthier rural households, who would be able to pay for a fan, tend to live in already electrified habitations.

A challenge for expanding MGP’s impact is demand. In villages approached by MGP, only one-fifth of households adopted solar technology. Reducing the price further either through government subsidy or less expensive technology would probably help, as cost and the lack of disposable income were common explanations for not subscribing to the service among the survey respondents.

Overall, however, the results from this survey are encouraging. They show that, even in the poorest villages, many households are willing to pay for good lighting. Companies such as MGP are providing a valuable lighting solution to replace kerosene in communities where grid electricity is not available.

We’ll be conducting plenty of additional analysis in the coming months — stay tuned for updates!

This is a joint post with Andrew Cheon, a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Columbia University. Cheon and Urpelainen are working on a book on activism against fossil fuels and joined the People’s Climate March both as concerned citizens and academic researchers.

On September 21, hundreds of thousands joined the People’s Climate March (PCM) in New York City. While the marchers were a diverse group, it was diversity among liberals and leftists. The anti-globalization, anti-corporate, anti-agribusiness, socialist, and labor activists were all there in large numbers, making a lot of noise.

Even among the large number of ordinary New Yorkers who joined the march, liberal political views were strong. We did some short surveys of a random sample of participants to understand why they joined the march. We’re still processing the data, but it’s already obvious that almost everyone from the march identifies with the political left. So far, we have yet to see a single marcher who identifies with the political right.

The leftist bias of the PCM is not surprising. Most activists against climate change are liberals and progressives. Conservatives in the United States often associate climate activism with the liberal agenda. While climate change need not be a political issue, in practice it’s a much higher priority to left-wing than to right-wing activists.

But is the leftist bias a problem? Some commentators seem to believe so. According to Sieren Ernst, the PCM could have reached conservatives with more cautious messaging and steering clear of the anti-corporate message. Ernst disagrees with Grist’s David Roberts, who earlier wrote that the PCM cannot change climate politics in America because conservatives are beyond the reach of the organizers.

This disagreement is at the heart of the matter. If the PCM could have mobilized masses of conservatives to demand climate action, then it’s pretty clear that the organizers should have focused their messaging and framing to create a broad base that includes both the political right and the left. That would have been a huge breakthrough in climate politics.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. For one, even if Ernst is correct that there are many conservatives who are now concerned about climate change, it doesn’t mean that they are willing to head to New York to organize a march.

The organization of the march was a huge effort – endless meetings and working groups over at least a year – and the people who contributed were passionate activists. These are not people who just worry about climate change. These are people for whom activism is a lifestyle, a passion, and an obsession.

Any serious effort to reach out to conservatives would have required an extensive network of conservative activists willing to dedicate at least a year of their lives to the march. How many conservatives consider climate change such a top priority? There’s a world of difference between accepting the science and devoting countless hours to grassroots activism for a cause.

The second problem is that the organizers of the march are dependent on the people who show up. If an anti-globalization group shows up and contributes time and money to organize the group, what can the organizers do? In some of the organizing events we attended, there were hundreds of groups present. If the organizers had started discriminating against participants based on their political views – with the obvious exception of, say, hate groups – the whole effort might have collapsed.

Inclusiveness is both the strength and weakness of grassroots activism. Almost everyone’s welcome, and there is no centralized planning committee to decide who can join the march. This means that vocal fringe groups participate. Nobody can stop them.

So, the debate about the PCM and conservatives is largely hypothetical. Everyone agrees that we need more conservative climate activists, but the PCM, by its very nature, was not a great mechanism for reaching conservatives. The PCM achieved its goal of mobilizing liberals and progressives to demand climate action, greatly increasing the salience of climate change in the United States. Given that the PCM was organized by thousands and thousands of passionate liberals and progressives, all with diverse goals and perspectives on climate change and other social issues, their ability to really connect with conservatives was limited.

We absolutely need people who can talk climate science to conservatives, such as the self-identified evangelical and top climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe. In her column, Ernst also notes that climate groups such as Citizens’ Climate Lobby are demanding climate action without a liberal or conservative bias. The Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University, which offers explicitly conservative approaches to climate policy, is another notable effort to promote climate change mitigation from a conservative perspective.

However, it’s wishful thinking that and their allies could play this role. If the PCM organizers had tried to reach out to conservatives, they might have alienated their own supporters without convincing conservatives. A staunch conservative probably does not want to hear what Naomi Klein or Bill McKibben has to say about climate change or the future of the American economy.

To end this post on a positive note, we should not forget that radical activism on the liberal side of the political spectrum may itself even contribute to the success of moderate conservatives. If liberal activists are loud and visible, they may actually enhance the political clout of moderate conservative climate activists. In the academic literature, this is called the “radical flank effect” (gated content). For example, Martin Luther King was considered a radical by many until Malcolm X and the Black Panthers showed up. The existence of a radical alternative may make a moderate climate activist more acceptable to the public.

Naomi Klein‘s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate is one of the more comprehensive and ambitious books I have read in a long while. Conveniently organized in three parts, the book makes three basic claims. First, capitalism is the key reason for our addiction to fossil fuels. Second, current solutions, such as the greening of business or major the big green environmental groups, are not solving the problem. Finally, grassroots mobilization against fossil fuels and for a new economy can solve the climate crisis.

As a piece of writing, the book is a real show of strength. Filled with interesting case studies and beautifully written, the book is impossible to put down. The argument against capitalism, which combines a critique of the growth imperative with a harsh judgment of the way the fossil fuel industry operates, is clear and logical.

This itself is notable. While many people, myself included, will disagree with Klein about the necessity of carbon pollution for economic growth, Klein cannot be accused of trying to hide her assumptions or being transparent what she’s arguing. In her view, fossil fuels remain the cheapest form of energy. In a capitalist society, economic growth is the overriding concern for the elite. Therefore, fossil fuels cannot be replaced without fundamental changes in our political and economic system.

Klein’s argument is one explanation for our inability to stop climate disruption. Another is the challenge of global collective action. If countries cannot enforce agreements on mutual carbon cuts, the argument goes, efforts to address the problem are futile. Yet another is the pernicious effect of the fossil fuel industry and its allies on climate policy. Even if capitalism can be green in principle, the reality is that, in many key countries, groups benefiting from fossil fuels — coal mine owners, electric utilities burning coal, oil and gas companies, the heavy industry, and so on — have tremendous political influence.

I don’t see a necessary connection between capitalism and carbon pollution, so to me Klein’s argument about capitalism is not compelling. Many of the destructive policies that cause climate change, such as fossil fuel subsidies, go against the logic of capitalism and free markets. Some capitalist societies, such as Denmark, have made tremendous progress toward decarbonization. I believe an alternative capitalism that puts severe limits on environmental destruction is possible. Private property need not destroy the planet.

Even some of Klein’s own chapters suggest that the case against capitalism is not always very strong. For example, Klein argues that the deregulation of the power sector in the United States and elsewhere has prevented utilities from investing in renewable energy. There are two problems with this argument. First, there is no empirical evidence for it, neither in Klein’s book nor in the literature on power sector deregulation and renewable energy. Second, there has been very little deregulation of the power sector in the United States. Most states continue to regulate electric utilities and have the statutory ability to impose renewable energy requirements on them. Indeed, renewable portfolio standards are thriving everywhere, including red states. This suggests that deregulation and capitalism are but a margin note in the grand story of renewable energy.

Despite my skepticism about Klein’s argument regarding capitalism, I found the book very valuable for my own thought and activism. Klein provides a compelling account of the booming movement against fossil fuels. In my view, this movement can welcome people who approve of capitalism. Efforts to stop “extreme energy” (Klein’s term) extraction are about environmental destruction and limiting the damage that the fossil fuel industry is causing. If this movement can, perhaps as a side-product, put pressure on governments to tackle the climate crisis, it can turn the tide. Klein’s account provides ample reason for optimism and is certainly inspiring. We can all join the movement regardless of our ideological dispositions.

To summarize, Klein’s book is an important contribution to the climate debate. Everyone working on the topic as a researcher or practitioner should read it. Few people in the field have tried to tackle the problem of climate change at the level of economic systems, and Klein does a fantastic job at it.

This past Sunday was a pretty intense day for me and the other about 310,000 people who attended the People’s Climate March (PCM) in New York. The march was the largest on climate change in the history of the world, and there were thousands of supporting events around the world held at the same time.

While the energy and enthusiasm at the march was inspiring and empowering, the reason for why so many people marched was that we want to see more ambitious policies. The march itself does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it may draw more attention to climate change and send a signal to decision-makers that action is required. However, the march itself did not present a concrete political or policy demand. The event was inclusive and featured everyone, ranging from the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to anti-fracking activists, families, and religious organizations.

If there was no political demand, what may we expect? The march certainly drew more media attention than just about any other climate event — perhaps notwithstanding the unfortunate 2009 Copenhagen climate conference — in recent history. This kind of media attention creates a space for increased discussion of the dangers of climate change for people around the world and, in doing so, may put pressure on decision-makers to act.

There is also the direct effect on the participants. 310,000 is a huge number. If even a small proportion of these people go back to their communities and become more active, we may see a lot more local leadership on climate policy in the United States. New York City and State certainly seem to be ready for more aggressive policies than every before. Here in the City, the local 350 group is strong and has made great progress in raising the profile of climate change.

For me, the most inspiring lesson from the march was the opening of the NYC Climate Week on the day after. Usually protests on the street and debates among the elite — in this case, business and government elite — are far removed from each other. In the opening ceremony of the Climate Week, however, key business and government leaders emphasized how important the march was and how it is inspiring them to be more vocal on climate change. Many large corporations announced new commitments to 100% renewable power and, led by the Rockefellers, commitments to divesting from fossil fuels were also made. I believe this is the kind of convergence that can truly force change by showing that climate change is everyone’s concern. It is hard to say climate change is an extremist agenda if 4-star generals, business leaders, and ordinary families are all demanding action.

Many challenges remain. The PCM has inspired and empowered millions around the world, but activists must now follow up and turn this energy into concrete actions. I am working on this myself in a project that combines research and positive, solutions-oriented activism. The PCM probably also did not reach those members of the public, such as many conservatives in the United States, who are hostile to climate policy because they do not trust scientists and consider global warming an element of the liberal political agenda. Still, the PCM is a unique achievement in the history of environmental activism and creates an opening for real change.

By now, it is quite clear that both industrialized countries and emerging economies must act to mitigate climate change. China is already the world’s largest emitter of carbon and the gap between China and the United States grows every year. If India and other large emerging economies continue to grow at current or higher rates, their share will also grow rapidly over time. Accordingly to great new research from Berkeley, the effect of economic growth in developing countries on energy demand may be much larger than previously thought.

Although the economic and environmental gains from North-South climate cooperation would be large, our progress is not impressive. Industrialized countries insist on more action by emerging economies, citing China’s ravenous appetite for coal. Emerging economies retort with statistics showing that hundreds of millions continue to live in abject poverty within their borders.

These disagreements are both about distributional conflict and about values. Given the costs associated with climate change mitigation, the government of each country wants others to make more concessions. At the same time, industrialized countries accuse the elites in emerging economies of hiding behind the poor. In emerging economies, such accusations are dismissed as flagrant neo-colonialism.

Is there any hope of breaking the gridlock? My own sense is that this would require, first and foremost, a moral transformation in industrialized countries. We need to recognize that the case for emissions reductions is much stronger among the wealthy than among the poor. The true cost of reducing emissions among the lucky is limited to slightly higher energy prices, while overly aggressive emissions targets for the developing world would prevent the poor from gaining access to the modern services that we take as a given. Life without a fridge and other basic technologies is hard.

At the same time, we must not throw the baby out of the bathwater. Energy poverty is a compelling rationale for industrialized country leadership, but it is a dangerous message if it is used to justify inaction in the global South without an equally strong emphasis on industrialized country action. In a robust strategy, energy consumption levels would increase rapidly among the poor in developing countries while wealthier countries would invest in energy conservation and decarbonization. We, the wealthy, must accept our responsibility for creating the problem and our ability to solve it. Campaigns to prevent the poorest from using more energy are troubling. But so are campaigns to advocate greater use of fossil fuels for economic development without a strategy of climate change mitigation.

What I am proposing here is an idealist’s approach. I understand that the odds are long. Still, I would say that any approach to our global energy problems must both contribute to the eradication of poverty and mitigate climate change. If we choose to drop either one of the two goals, then we should just withdraw from the world since we are really not doing anything useful.

The cornerstone of a meaningful, effective life is action. We should always strive to be more compassionate and convert our passion into concrete acts that contribute to the welfare of all living beings.

But even if accept this statement as a principle to guide our lives, the challenge of choosing the right action remains. In a complex world, a commitment to virtue is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success. Without careful analysis, our passion may turn into a vicious cycle of self-aggrandizement and arrogance.

Effective action requires setting virtuous long-term goals and aiming for practical “small wins” that contribute to that goal. I am going to focus on the long-term goals here and return to the question of small wins later (for my academic research on small wins in climate policy, see Urpelainen 2013).

My view is that our long-term goal should be a compassionate society. It is important not to define our goals in abstract or tangential terms, such as economic growth or technological progress. The long-term goals need to reflect the ultimate goal of welfare of all living beings. For example, economic growth may even reduce the welfare of all living beings if it causes extinction or species or encourages factory farming. In this case, economic growth is not desirable.

My principles for a compassionate society are simple:

  • Our policies and actions should protect life and avoid suffering.
  • Our compassion should never be limited to human beings.
  • We should always focus on improving the lot of the destitute and the suffering. 
  • Public service is our greatest innovation and the key to a fulfilling life.

These principles are simple, but their application in reality is difficult. We often face trade-offs. Here are some very real moral dilemmas that I have faced in my own work:

  1. A planned meat-processing facility can alleviate poverty in a poor country by creating well-paying jobs, but the country’s regulations to prevent animal suffering leave a lot to be desired. Should we support the facility or campaign against it?
  2. A coal-burning power plant could eradicate energy poverty and reinvigorate local industry in a poor country, but coal carries a heavy environmental cost and contributes to climate change. Should an international development agency give a loan guarantee to enable the construction of the power plant?

Despite these trade-offs, principles are important. Without clear principles, we focus our attention on the wrong things and have no idea how to deal with trade-offs. For example, a development economist who is only interested in economic growth could cause a lot of suffering by ignoring other dimensions of a good society. Similarly, an environmentalist who has no compassion for human beings could stand in the way of improvements to the condition of the world’s poor.


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