200 Ways to Accomplish Not Too Much on Climate Change

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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A report this week argues that even without Congress, the federal government can still do a lot of good in fighting climate change. But it's hard to read the report without sensing that the opposite is true.

The report, by the Center for New Energy Economy at Colorado State University, makes 200 individual recommendations to the White House and federal agencies, ranging from faster rule-making on clean energy and increasing technical assistance for states, to streamlining federal and state loan programs and broadening tax rules to allow preferential treatment for clean-energy investments.

Those are all good ideas, and the authors deserve credit for laying them out. But it's hard to read through the list without being struck by how small-gauge the proposals are. Even if the government were to implement all 200 -- which is doubtful at best -- the impact on total U.S. carbon emissions will be well below what's needed to halt the momentum of serious climate change.

That isn't a knock against the report. It's a reflection that President Barack Obama's administration has already used his biggest regulatory levers -- chief among them raising fuel-efficiency standards and limiting power-plant emissions.

The possible executive actions that remain offer quickly diminishing returns. And a government stuck fighting other battles -- a sluggish recovery, Obamacare's growing pains, the controversy over domestic surveillance -- may well not have the bandwidth necessary to put in place dozens of incremental improvements to its energy policies.

So while one response to this report is that there's still plenty the government can do without Congress, a more persuasive interpretation is that all the options that remain available might not amount to much -- at least, not if those remaining options are cherry-picked by an administration whose political incentive is to make the easiest changes, not necessarily the most important ones.

Would all that energy be better spent lobbying Congress to pass a carbon tax? It isn't clear that any amount of pressure would change Republicans' minds at this point. But without that shift, the policy options that would result in significant progress are limited.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net