In my run for US Senate, I engaged in a lonely effort to persuade fellow Republicans to acknowledge fossil fuel combustion as the primary cause of global warming and the need for policy change to mitigate existential harm to humans and the environment. Many told me that these views cost me the election.
I can’t recall a single instance where debating science changed minds, so I wheeled out otherwise respected authorities like the Department of Defense, the CEO of ExxonMobil, and the National Academy of Science, all echoing my case. None seemed to persuade.
Now comes Pope Francis, who makes the case that earth and all its living things are God’s gift to humans who are entrusted with their care and that fossil fuel combustion is destroying creation and harming the world’s poor. The Pope is getting the same reaction from most Republican leaders, discredit the authority: he should stick to matters of the spirit, and limiting fossil fuel use will deny food, healthcare and progress to the world’s poor. Pushing back at the Pope, Jeb Bush told voters at a Derry, New Hampshire town hall that "I don't get my economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope."
However, Republican policy preferences, including Jeb’s as Florida Governor, are unabashedly guided by faith on the social issues like abortion, assisted suicide and same sex marriage – and this distinction is key – where powerful economic interest groups have little stake in the outcome. Three weeks ago, Bush was the only Presidential candidate to address a closed-door, invitation-only event sponsored by owners and executives of six coal mining companies. The coal industry spent $11 million in the 2014 election cycle, with just 4 percent of that going to Democrats.
It’s time to get honest about this: the expression of faith in politics is filtered by big-dollar special interest campaign money. Republican campaigns are funded by fossil fuel interests who want the right to keep polluting. Democratic campaigns funded by unions who want to trap poor children in failing, monopoly schools.
The needed debate over global warming is not whether the Pope should talk about climate science and creation care. The debate between small government conservatives and big government liberals must be over high-impact solution options. President Obama’s approach through EPA carbon regulation is massively complex and therefore thoroughly subject to regulatory capture by the interest groups that run Washington and buy most election outcomes.
Unlike the Pope who leans left on tax-enforced wealth redistribution, I have great confidence that technology and American innovators can and will find robust solutions that will largely displace fossil fuels as the globe’s primary energy source within not more than two generations. Domestic policy can accelerate this innovation (and no, Governor Hassan, not with a gambling casino).
The US leads the world in medical technology and biomedicine, enjoying the resulting high-paying domestic jobs and strong net exports. We’ve achieved this as a direct result of $30 billion annual funding for pre-commercial health science research, sustained over the past decade and largely distributed via competitive grants by the National Institutes of Health. Despite this success and strong political support for protecting our science and technology lead, the US has fallen to #11 in global R&D per capita.
Heresy for small-government conservatives, but the $2 billion per year the federal government has spent over the past decade on basic energy research is too little to ensure continued American leadership. My pitch: add $10 billion per year in sustained national support for pre-commercial energy R&D.
I do not mean more Solyndras, taxpayer guarantees for nuclear plant construction, oil and gas subsidies, or corn ethanol supply mandates. Phasing out existing federal energy subsidies like these can pay for about half of a $10 billion R&D bump. Government should stop picking commercial winners and losers because crony capitalism distorts, corrupts and freezes marketplace dynamics which otherwise accelerate knowledge and technology commercialization and drives out cost. Taxpayer-backed energy R&D should focus on blue-sky work in materials science, nano-chemistry, quantum physics, solar PV, energy storage, batteries, offshore wind platforms, and thorium fuel cycle reactors, for example.
Commercialized clean-energy technologies are already booming without subsides. Unsubsidized energy efficiency and utility scale wind and solar PV (in that order) are already cheaper than or competitive with combined cycle natural gas as electricity sources.
Once energy storage becomes less costly than natural gas, market forces will cause displacement of fossil fuels as primary heat, electricity, and transportation energy sources worldwide. Dictators and terrorists will be defunded, energy price shocks will be history, excessively resource dependent nations economically democratized, and global warming curbed.
Rather than impoverishing third-world nations via increased dependency on fossil fuels imported from dictators and terrorists (as most Republican presidential candidates inferentially advocate) let’s heed the Pope by using accelerated innovation and free-market commercialization to bring low-cost clean energy to the world’s poor and to humanity and all creation.
Thanks for listening,