Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Pre-Determined Shift

The presidential race has shifted significantly with the results of Super Tuesday and the subsequent primaries, including yesterday's "Chesapeake" primaries, in ways that have important implications for US energy and environmental policy. Prior to Super Tuesday, it still looked possible that someone would win a major-party nomination without a strong commitment to addressing climate change. That prospect now seems very remote, and the impending alignment of a stronger federal focus on climate change with a greater emphasis from Corporate America suggests big changes ahead for how we produce and consume energy. The 2007 Energy Bill, with its mandates for biofuels and efficiency, was only a foretaste of what is likely to come.

One of the primary tools I use in my consulting practice is scenario planning, a process that assesses possible future outcomes for a specific question or issue by winnowing a broad range of uncertainties down to a few critical drivers of change. Periodically, this process also identifies fundamental forces that, upon examination, prove not to be very uncertain at all, making them quite powerful in shaping the future. A US Presidency that puts a high priority on addressing climate change aggressively now looks like such a pre-determined element.

Consider the positions of the two leading Democrats, Senator Clinton and Senator Obama, and the two leading Republicans, Governor Huckabee and Senator McCain. All four are on the record supporting a cap & trade system for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, with Senator McCain having co-authored the earlier legislation from which the pending Warner-Lieberman Cap and Trade Bill evolved. Their campaign websites, particularly those of Senators Clinton and Obama, are replete with proposals for improving energy efficiency and promoting renewable energy. Even though the Democratic Party's incredibly convoluted process for awarding delegates makes it extremely difficult to guess the outcome of the party's convention in Denver in August, and despite the slim possibility that someone other than Senator McCain could capture the Republican nomination in the Twin Cities in early September, the Intrade prediction market currently assesses the chances of someone other than the four candidates above becoming the next President at less than 2%.

Yesterday, at the annual energy industry conference hosted by Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a sister company of my sponsor John S. Herold, Inc., the CEO of ConocoPhillips expressed concern about a loss of US influence in the world, if we continue to "oppose action on climate change." I don't think he needs to worry. The leaders of the countries committed to combating global warming can read the tea leaves as well as Intrade's speculators; they see change coming, as we all should.

A dramatically different US stance on climate change in 2009 is now a virtual certainty. That means its consequences are, too: Sooner or later, we'll be paying even higher prices for fuel and electricity; efficient light bulbs and appliances will no longer be optional; and cars will generally become smaller, lighter, and more complex--and hence more expensive, at least in the short-to-medium term. I wonder if we're as ready for the reality of all that as many seem to be for the abstraction of tougher climate policies. We have about a year in which to prepare ourselves.

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