Science Policy

The Next Ten Years of Climate Policy, According to Our Experts

04.22.22 | 7 min read | Text by Matt Korda & & Erica Goldman & FAS

Two weeks ago, the IPCC released their most dire warning yet – that we have just three years to prevent the most catastrophic storms, natural disasters, and droughts human civilization might ever see. We are getting closer and closer to the temperature that scientists have warned us for decades would do irreversible damage to our societies and ecosystems.

But the role of scientists is not just one of town criers, warning us of what will come. Scientists are also activists taking fate into their own hands. Last week, scientists across the world staged sit-ins, held demonstrations, and handcuffed themselves to some of the worst climate offenders to send a bold message: the time for action is now.

As a science policy organization, we seek to bridge the gap between experts and policymakers. We have published dozens of proposals and policy memos outlining bold, perhaps even radical, climate policy ideas that would not only save the world, but will invigorate the U.S. and global economy with it.

Below, our experts, researchers, and staff share some of their thoughts on what the next ten years of climate policy will look like, how scientists can get involved in policymaking, and what they hope to see.

Matt Korda, Senior Research Associate and Project Manager, Nuclear Information Project

Climate change and nuclear weapons have a symbiotic relationship: each threat exacerbates the other. Climate change is setting the stage for conflict between nuclear-armed states, and a recent study suggests that even a regional nuclear war could cause mass global starvation for over a decade. Not to mention the fact that even during peacetime, decades of uranium mining, nuclear testing, and nuclear waste dumping have contaminated some of our planet’s ecosystems beyond repair, displacing entire communities—often communities of color—in the process. 

Given the interconnectedness of both the climate crisis and nuclear weapons, we can’t afford for these two existential issues to be tackled in silos. Progressive climate change policies should include demilitarization and disarmament provisions, and progressive nuclear policies should address the climate and humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. With that in mind, nuclear disarmament activists and climate change activists are natural allies in the fight to mitigate global catastrophic risks. 

Ishan Sharma, Fellow and Policy Analyst, Technology & Innovation

The IPCC report is clear that a range of solutions is needed to reduce and remove carbon from the atmosphere, “an essential element of scenarios that limit warming to to 1.5℃ or likely below 2℃ by 2100”. 

Across buildings, transport, energy transformation, infrastructure, and industry sectors, climate solutions technologies abound. The question is how to move the needle on their technology readiness levels. Or, in other words, what will spur their adoption at scale?

Let’s start with creating the right liftoff conditions — climate solutions startups have long described the trouble of gaining access to funding given the large upfront costs of hardtech (when compared to software). As a result, many exciting ideas fail to cross the “Valley of Death” and achieve scaled adoption. 

But what if we employed new ways of de-risking investments into climate solutions startups that incentivized more capital flows? One example: committing to buy a certain technology in advance, or advanced market commitments (AMCs). AMCs were recently used in Operation Warp Speed to de-risk and galvanize Pfizer, Moderna, and other pharma companies’ investments to produce COVID-19 vaccines. Last week, an alliance of big tech companies under the organization Frontier poured $925 million towards carbon removal, including large portions towards AMCs because by  “committing to buy a product early, you can help bring it to market faster”.  

Fortunately, the White House Council on Environmental Quality is challenging each agency to leverage its purchasing power in each  sustainability plan, turning the federal government into a massive source of clean demand. 

There’s also the related problem of scaling this type of innovation across the United States. How do you encourage legacy energy communities to support these transitions into the green economy? One way is to create the right set of economic conditions that incentivizes — and provides for — well paying jobs in new growth sectors. 

Currently, there are only a handful of cities with the “industries and a solid base of human capital [to] keep attracting good employers and offering high wages … ecosystems form in these hot cities, complete with innovation companies, funding sources, highly educated workers and a strong service economy.” Spreading innovation to underleveraged regions is difficult for a number of reasons, including training a willing workforce and securing a viable investment ecosystem for startup liftoff. 

But if done right, it could be another answer to rising inflation, as it would bring new demand to “stone cold” markets and stabilize prices from the bottom up and middle out. 

Fortunately, nascent regional investment efforts like the Economic Development Administration’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge and the Department of Energy’s Energy Program for Innovation Clusters seeks a holistic approach to green development, bringing breakthrough research happening in the labs, training workforces in the locality, empowering startup liftoff, and facilitating spillover economic benefits from climate solutions’ commercialization. Federal assets — from national labs to federally funded R&D at universities to manufacturing innovation institutes — should be brought to bear in supporting this innovation-cluster based approach. 

But part of this clean growth climate solution will require coupling our investments in cutting-edge R&D with our investments in manufacturing, in order to produce and commercialize these technologies at scale in the United States. Decades of underinvestment in manufacturing has sacrificed the art of “learning-by-building” — the substantial, value-add interactions that happen when manufacturers are seated at the table with designers. 

This is the reason why China-based companies own 80% of the solar panel market share, despite photovoltaic cells’ invention at Bell Labs in 1954. After heavily subsidizing the manufacturing of solar panels, China capitalized on the benefits of learning-by-building, perhaps the most important factor explaining the nearly 100% drop in PV cells’ module costs over the last 30 years. 

If America is going to lead on solving climate change with breakthrough R&D, we need to ensure we can produce the technologies at scale — lest we risk losing our competitive and economic advantage. But we also need to think seriously about the additional regulatory structures promoting oil and gas above clean growth expansion. 

One example is geothermal energy, which could have already supplied unlimited clean electricity for a cost of around 3¢/kWh, but progress in the field was stunted by entrepreneurial risks of dealing with permitting requirements at up to 2 years of approval timelines. This is despite the Energy Policy Act of 2005 granting oil and gas companies carveouts to perform the same type of drilling geothermal would need. What if we did the same, today, for geothermal? 

Another example is the well-known fossil fuels subsidies, which have been rather hard to kill. These subsidies are responsible for as much as 68-78% of the average rate of return for fossil fuel endeavors. But what might a targeted decoupling look like for fossil fuels subsidies? Several researchers have investigated this very question, identifying which are the most high-leverage subsidies to kill. At first place is the intangible drilling costs subsidy (IDC), which “increases [the] U.S.-wide average IRR by 11 and 8 percentage points for oil and gas fields, respectively.” I’m not the first to advocate for the removal of this subsidy, it’s been decades in the making, but those before me underscore the crucial need for attention focused on high-leverage subsidies — chipping away bit-by-bit at the unnecessary market advantage oil and gas has received for nearly a century. 

Erica Goldman, Director of Science Policy

My back porch looks out into an urban forest in Silver Spring, MD, actually just a few miles from where Rachel Carson lived and wrote Silent Spring. Over the past few weeks, like all over the DC region, the bare trees behind my house bloomed brilliant pinks and whites and purples, and then went quickly green. Now, the forest gets noisier each day – birds in the morning, frogs and cicadas at night, occasional owls and foxes in intermittent conversation.

Most years, I don’t pay attention to how fast all of this happens. But this year I noticed. I’ve been thinking a lot about thresholds for change, sudden inflection points that make the incremental, exponential. With climate change, these tipping points often signal catastrophe – melting glaciers, intensifying storms, and rising seas. But what if tipping points are the key to positive change as well, and targeted interventions can bring larger than expected returns?

Last week, the California Air Resources Board proposed to raise the sale of new cars that are electric, hydrogen-powered or plug-in hybrids to 100% by 2035. In late 2021, the Federal Sustainability Plan issued the ambitious target for the whole-of-government fleet to be fully electric by the same year. Meanwhile, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law ​​allocates $21 billion over the next five years for the Office of Clean Energy Demonstration, which could dramatically accelerate the pace of deployment of key low-carbon technologies like clean hydrogen, advanced nuclear energy, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) from industrial facilities and power plants. With these kinds of targeted interventions, strategic subsidies, and technologies ready for lift off, might these positive climate tipping points be within reach?

Scientists think maybe. An article in Nature last week showed that the climate pledges made by nations at the COP26 meeting could in fact ensure that global warming does not exceed 2 ºC before 2100 — but only if backed up by short-term policies. Meanwhile, other researchers are studying how to intentionally  trigger positive tipping points through social, technological and ecological innovations, policy interventions, public investment, private investment, broadcasting public information, and behavioral nudges. 

Taken together, my sense is that positive tipping points give us agency and help “unlock paralysis by complexity,” transcending incrementalism and offering “plausible grounds for hope.” We know what nature is capable of, if we can get smart about how to jumpstart recovery and then get out of the way.