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Progress Will Prevail Over Politics

| December 15, 2016
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The following is an article written by Julie Gorte, a long-time friend and colleague of mine in the SRI Industry.  Julie is Senior Vice President of Sustainable Investing at Pax World, a pioneer in SRI money management since 1971.  We hope you find the following piece insightful and we encourage you to share it! 

Waking up to the news that the proposed Administrator of the EPA is a climate skeptic is not my idea of the Best Day Ever. When reality seems considerably stranger than fiction, sometimes it’s reassuring to revisit some of the best advice of fiction—in this case, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Remember what it says right up front: don’t panic

Set the Way Back Machine to the year 1981, and you’ll find me, a newly minted Ph.D. graduate, standing in the courtyard of EPA, where I was employed, listening to President Reagan’s appointee for Administrator urging everyone to spiff up their resumés. I did that, and I moved on, to the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which gave Congress advice on matters involving science and technology. And then set the dial to 1994, when the Republican caucus of the 104th Congress decided it didn’t need advice on science and technology, and subsequently withdrew funding from the agency. I moved on, with everyone else. 

So can this new Administrator, assuming he is confirmed, change a lot of careers? My experience says yes. But do please note that in the eight years of the Reagan presidency, EPA continued to exist, and moved forward with needed environmental regulations, both during and after Reagan’s tenure. And while Congress lost a valuable source of advice, the U.S. continues to have a strong, competitive technology sector, and continues to produce and nourish new generations of innovators.  And while both decisions changed where I worked, I have been able to sustain a focus on environmental protection and innovation. I’m not the only one. Memo to Scott Pruitt: you can probably make EPA employees leave. You can’t stop them from working to protect the environment.

What I’m getting at here is that not everything is driven by public policy—in fact, in an age of persistent policy gridlock, less and less is driven by regulation. Don’t mistake what I just said for complacency; this is a terrible time to return to a policy of climate blindness for the world’s second-largest GHG emitting nation. But during the last decade and a half, an increasing proportion of the world’s economy has decoupled GDP growth from greenhouse gas emissions, in some cases aided by regulations and in some cases, not so much. Moreover, even where regulations provided a stimulus to decarbonize, there is nothing in any GHG regulation aimed at economic growth. This is ample evidence that regulating emissions is not an economy killer. 

Moreover, it is also becoming clear that decarbonization is increasingly driven by market forces, not command and control from governments. As Michael Bloomberg noted, the Obama administration didn’t kill coal, the market did. A recent letter to President-Elect Trump from 360 investors and multinational corporations urged Mr. Trump to support the Paris Accords on climate change. Will some businesses cheer the arrival of a climate skeptic at EPA headquarters? Probably. But will this stop progress on decarbonization? Doubtful. Yesterday, Google announced that it planned to switch to renewable energy for 100% of its energy requirements, and that that would happen by mid-2017. It’s not the only company moving in that direction, and the competitiveness of solar and wind is already comparable to the cost of electricity from the grid in a growing number of places. As yesterday’s Salon article put it, the renewable industry has grown up, and it’s too big to kill. 

This is not a time to panic, and it’s also wise to remember that the US isn’t the only nation that can make policy. If we pull out of the Paris accords, what’s to stop Europe or other nations from imposing a carbon tax on U.S. exports? It wouldn’t be easy, but these days, things like Brexit and the U.S. election that didn’t seem very likely last year are actually happening. It’s not even time to circle the wagons. We should keep pushing for progress, and recognize that politics are far more temporary than economics. 


As always, we welcome all comments and feedback about this article.  We hope you've enjoyed it!

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