Climate change and innovation

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I went to the Rhode Island Senate hearing on the Global Warming Solutions Act to make mandatory the emissions reductions offered in the 2014 Resilient Rhode Island Act and a bill to create a carbon fee and dividend program. Neither bill is really up to the task we face, but they are a start.

Nothing all that interesting happened at the hearing. The environmental advocates, joined by a few business people supporting doing something about climate change made our case, and the only lobbyist testifying against both bills, the designated hitter for all of the opposition who wanted to tell scary stories on paper but not in front of an audience, told some very uninteresting scary stories. The lies are interesting if we are dissecting scary stories, but they are exactly the same stories, out of the exact same playbook, lobbyists for industries that harm the public health have been saying for years. In Rhode Island there is one particular lobbyist who takes on that role of designated scary story teller.

Unlike most folks, I hardly prepare in the traditional sense to testify. I tend to rely on winging it, and this allows me to react to the speakers ahead of me. Occasionally it allows me to refute the scary story of the day. I did a bit of it at the hearing, this is a bit more fleshed out.

The lobbyist represents a number of organizations, mostly business associations like the chamber of commerce, or the convenience store (read gasoline sellers) lobby. At a previous hearing this lobbyist carped that if we had to buy electric cars then no one could go on a long distance trip. This time it was the price of gasoline will go up so much, neglecting the fact that the price of gasoline went up by that exact amount just in the last week and no one said anything. It is like this no matter what. It will be much too hard to adapt to changes in regulation.

But what occurred to me this morning is that these folks really undercut capitalism in their stories. We have what is touted as the most innovative system in the world, a capitalist system built on innovation and meeting the needs of customers. And the businesses the lobbyist represents are constantly innovating. Every time the government has created a system of regulations and fees on pollution to protect the public business have adapted and created new sources of value that overwhelm the cost of compliance, often creating whole new export industries that send American technology to fix problems around the world. But every issue that comes before the RI General Assembly or any other legislative body that will require innovation to protect the public health, it is as if innovation stops. The industries represented will find it impossible to go on and civilization as we know it will grind to a halt.

What crap.

Do you believe, for even one second, that if we all switched to electric cars that a network of charging stations would NOT sprout as fast as the phase in of the electric cars? And that the electric companies would not figure out how to use those batteries to balance the grid? There would be no entrepreneurs looking for investments in these new markets? Of that if we instituted carbon fees that people and businesses would not slightly switch their mobility strategy to use more efficient vehicles?

The record is very clear. Every time we the people has demanded better environmental protections the lobbyists for the old guard cry wolf, stating it will end civilization and create a horrific burden on businesses, it has turned out the scary stories are not true. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts did not crash the economy. Benefits are 40 times greater than compliance. Seat belts did not price cars out of the reach of consumers. Creating National Parks benefits local communities with better job stability than mining or timber booms that end in a few years. Protecting fisheries does keep fishers employed. It is as if the lobbyists and the industries they represent do not actually believe in the system they constantly tell us about, the great American Entrepreneurial Innovation machine. Or rather they believe in it except when it is being nudged towards the public good.

Considering their track record, you have to wonder why legislators give such credence to their views. Actually we do know, it is all about the Benjamins, the system where legislators very rarely are swayed by the public but are always swayed by the money. It is about time for legislators to ask harder questions, to stop accepting the scary stories as having any credence. The lobbyists should be laughed out of the room for their big whoppers. Ask them for facts, ask them about the actual effects of the progress they have tried to hold up. Ask them about the ability of business to innovate. And then vote to get us well on the road to stopping climate change.


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