Guest Column: Technological changes outpacing climate law

The Orange County Register

Tis the season for the sitting president to try cementing his legacy on his way out the door, and Barack Obama is no slouch.

Abroad, his administration is pushing again for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. And here at home, it’s taking Congress to task for declining to pursue one nationwide law (or, really, one more vast omnibus) covering carbon emissions. Unfortunately for the White House, but not the rest of us, the economic impact of today’s new energy technologies is moving so fast that sweeping federal action would be premature. And California’s experience shows why.

It’s no surprise that the president would want to pressure legislators as the year draws to a close. His marquee Clean Power Plan, centered on utilities emissions, finally got the green light from the Environmental Protection Agency last summer. But this year, the Supreme Court stepped in, freezing the law at the request of nearly 30 states and allies in affected industries. What kind of climate legislation would make the most sense—if any—is anyone’s guess. As Californians have seen right before their own eyes, the “easy” answer, cap-and-trade regulation, can bog policymakers down in divisive but all-important details, such as where revenues from carbon credits should actually flow. Is the Golden State’s beleaguered high-speed rail program, for instance, deserving of funds intended to help the environment in the best way possible? Even among Democrats, opinions differ sharply. And the pace of technological change might render the bullet train obsolete before it’s finished.

Americans have good reason to start their thinking on climate regulation from the premise of swift innovation. In a figurative blink of the eye, Californians have watched zero-emissions autonomous vehicles go from science fiction to a fact of life. Uber has deployed its driverless cars on Pittsburgh streets; with every other major auto and tech company pouring huge resources into the race for carbon-free autonomy, the next several years are likely to see an unstoppable transformation of the transportation landscape.

And that’s not all. In a twist that should change the way environmentalists think about the logic of climate regulations, the California Energy Commission recently proposed a mandatory statewide computer energy consumption standard—seen as a possible precursor to nationwide rules. Although industry groups and small-government advocates have raised legitimate concerns about how such an approach would be tailored, importantly, the logic of the push hinges on the economic value of redirecting wasted energy toward expanding productive use. That’s exactly what technologies pushing us into a cleaner, more efficient transportation future will do—deliver more mobility faster and more cheaply for more people, while dramatically reducing the impact of cars, trucks and buses on the environment.

Thanks to the beginnings of these changes, the reality of the environment is being transformed right out from under us, far faster than most—policymakers included—dared to imagine. At a minimum, they might want to see what world we’re actually living in before diving into a task as sprawling and daunting as federal climate law. And at most, they might want to consider seriously that, whenever they sit down to tackle the task, legislating comprehensive climate rules will prove so slow and cumbersome that it will be a dead letter by the time it’s ready to implement. Some lasting legacies, it seems, will always belong to the private sector.