Published by the Breakthrough Generation.

A few weeks ago, the editors of The New Republic published ‘Nudge-ocracy’—an article discussing the Obama Administration’s early decisions and what these reveal about the Administration’s governing philosophy. The Obama Administration is still in its infancy and it’s too early to draw concrete conclusions about the Administrations approach. Nonetheless, Foer and Scheiber’s article provides a useful interpretive framework for the Administration’s climate and energy policy agenda.

Franklin Foer and Noam Scheiber suggest that the Administration’s response to the financial crisis and other issues resembles the approach that ‘behavioral theorists’ Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein outline in the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Foer and Schieber explain ‘nudges’ this way:

In the grand scheme of things, these “nudges” were minor tweaks designed to elicit more rational behavior. But, in many respects, what the Obama administration has done these last few months is simply scale up the logic of nudging, albeit massively.

When we consider the climate change and energy policies the White House has supported so far, we can see some similarities to Thaler and Sunstein’s approach. Increased automobile fuel efficiency standards (CAFE), implementing a national cap-and-trade scheme, stimulus investment in public transport, and the RE-ENERGYSE program to develop academic and technical expertise in renewable energy are policies that will ‘nudge’ America in the right direction. But will the Obama Administration’s apparent support for so-called ‘nudge’ style reforms replace the need for bold climate and energy policies like those advocated by the Breakthrough Institute and Brookings Institution, the Apollo Alliance, and the Alliance for Climate Protection’s Repower America campaign? No, it doesn’t.

Firstly, while these ‘nudge-style’ policies might successfully reduce GHG emissions within the United States, a truly effective response to reducing climate change must be global in scope and involve major breakthroughs in clean energy technology. This is particularly vital considering the high level of projected emissions growth in developing nations, principally China and India. To deal effectively with the growth of GHG emissions outside the US, climate and energy policies should ideally aim for rapid technological innovation and technology transfer to developing nations—allowing them to leapfrog fossil fueled energy infrastructure.

Secondly, considering America’s proven track record with high-tech innovation, domestic policies that encourage rapid innovation and deployment of renewable energy will have far reaching benefits for developing nations, where the bulk of future emissions will be generated. In other words, any domestic climate and energy policy like the Waxman-Markey bill that promotes gradual technological improvements, and therefore a slow rate of technology transfer, will do little to limit future emissions in these nations.

Lastly, a bold approach to the climate and energy policy agenda has benefits that are greater than Obama’s policies to date. Such an approach can:

  • Create thousands of new jobs in the US clean energy industry.
  • Communicate an inspiring vision – Inspire US citizens with the/a narrative of overcoming.
  • Allow for advanced clean energy technology to be deployed abroad.
  • Legitimate public investment in science, education and technology – key drivers for economic development during the first half of the 21st century.
  • Redefine the role of government as a positive and active one, opposed to the ‘hands-off’ style of government advocated by market-fundamentalists and conservatives.

Next month is the 40th anniversary of the US moon landing—possibly humankind’s greatest technological achievement. Let’s hope that President Obama uses this occasion as an opportunity to announce a bold vision for building America’s clean energy future. A clean energy ‘moon-shot’ will complement existing reforms and address the main drivers of future emissions growth in the developing world.