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Living With Climate Change: Our democracy can’t do what’s needed — just look at our crumbling power grid


Editor’s note: When West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin signed on to this summer’s climate-focused spending bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, the energy-state Democrat did so only by retaining a pledge from fellow Democrats that a subsequent bill would reform and expedite the federal permitting process for big energy projects: renewables and fossil fuels alike.

The fate of the effort remains up in the air as 2022 draws to a close. Democrats most recently have attached it to a critical annual defense spending bill, but have faced renewed opposition from the party’s most progressive members.

The paralysis of modern democracies is often blamed on polarized politics. But there are structural causes for paralysis as well. These structural defects predated and fostered extremism and must be fixed for democracy to work again. 

Governing sensibly is impossible without a new operating framework activated by responsible humans.  

The recent rejection of Sen. Joe Manchin’s bill to expedite energy

and power

projects illustrates two structural flaws: good government has sunk into bureaucratic quicksand; and modern government, rebuilt since the 1960s to avoid human error, is not capable of making the compromises and tradeoffs needed for human success.

Almost any public choice — giving a permit for essential infrastructure, firing a rogue cop, even a teacher trying to maintain order in the classroom — is fraught with legal peril. New transmission lines, for example, are essential to carry electricity from renewable sources

and to distribute power efficiently among regions. 

A modernized transmission grid would also avoid about 6% electricity leakage in old lines — wasted electricity the equivalent of the power generated by 200 average-sized coal-burning power plants.

“ Good government  has  sunk  into  bureaucratic quicksand.”

But few power lines have been built. The barrier is not funding—the cost is built into the rate base of consumers. The barrier is bureaucracy: permitting is practically impossible. Environmental reviews are a forum for any opponent of a project to litigate over any pebble left unturned. Multiple approvals by different levels of government—sometimes requiring the approval of each county on the transmission line route—can extend the process up to a decade or more. As I detailed in Two Years, Not Ten Years (2015), the delay more than doubles the effective cost. The uncertainty of approval is a disincentive for developers even to apply.

Senator Manchin’s bill would expedite critical power infrastructure by creating deadlines for environmental reviews and clear lines of authority to meet them. For interstate projects, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would have preemptive permitting authority. Lawsuits challenging the legality of projects would have to be brought and resolved on an expedited basis. The goal is to have permits awarded in two years, not 10 years. The key component of the reform is to re-empower responsible officials so that permitting decisions can be made.

“ A modernized transmission grid would also avoid about six percent electricity leakage in old lines—wasted electricity the equivalent of the power generated by 200 average-sized coal-burning power plants. ”

America cannot realize the benefits of accessing distant renewable energy without this simpler authority framework. But Senator Manchin’s bill was killed by an odd coalition of Republicans and environmentalists. This illustrates a second flaw of modern democracy—it is run not by people and groups who have a sense of ownership of good government, but by agents who see success as causing the other side to fail. This cynical approach to democracy was on full display in the recent mid-term elections, when the Democratic Party spent millions to support right-wing extremists in Republican primaries.

The political system is run by agents, not owners. Owners do what’s needed to get things done. Agents, by contrast, focus on keeping their jobs. Democracy today is an insider’s game in the grips of agents—politicians who do not aspire to solve social problems, but to beat the other side. Extremist fringes are not a threat to succeed, but are handy for fund-raising and for deflecting attention from public paralysis. A governing culture that expects failure is comfortable, and allows the parties to take turns in power: “First you fail, then I fail.”   

Politics does not occur in a vacuum, and thousands of interest groups in Washington do everything they can to influence members of Congress and regulators. But they too have fallen into the worst habits of agents, routinely taking rigid positions aimed at defeating a proposal rather than making compromises that would advance their own members’ interests. In Washington parlance, special interests “play to their base” by trumpeting what they have stopped.

“ The barrier is not funding—the cost is built into the rate base of consumers. The barrier is bureaucracy: permitting is practically impossible. ”

Senator Manchin’s bill contained critical elements needed to accelerate use of renewable power. But his bill also included approval of a gas pipeline across West Virginia, his home state. 

Environmentalists tend to be purists, and see red with the mention of any pipeline (even though natural gas is better for the environment than sources of other carbon energy). The idea of making tradeoffs is sacrilege, even though the environmental benefits of new transmission lines across the country would be exponentially greater than the harm of one gas pipeline. So environmentalists joined with Republicans who opposed the bill only because they didn’t want the Democrats to get credit. 

Democracy is stuck. Legal quicksand makes it almost impossible to govern sensibly. Political leaders and interest groups no longer aspire to govern sensibly. They’re doing fine by stopping the other side. Democracy, both politically and legally, is structured for paralysis. 

If given the chance, some leaders will aspire to make things happen. Senator Manchin is making another run for his permitting bill in the lame duck session of Congress. Even if he succeeds, however, the deck is stacked against any systemic changes. The kinds of tradeoffs needed to reduce the carbon footprint—for example, accepting the role of nuclear power—are as politically inconceivable as they are logistically unavoidable. As environmental law professor Michael Gerrard puts it, environmentalists are suffering from “tradeoff denial.”

What’s needed is a movement for change based on dislodging paralytic bureaucracy. Some political leaders, given the authority to lead, will compete by making government work better. Interest groups that demand utopian solutions will find themselves marginalized when other groups seize the new opportunity to move forward.

“ Only nonpartisan committees have the moral authority to lead change. Discussing tradeoffs out of the public spotlight is conducive to balancing of all interests.  ”

The hard part is crawling out of the deep rut. Any political proposal for a new governing framework will be opposed because that’s how politics works today. Even in a less toxic political environment, Congress could not design a coherent new framework. The DNA of legislatures is to work incrementally, not change direction.  

Only nonpartisan committees have the moral authority to lead change. Discussing tradeoffs out of the public spotlight is conducive to balancing of all interests. That’s why every successful recodification in history has been proposed by independent experts working in private. That’s why the constitutional convention was debated behind closed doors. That’s why independent “base-closing commissions” are essential in making the politically-difficult decisions of which state economies will lose bases.   

The cure to what ails democracy is not, as some say, more democracy. What’s needed is recognition that democracy finds itself in a dead end, with politicians pointing fingers and without moral authority to propose a new direction.  

The path to change is to delegate the job of proposing new frameworks to small committees of nonpartisan experts. To modernize America’s obsolete power system, for example, a nonpartisan committee could propose a new framework of inducements and practical procedures for an efficient power grid. Congress can then evaluate the costs and benefits, and vote on whether to accept it.

Philip K. Howard is founder of Common Good. His latest book is “Try Common Sense: Replacing the Failed Ideologies of Right and Left.”

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