Hosts Kristin Hayes and Daniel Raimi team up to interview Phil Sharp, former Indiana congressman, former president of RFF, and current non-resident fellow at the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy. They ask Phil to share his thoughts on the Green New Deal—the ambitious set of proposals aimed at tackling climate change, inequality, and more. Phil gives his take on the pros and cons of the approach from a political perspective, as well as shares his broader thoughts about the ability of our political system to deal with big, complex challenges like climate change.
Top of the Stack
References and recommendations made by Phil Sharp:
- Designing Climate Solutions by Hal Harvey, Robbie Orvis, and Jeffrey Rissman
Kristin Hayes: Phil, hello. Welcome back to RFF, it is always a pleasure to see you.
Phil Sharp: Well, great to be back. This place is very dynamic and I'm glad to be a part of things.
Kristin Hayes: Good, good. You have such a wealth of expertise on energy and environment topics. I feel like there are many things we could have asked you to talk about on a podcast, but we are going to focus today's conversation on the Green New Deal. But before I do that, we always like to introduce our listeners to our guests a little bit more, and as a congressman from Indiana for many years, and in many other roles in your life, you've had the opportunity to think about lots of different types of issues and yet energy and environment has been a focus of your career as well. So how did you first sort of focus your energies, no pun intended (I make a lot of puns on this podcast), but how did you end up focusing on energy and environment as part of your legislative career?
Phil Sharp: Well, it was serendipitous. I was the class of legislators that just came into Washington—I was swept in town by the scandal of Watergate, so I was known as a “Watergate Baby.” That meant I was a Democrat representing a Republican district in Indiana, which is true for the 20 years that I was there. And there were many openings as a result of the increase in the Democratic majority on the various committees. The one that I appealed to get on was called the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, now the Energy and Commerce Committee. And the reason I did that was because a graduate student friend of mine at Georgetown University had been one of the staff members on a reform committee of Congress that had reset the jurisdictions in the committees and he said, “that's a good one.” Since I wasn't going to get on Appropriations or Ways and Means—so I took it.
But then, we had transformed the rules in the House, undermining the seniority system very significantly in the opening caucus, and that meant we got to select our subcommittees as they became open for the first time in history. And I knew that I wasn't going to get on the Health Subcommittee, because everybody was going to bid on that. I bid on Energy and Power Subcommittee, which John Dingell was just becoming the chairman of.
Now, what you also have to understand is the context of the time. First of all, like most members, I knew nothing about the topic or very little. It hadn't been a matter of study of mine; it wasn't a high crisis in our congressional district; I didn't campaign on the issue. But it had flooded into the national arena because of what was called the Arab oil embargo in 1973. And, remember, I ran three times, but in '74 I won. And so it was a highly visible proposition on the national agenda and it would be for the next 10, 15, actually for almost 30 years, but for 15 years it was serious.
So that it meant we were constantly legislating, always having hearings at least every few weeks in this subcommittee, and then the major pieces of legislation flowed out of it. So I just became engaged and I had been advised this, but then I began to realize it: that if you want to have influence in Congress, there are different ways that different people do it. But one of them is: get focus, develop some specialization, get known for that, and you begin to hopefully have a greater impact. And by virtue of staying with it, then I later became chairman of that subcommittee, one other one before that, and on and on and on.
Kristin Hayes: Very interesting. It's particularly valuable for me to hear that, because I feel like I should have asked you that question over the many years that I've actually known you, but it's great to hear.
Phil Sharp: Well, my father never asks me.
Kristin Hayes: So let's turn to the topic at hand. There has been a lot of discussion, particularly in the past few weeks, but even before that over the past few months about something called the Green New Deal. And I want to just remind our listeners what exactly that is, so I'll just run through a little bit of what I know and then hopefully you can augment that and probably correct some things too.
There was a piece from Lisa Freedman in the New York Times where I think she gives a nice, succinct summary of what it is. And it is a congressional resolution that lays out a grand plan for tackling climate change. So it's not a piece of legislation—it's still in the resolution stage, but it's quite ambitious. It covers goals associated with vast swathes of the economy, from clean energy and mobilizing clean energy over a very accelerated 10-year time frame; it deals with building retrofits; it deals with transformation of the transportation sector.
But it also covers a number of issues that are beyond just energy. And, in fact, the closing lines of the resolution reference providing all people of the United States with high-quality healthcare; affordable, safe, and adequate housing; economic security; and then, of course, clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and access to nature. So it is an ambitious proposal. Are there other big pieces of it that I'm missing? How else would you define, as you understand it to be now?
Phil Sharp: Well, I think two quick things: one is to help people be sure they understand—the resolution means that nothing about it, even if it's adopted by both houses of Congress (which is highly improbable it will be), but nothing about it sets in place authorities that cause action by people, by investors, by consumers, and industry. It is a sense of what the country ought to do. It is really a political manifesto in that regard.
Kristin Hayes: Okay.
Phil Sharp: You rarely see that in Congress. It's something that has [such] broad goals and that's sort of the second comment I would make. Again, not correcting but adding to what you said, which is: I look at it and you're looking at it, and most people are as well. This is because we're interested in climate. And what is this about climate?
But AOC (Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez) pointed out the other day—wait a minute, the first goals in there are really about social transformation. They're really goals about how to deal with inequality, unemployment, opportunity, and they are tied then, or the goals are embedded together. Which, by the way, those are issues to be raised, but when you get down to serious legislating or serious regulating at EPA or anywhere else, those goals are not the central piece. There probably won't be authorities that actually match to those massive social goals.
And of course the social goals are, in part, what some of the critique and criticism is focused on. So partly, it's just keeping in perspective that this is a broad range. And I think one can intellectually begin to pull it apart in various ways, and we might do that in this conversation.
Daniel Raimi: You know, looking over the resolution myself—it's House Resolution 109, if people want to go look it up—some of the provisions in there are very ambitious, as Kristin laid out. And some of the more specific goals that are articulated in terms of energy and environmental policy, they include achieving 100 percent what they term “clean, renewable, and zero emissions energy sources.” [It] sort of doesn't rule out nuclear, but doesn't exactly rule it in either. [It] talks about upgrading all existing buildings to achieve their maximum efficiency in terms of energy, water, and other priorities. You know, there's a variety of other goals that are laid out there.
How do you think about those specific policy proposals? And do you see those proposals advancing the conversation of climate policy in a helpful way or not?
Phil Sharp: Well, again, there're sort of two different parts to that. One is if we look at the substance, they obviously have drawn on a number of the sectors of the economy in which there needs to be action if we're going to get serious about cutting greenhouse gas emissions. So that's a plus—that they aren't just looking at automobiles, or just looking at buildings, or just looking at the electric sector. And I think most of us that have dealt with this issue understand: this is a very broad-based proposition within our economy where we need multiple kinds of action. It is interesting as to whether it helps or hurts;well, I think it helps in this regard, the positives. Let me put it that way and then I'll talk more about the limitations.
The positives are, that, one: it articulates a deep sense of urgency about this issue. It also posits the idea that this is not a trade-off that has to be yes or no on the economy. In other words, that we can pursue economic and social goals—and clean up and deal with this. And so much of the debate over the last 15 years has tried to make a stark (especially the critics have tried to make it very stark), that the cost of doing anything about reducing emissions is a sacrifice of the people in the low-income sector, it is a sacrifice of economic growth, it is a sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice. And so this is recognizing what, frankly, scholars at RFF and elsewhere have been pointing out: that wisely crafted policy actually can have many economic pluses and it's not all economic minuses. It may hurt certain places but it's not going to hurt universally our ability to prosper and to share in the wealth in this country.
Now the issue when we turn to the proposals—I think the best way to think about this is we're going to see multiple variations of this thing come out. And already we're beginning to see presidential candidates and others who, to be honest with you, rather impulsively and precipitously signed on because I think they thought that this was going to win them points with the particular progressive forces that are advocating this. But all of them are slowly coming to the recognition, and everybody will that has to get down to the nitty-gritty that—well, wait a minute, the label may be good, some of these basic ideas are right, but now we have to talk about seriously what works in the economy, what works in our system of government. How do we proceed? And that gets more complicated. So on the one hand it can be taken for some people as an inspiration, as a drive. That we might turn to in a moment, this 10 years clean energy in the electric sector, if you like?
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, what do you think about that idea? So, near the beginning of the resolution it refers to (as Kristen said, I think) the 10-year national mobilization and then talks about eliminating pollution and greenhouse gases as much as technologically feasible. That word “technologically” I found interesting, because a lot of things are technologically feasible that may not be economically or politically feasible or desirable for other reasons. And so how do you think about that part of it?
Phil Sharp: Well I didn't follow all the developments that preceded the resolution but I'm aware of some of them. And already the resolution recognizes as it [...] because there was an effort to reach out to labor, to various progressive forces, to Democratic forces before this thing was put together. This wasn't just dreamed up by Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez or a senator from Massachusetts. It was actually somewhat negotiated and that's why when you look at it now compared to before, one is that the original goal on electricity was 10 years of renewable energy.
Daniel Raimi: Right.
Phil Sharp: And already they've conceded, as you articulated without saying it, that as California has done in their setting of a goal in 2045 that you could count nuclear energy as a clean energy—you could even count natural gas with carbon capture and storage as emissions-free. It's beginning to recognize what, again, scholars at RFF have tried to say: let's keep focused on what is the goal, the goal is the reduction in these emissions. It isn't a specific technology. In fact there's a risk of choosing the wrong technology or insufficient policy when you get overly focused on "Well we'll only allow X, Y, and Z." So already they were adjusting.
Now, you raised the question of technology. Technological credibility was not a part of the original discussions, it was just "You're going to do all these buildings, you're going to do this and that"—and everybody kept pressing them. The one that's not there that, again, at RFF would've been an instant question is: What is economically feasible? Or what is cost-effective? Let's look at it from a serious point of view. They've avoided that language but let's be very clear, there is no way any Congress, I don't care what it is, is going to be so radical that it will just throw overboard all consideration of what are the economic costs.
Daniel Raimi: Right.
Kristin Hayes: Phil, can I ask you just—
Phil Sharp: Sure.
Kristin Hayes: Maybe it's just worth bringing up that there was, in addition to the formal resolution (Resolution HR 109), there was a memo released by, or a fact-sheet I guess it's called, by Representative Ocasio-Cortez's office. Now, since then I think her office has pulled back from that slightly saying that it was released prematurely, so I don't want to read too much into the language that was in there, but that particular fact-sheet does get a little bit more explicit about non-nuclear and non-carbon pricing. Sort of very lukewarm reactions to both of those solutions. Would you interpret how the resolution eventually got published as sort of a similar broadening or flexibility from, perhaps, where they started?
Phil Sharp: Well, the scuttlebutt I picked up in Washington and, again, you have to take that with a grain of salt, is that there were immediate, vehement calls from some Democrats, some labor, some others, on the overstepping of the resolution by her office's interpretation, because they were not willing, they're just barely on board, some of these people to begin with. So I think the way to think about this is—this is going to be quite a developing proposition and, frankly, we'll begin to see other people that are more likely to be the leaders.
Now, I don't know how Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez is going to develop as a leader, but right now she's not what I would call an inside legislator. Part of that's because she's new and that's fine—I'm not criticizing her in this, but then people have to step up inside. It's the same way in the Senate. Now, Senator Markey may become quite a legislator but, to be frank about it, there are other people there, Senator Whitehouse and others, that are already deeply into trying to figure out this and build a broader political coalition inside the Congress as well as out. And so I suspect the leadership of these things, well, first of all it will expand to lots of other people, so I'd be very careful—I mean the opponents want to focus immediately on any errors and on this and that, and that's part of the folderol of our politics. So I take that, some with a grain of salt, I applaud those that are trying to get some kind of action. But if I were having to legislate, I'd be much more discerning about what some of these proposals are.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, so one other question, and sort of drawing on your experience in the legislature, Phil, paying attention to these issues for a long time: What elements here in the Green New Deal are new that you see? What elements have we seen before? And are there historical precedents that can tell us something about the viability of a plan that's as ambitious as the Green New Deal?
Phil Sharp: Well, I haven't re-read it in recent weeks—I read it when it was introduced, and so I may be in error in what I'm about to say, but my impression is I don't think there's anything there that's actually new. I think what it is, is an intensification of the goals: for example, the notion that we ought to transform our buildings. People have been talking about this since the 1970s and the issue is, should the federal government try to step in and take over state formal control over building standards? Building standards only apply to new construction, so the question is, is what can you do for old construction? Well, we have a number of financial incentives on the tax side that some people fought even in the last [...] in 2005, 2007 I think it's in one of those bills as well as it was back in the 70s—tax credits designed to try to get people to upgrade their things. That is a very hard thing to get done, to overcome this, so what's new is the drive, the theory that we're going to be able to do this.
When we look in the electric sector, well, one thing that actually was in some of the Senate bills before this came up but really has to do with how to incentivize the electrification of transportation (meaning automobiles), and that was to provide some kind of incentive to the states to build infrastructure for refueling—
Kristin Hayes: Charging stations.
Phil Sharp: [...] recharging stations.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah.
Phil Sharp: But again, California's been doing that for 10, 15 years. These are not new. So this is not to criticize, it is just to say what they ran into, like everybody does, is “Whoops, we've been thrashing about on lots of these things; we've been trying lots of things.” One of the things they call for as a matter of equity is: let's provide good assistance, energy assistance, to low-income people—it's known as LIHEAP [Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program]. We put it in place in the 1970s. One of the most clashing arguments was the formula for distribution to the states. Should the southern states who depend on air conditioning get as much as the northern states that have to fight the cold weather? I mean, these are natural political things that can be worked out. But, again, it goes with this business that we do need the intensity and we do need a seriousness, and we of course need to get rid of this White House that has been untouched by climate science.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, and just to confirm, so that's the [...] LIHEAP stands for the Low Income—
Phil Sharp: Low income, I can't remember what the—
Kristin Hayes: Heat and Energy Assistance Program?
Phil Sharp: [...] acronym means but it's low-income energy assistance.
Kristin Hayes: Okay, okay.
Phil Sharp: Much of it is funded by states but different states do it different ways; some of them just allow the electric utility to provide a certain amount of free power or reduced power to an electric user who doesn't have much income.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah and, Phil, I think you're intimating this, but one of the things that does seem new here is about the scale; it is in fact about the merging of a set of already ambitious energy and climate goals with a set of other broader—-
Phil Sharp: Right.
Kristin Hayes: [...] social equity and inclusion and employment goals. So I'd love to talk a little bit more about that and, again, given your history as a lawmaker—what are the benefits and what are the potential pitfalls of merging those energy and environment goals with the broader socioeconomic goals?
Phil Sharp: Well probably the benefit (and this is not across the political spectrum), but the benefit on the left is that it brings people into the conversation about climate who might have been very skeptical. After all, the environmental adjustment movement has been around for a while, especially in California, but it's fairly new on the national scene and those meaning that, “Wait a minute, this isn't just about clean air and clean water; it's about our back yard because we're stuck in the worst place” and whatnot—and that a lot of the environmental laws in that sense appear to be unfair because they seem to help certain parts of the country and not others. The accuracy of all that can be argued, but the question is, is bringing these people into the conversation and to recognize it is a politically useful thing to do.
Now, frankly, our political system doesn't swallow whole such gigantic propositions. So what was likely to happen is that, let's say we get a president that actually believes we ought to do something and that is on the progressive side of the fence. They may articulate some of these desirable things, but they will come up with some kind of recommendations on climate which will probably say, well, if we have a carbon tax we can also see that some of that money goes into LIHEAP (that we just talked about); we're going to see that it gets a tax reform that is more favorable to the lower-income section of the country than the high end—and there are ways they can incorporate those values into the final proposition. But it's very hard also, even if you take this panoply of proposals on climate, to package them all up in one big fell swoop decision. Obviously, Waxman and Markey attempted to do that but it didn't cover everything, and it's a complicated legislating process.
Here's where somewhat of our experience of the 1970s is relevant to today, and that is that because of our dependence on foreign oil and the fears about inflation, about the economy, about the national security, a whole bunch of issues were piled up, concerns—there was a drive to transform our energy system. It was most elaborately articulated in the proposals by President Carter. The House Representatives actually set up a Select Committee—
Kristin Hayes: Sounds familiar!
Phil Sharp: Not like the committee that's just to study, this was a Select Committee with real legislative power. I was on it in my second term in office; I got on as one of the two junior members on that committee. And so we did try, and we did adopt a number of major proposals, but I think the reality that certainly I and others learned is—first of all, there's never just a single goal and there's always differences of opinion about how to achieve those goals. And so you get into a complex kind of bargaining inside and outside of the Congress. And that requires some skilled legislative leadership, it requires some skilled presidential leadership, it requires skilled leadership among the various contending interests in the country whom one hopes will recognize, be able to keep their eye on the notion that “Well, we do have to do something!” Instead of “If I don't get my way, it's the highway.”
In fact, that's what I would say is—one of the things that I would say to people that are excited about the Green New Deal—is not try to diminish their excitement, but try to tell them: "Please be open to two things—one is when we get into a negotiation, if you make this the absolute litmus test you will work against the government and the Congress and this society dealing with climate change. If, because you will pull out the whole political part of a faction that is in fact—
Kristin Hayes: Very critical for progress, yes.
Phil Sharp: [...] is going to claim "If it's not perfect, I'm not for it!" And, by the way, that is a very sanctimonious thing for politicians to do. You see it over and over even today. The other thing is, the resolution says nothing about carbon taxes, but I think it's true that some of the voices that have been involved in the development of this have pretty much said they're again carbon taxes and they see—
Kristin Hayes: I think that's right, yeah.
Phil Sharp: [...] it as having a socially negative impact for lower-income people. Again, RFF and others have argued these cases, examined them, say "Is that real or not?" And generally I think the conclusion is that you can compensate for that and it doesn't have to have that impact.
Kristin Hayes: Right, it's all about policy design, yeah.
Phil Sharp: But I would say to them, "Your biggest problem now, has been highlighted over and over, is what you're talking about wanting to accomplish requires resources." And anybody who thinks you can just by one change in the tax code get everything you need for all these things is, again, just crazy. We can do a lot more and take in a lot more revenue to do things. But one of the things that a carbon tax provides is revenue, part of which can be redistributed to make this tax code fair, part of it can be redistributed to actually directly help (as we talked earlier) people on LIHEAP. This is a source of resources, so get smart—don't shut it off. You don't have to come out for it, you don't have to drive for it, but don't close your mind to it.
Kristin Hayes: Phil, this is fascinating, and it's really nice to have an insider's, a former legislator's, take on some of the pragmatic realities of how a resolution like this might turn into something legislative eventually. But I want to zoom out and ask one last big-picture question before we turn to our closing feature. So, this is a little bit metaphysical but I figure you can give it a good answer, as good an answer as anybody. So, how does the structure of our government, of the US government, affect our ability to tackle problems that are as vast and—
Phil Sharp: Oh, is it capable of making the decisions to do something big like this? That's the—
Kristin Hayes: Right, yeah, and, you know, problems that are so embedded within our economy in many ways, so, yeah—
Phil Sharp: Right. First of all, that is a very important question, and there are all kinds of voices now, and there have been historically, by the way, in the past, who say, "Well we don't think this business of checks and balances and powerful economic interests can ever solve these problems. You can't get a job done." And therefore the assumption usually is, you turn to something more authoritarian. "Isn't it wonderful the Chinese appear to be making progress." The Chinese are doing lots of different things—some of it's progress, some of it's not, kind of thing. And my answer to that is, I put a lot more faith in that once we get this moving, we will do much better than most.
And I just don't buy this notion, but others might, that we have to transform the political system, literally the fundamentals of the system now, before we are able to conquer this policy. I think [...] I just don't buy that. And let me just say that does not mean I don't think there's work to be done on making repairs in our constitutional democracy. We have historically done it over and over and again, but I would just remind you that there was a lot of hand wringing about whether we could take on the Soviet Union and the Communist spread internationally because of our system of government and our divided system.
And the same thing has come out in almost every kind of proposition: does federalism work for us? I would just say right now I've become more strong, and a lot of Americans have, on having a system of checks and balances— because it has prevented these people that are so naïve or so politically or economically selfish from getting their way and actually undermining everything. So we have states acting, we have this "Is this the most rational policy?" "No, but we're more than three hundred million people and it's a very complex economy, but let's get back to what can be done." The truth is that if we had, I'm just picking this out—I tend to favor strongly a carbon tax, but not as the exclusive—it'll never be the only policy, it shouldn't be the only policy.
But I can assure you that that will lead to all kinds of innovation. That will lead to all kinds of people making greedy decisions to avoid the tax or to capture the market that is now available to them. And that's the dynamism—that's part of the dynamism we want and need in this. This is too big, and the notion that we've got [...] we can hire enough regulators and enough smart people in Washington to know all the ins and outs of the economy and regulate everything is just, I think, naïve to the extreme. Now, I happen to believe EPA should've done what it did, kind of thing.
So I look upon this as: we have a lot of ingenuity, we ended up with a lot of people. [...] Fortunately, the blowback on President Trump has been terrific, by state action, by corporations that we didn't even know were willing to step up, said: "Well, we should stay in Paris" or "Wait, we've set whole new goals for our oil company by the way! As to how we'll cut internal emissions and how you do that. Is that enough?" No, it isn't, but it means that you can act independently and make a real contribution here without going to the bureaucracy in Beijing, and “are we on board or not with the government?” kind of thing. So I would be very careful to jump to that conclusion. That's not to say that everything works well, or that there aren't outrageous people in the politics and money that is undercutting making the changes.
Daniel Raimi: So I think that's a debate that is playing out in environmental circles and is likely going to continue, I think, with the different perspectives that are coming to the table in support of sort of different levels of ambition put under the umbrella of the Green New Deal.
Phil Sharp: Well I think you're right, if I could just interject, pardon me, is—
Daniel Raimi: Yes.
Phil Sharp: [...] but I would suggest they're wiser to spend their time on trying to build the political support within the current system of government. Now that doesn't mean you don't try to get campaign finance reform. I'm not against some of these; it depends on what level of change they want to talk about. But we can all sit around debating some new constitutional system and I would just say: don't waste your time.
Daniel Raimi: Wow, so yeah, well, Phil, you certainly have not wasted our time today, or our listeners' time, and we wish we could spend more of it talking to you. But we are butting up against the upper end of our time limit. So I'm going to ask you the question that we ask all of our guests, which we call the “Top of the Stack.” So, what's at the top of your reading stack? Is there anything that you have read or watched or heard recently related to energy or any of the topics that we've been talking about today, that you've really enjoyed and that you would recommend to our listeners?
Phil Sharp: I jump around so much in my reading. I do want to start on Hal Harvey's book, which is an analysis of various proposals. Although I'll be honest about it, I suspect Hal is arguing that we have the technology we need, we just have to implement it, and it's a strategy that I think is limited. And Hal is extremely capable, I shouldn't get in an argument here without reading his book. But it goes to the issue that over time we do not know how all this is going to work out economically, technologically, or politically. If there's anything that we've learned over the last 40 years it's that predicting those things is quite questionable, and so you want to keep your eyes open and your policy open to innovation, to the possibility of having tools in the future—which may mean fusion, which may mean carbon capture and storage, which may mean a whole new set of windmills. Whatever it means, be careful about thinking you can put all your eggs in one basket.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's a great recommendation.
Kristin Hayes: We'll find a link to it; we'll make sure to include that along with the podcast.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, absolutely. Well, Phil, thank you so much for joining Kristin and I today on Resources Radio to talk about the Green New Deal and many other things sprouting from that topic. It's been really great to get your perspective.
Phil Sharp: Thank you, happy to be with you.