Steven Cohen: Mike Bloomberg Is Right: We Need to Analyze Our Energy Choices

Last week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg came to Columbia University to help launch the university's new Center on Global Energy Policy at the School of International and Public Affairs. Mayor Bloomberg struck an important theme that is worth repeating. The Mayor persuasively argued that we need to:

"...tackle some of the most difficult international energy and environmental policy issues, particularly ones that lack simple solutions. There is no magic bullet that will solve our energy challenges, and I've always believed that rigorous analysis is key to understanding fundamental trade-offs. This includes energy emissions, reliability, economic development, market design to encourage private financing, and how best to use scarce ratepayer and taxpayer dollars. Today, public dialogue over the future of energy is badly skewed toward the extremes, and that does little to advance the public interest...We have to get serious about facing the competing security, economic, and environmental trade-offs that a realistic, forward-thinking energy policy requires. And we have to be willing to take bold action - locally and nationally - to ensure a sustainable energy future."

A major focus of his talk was the use of natural gas as a transitional fuel to renewables and the importance of quickly moving away from our dependence on heavy oil and coal. Like many, Bloomberg sees great potential in hydraulic fracturing, but unlike many, he is deeply concerned about the potential for environmental damage from irresponsible fracking and is working to improve the safety of this controversial form of gas extraction. As he stated during his remarks at Columbia:

"Natural gas has the potential to benefit us for decades to come, too. But only if drilling for gas is done right -- in a fashion that protects the environment. That's why I've partnered with fracking pioneer George Mitchell and the Environmental Defense Fund to develop and strongly advocate for the adoption of sensible regulatory safeguards -- And why together we'll continue to urge holdouts in the natural gas industry to stop resisting such measures. Because history shows that when industries attempt to block sound regulation they don't help their own cause; instead, they set themselves up for disasters caused by the worst, rogue players. And responsible leaders in the natural gas industry know we need sound regulation, and we need it now."

The point is that modern civilization requires energy. We all use it and we need to stop pretending that there is some pristine way of generating it right now. That does not mean we should not develop a fossil fuel free economy. We very much need to. And government needs to get serious about funding the basic research in renewable energy that will allow us to stop creating new greenhouse gasses and damaging fragile ecosystems. But in the present day, our goal should be to make progress on the climate and environmental problems caused by energy generation, we are not yet capable of solving those problems.

While I am far less enthusiastic about Mayor Bloomberg's support for nuclear power, I agree that the discussion of nuclear energy needs to be stripped of emotion, and focused on an assessment of costs and benefits. My opposition to nuclear power is based on the extreme toxicity of the substances that fuel these power plants, and the waste stream created by these toxic elements. But I also think that research on de-toxifying nuclear waste and developing a safe form of nuclear power is well worth the effort.

What is most impressive about Bloomberg's approach to energy is its focus on non-political problem solving. Fracking and nukes are hot button issues. Most political figures in New York, including Governor Cuomo, are focusing their attention on the contentious politics of fracking and nuclear power. That is, of course, what democracy is all about, and elected officials are supposed to pay attention to public opinion. But they also need to lead public opinion and educate the public about the real trade-offs involved in making energy policy decisions. New York's Governor is waiting for the scientific facts about fracking, and that is an essential input to the decision making process. But we should also be trying to figure out how to effectively regulate this technology and how to protect fragile ecosystems from all forms of energy extraction and use.

What is most important, and was in many ways the central theme of the Mayor's energy speech at Columbia is his reliance on data and analysis. Indeed, one could argue that Michael Bloomberg's entire approach to governance has been his reliance on data and rigorous analysis. As we analyze the costs and benefits of different energy paths, it is important that we avoid facile answers. Public policy issues are complicated and more difficult to address than the challenges face by the private sector. It is more difficult to reduce global warming or end homelessness than to "make a beer that tastes great and is less filling". Public policy does not solve problems, it tries to ameliorate them. The goal is improvement. Let me provide a graphic example of what I mean. Most people acknowledge that New York City is safer in 2013 than it was in 1990. In 1990 we had 2,245 homicides in New York City; last year, we had 419 murders. New York City is a much safer city today than it was in 1990, but not for the families of 419 victims of homicide. For those families the crime problem has not been "solved". And the reality is that the problem of crime and indeed all problems involving human behavior will never be solved. Similarly, there is no form of pollution-free energy.

Instead of seeking perfection, our goal is to make the world a better place. The only way to know if the world is getting better is to define success in areas that are important to us, and rigorously measure our improvement in each of these areas. The emphasis on clarity of thought, measurement and analysis is critical. It is indeed a necessary replacement for myth, symbol, ideology and bias as a basis for decision making.

A second key point that the Mayor made was that business needs to get past its reflexive all-purpose anti-regulatory stance. The reason we have rules of the road is to facilitate driving, not to end it. Rules governing resource extraction practice make it possible to weed out and punish unscrupulous businesses. They make it easier for legitimate businesses to operate. While some government regulation is cumbersome and unreasonable, most regulation is adjusted over time to accommodate business needs. With time and real world experience, both government and businesses learn how to adjust rules and behavior to facilitate commerce and the rule of law.

If we are to successfully transition to a renewable economy, we will need leaders capable of making a practical, data-driven case that details the connection between a clean environment and a growing economy. Here at Columbia last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg once again provided the type of leadership we need.

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