Who is writing our climate policy? It depends heavily on the scale of governance. For this discussion, we'll focus primarily on federal level energy policy - but keep in mind that similar networks exist at other scales. Let's take a look at the roles these groups play and how they work together.
Our elected officials provide the voice for legislation as it works its way through its designated approval process. Here, we could be talking about a township adopting a resolution or state or federal representatives proposing a bill.
Special Interest Groups
Special interest groups are coalitions of people and organizations banded together by common beliefs on policy decisions. Working together, these groups have the power to inform and influence policy decisions through correspondences with legislators and their staff. While we often think only of the negative side of special interest groups, they do also serve an important role in keeping policymakers informed.
Our elected officials vote on legislation and have influence over issues the govern all aspects of society, including health care, education, military strategy, financial reform, agriculture, climate change, energy policy and all the other topics in between. They could not possibly be versed enough in all of these issues to enable them to make informed decisions about what policies are the most beneficial or efficient. It's simply too much to ask that our politicians somehow be expert in all issues. Instead, they rely on groups of experts to provide them with the information they need to make an informed and justified decision on policy design.
For example, the company I used to work for, Environmental Credit Corp., was a member of 2 coalitions related to climate policy, focusing exclusively on the use of domestic and international offsets to meet reduction goals in a cap and trade or other regulatory system for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. As the developer of offset projects across the US, it was important to ECC (and to many other members in those groups) to educate elected officials about the benefits of offset use - both in terms of keeping costs of compliance low in early years of a program and in achieving tangible, real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
What we need to be mindful of when it comes to special interest groups is the financial power they often have over our elected officials. Large groups and corporations often provide significant campaign donations and often use that power to try to influence policymakers to prioritize their interests over the interests of the general public.
The scientific community has an important role to play in the development of policy, epecially with issues related to energy and the environment. Many scientists directly inform the president, mostly through the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The president also has an Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, a cabinet-level position that provides science-base adivise on any number of matters. Scientists and researchers are also called on to testify at congressional hearings related to energy bills. For environmental and energy challenges, legislators usually rely on the scientific community to provide them the basis for which legislation must exist. At the local level, scientists still often provide an important voice to the validity of proposed measures.
With regard to energy policy specifically, here are just a few of the issues on which the scientific community provides their expert opinions to policymakers:
- acceptable levels for criteria pollutants produced during the extraction, processing, and combustion of fossil fuels
- quantity of fuel reserves available for extraction
- safe levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere
- potential consequences of a warming climate due to increased greenhouse gas concentrations
- risks associated with the extraction of fossil fuels
- issues related to necessary infrastructure for new energy technologies
Believe it or not, as a voter, your voice matters! Last week, we looked specifically at the role citizens play in climate policy decisions. It's important not only that you stay informed about the issues affecting your life, but that you voice your preferences for policies about them to your elected officials. Politicians want to stay in office, and that means keeping their constituents happy. Be a proactive and engaged citizen. Let your leadership know that you're paying attention.