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The Future of Energy Policy: A Conversation With BECC Keynote Speaker Phil Sharp

September 16, 2019
Phil Sharp

At a time of partisan bickering and talk about the Green New Deal, the politics around energy and climate change can be difficult to navigate. Still, policy change at the federal and state levels has never been more crucial for protecting our environment.

This topic will be central to the upcoming Behavior, Energy & Climate Change (BECC) conference, the premier international conference that explores how human behavior and decision making can accelerate the transition to a low-carbon future.

We discussed the future of energy politics with BECC 2019’s keynote speaker Phil Sharp, a former 20-year member of the US House of Representatives, D-Ind., who served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and was a driving force for landmark energy legislation that included the Energy Policy Act of 1992. Sharp is now a fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

Here are excerpts of our conversation:

What made you care about energy and the environment?

When I came to Congress in 1975, we were in the midst of the so-called oil crisis, which dominated politics for much of the 1970s. Serving on that [House Energy and Commerce] committee got me very engaged in energy policy and the environmental issues that affect energy policy. I served as a Congressman from 1975 to 1995. I was involved in the Clean Air Act of 1990, which lead to my interest in climate change.

When I became president of Resources for the Future [in 2005] there were a number of skilled scholars doing work on a number of environmental issues, particularly about climate change. I have also taught a course on climate and energy policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and Georgetown University.

What will it take to build a movement in Congress that tackles climate change?

Tackling climate change is a broad-based proposition. It will take a movement among the American people, it will take a movement among people in business, and of course it will take an environmental movement and a movement at the state level. We’re really on the cusp of action; I anticipate that we are going to see significant federal action soon. It’s already emerging, but most of it will probably come when we have a new presidential administration.

What are your views of the Green New Deal, not just as the progressive wing of the Democratic Party articulates it, but as it may morph into something viable for Congress?

The Green New Deal is really a political manifesto, a set of aspirational goals that are really broad and include many things about society, such as climate change. It is out there, motivating people, but it is certainly not a legislative program that has been introduced to Congress as some kind of resolution. So it stimulates action, but doesn’t define what we should do. The goal of trying to be totally on clean energy by 2030 will probably be very difficult to reach, but the Green New Deal is helping to push us. Now other people have got to define and negotiate a plan of action, but the Green New Deal will not be voted on as a plan of action might be.

The BECC conference brings social science researchers together with governments, utilities, and businesses to act on climate change. What is the value of bringing social science and behavior research into discussions of climate and energy?

There is enormous value to having social scientists involved. It’s very important for social scientists to keep to the integrity of their knowledge and not compromise politically, but it is also important to see what would work in a political context. We must involve social scientists because frankly there’s no point of going through the political and environmental agony of making changes if we’re not doing so based off of scientific reasoning.

Do you have any other message for BECC attendees?

This conference is a very valuable way to update oneself, get ideas, and make new contacts. I am excited to speak to you about federal policy; we are about to make some very significant changes to federal and state policy, and I hope to articulate some trends that might not be as well known. People need to understand that their participation is very crucial to making action happen.

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Energy Efficiency and Climate Change
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