The United States and Alternative Energies since 1980: Technological Fix or Regime Change?

David E. Nye

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Awareness of global warming has been widespread for two decades, yet the American political system has been slow to respond. This essay examines, first, political explanations for policy failure, focusing at the federal level and outlining both short-term partisan and structural explanations for the stalemate. The second section surveys previous energy regimes and the transitions between them, and policy failure is explained by the logic of Thomas Hughes's ‘technological momentum’. The third section moves to an international perspective, using the Kaya Identity and its distinction between energy intensity and carbon intensity to understand in policy terms ‘technological fixes’ vs. low-carbon alternatives. The final section reframes US energy policy failure and asks: (1) Why, between 1980 and 1999, was America's actual performance in slowing CO2 emissions better than its politics would seem capable of delivering? (2) How and why has the United States since c. 2007 managed to reduce per capita CO2 emissions?.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)103-125
Number of pages23
JournalTheory, Culture & Society
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2014


  • Kaya Identity
  • United States
  • alternative energy
  • energy policy
  • energy transition
  • technological fix
  • technological momentum


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