What’s the Democratic Plan for Climate Change?

Last week, I wrote about two new publications published to coincide with the COP23 in Bonn that highlight the lack of progress in reducing global CO2 emissions. Adding to the grim picture, Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic (“Democrats Are Shockingly Unprepared to Fight Climate Change”) investigates the state of play among the democrats in Washington, the only major political force in the US that would seem to have the potential to take on the republican environment-destroyers. It’s a longish article that provides much useful detail about the politics that frame democratic options and decision making. Meyer’s findings are as bleak as the articles I mentioned yesterday and point to the same conclusion: the change we need will not come from our political system without massive grassroots intervention. Let’s start with his argument.

Meyer begins by reviewing climate legislation in the early days of the Obama administration. In 2009, the American Clean Energy and Security Act was passed by the US House of Representatives. The bill–often known as Waxman-Markey for its co-sponsors in the House, Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Edward Markey (D-MA)–called for creating a carbon emissions market that would put a steadily increasing price on carbon and thereby tilt incentive structures towards investments in renewable energy. But after the Tea Party opposition to Obama and the legislation that would ultimately become the Affordable Care Act, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid withdrew the climate bill from consideration. This marked the end of any chance to enact a major climate change bill as the GOP took over the House in 2010, blocking all significant democratic legislation.

From this defeat, libreal climate change politics went in two different directions. First, the Obama administration tried to use administrative measures to limit CO2 emissions, measures that ultimately became known as the Clean Power Plan.  In civil society, new organizations and activity came on line to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, fight oil and coal companies, and undertake other actions to increase public awareness of climate change. Meyer sees a “general resurgence” on the left in this period, which is certainly accurate as evidenced by the Occupy movement. Nonetheless, he downplays the potential importance of this period in the organizing that was done.

But the focus of this post is the democratic party. Meyer goes on to describe the dilemmas that the democrats have faced more recently and will continue to face. This political analysis is key to understanding just how difficult it is going to be to make the kind of massive investments in clean energy over the next couple of decades to avert catastrophic climate change. Even assuming a democrat wins the presidency in 2020 and has majorities in Congress, that president will be confronted with three structural problems in democratic politics.

First, the former alliance between unions and environmental activists has “disintegrated since 2009.” The problem is that the post-Waxman-Markey actions under the Clean Power Plan left the states and local organizations to pick up the tab for softening the economic effects of increased regulation of carbon, which they were unwilling and unable to do, at least at the required scale. This left many former coal and construction workers out of work and with few options. With considerable encouragement from hard-right media organizations, they blamed Obama and the Clean Power Plan for the demise of the coal industry and consequent loss of their livelihoods.

In addition, construction workers have understandably been supportive of pipelines and other big fossil fuel projects like power plants. This pits them against environmental advocates. At the same time, unionization in the renewables industry is lagging. Renewable energy companies can be just as anti-union as any other companies. So it’s very difficult to reconcile these competing tendencies.

A third problem, which might not be quite as intractable, is that democratic voters in general are not vociferous supporters of climate change policies. While almost all democrats accept the scientific consensus about climate change, there are so many other issues, that climate change policy will determine few voters’ decisions. Support for actions to ameliorate climate change may be broad, but it is also soft.

Nonetheless, this problem is not insoluble. The right candidate making the right pitch could do a lot to raise the salience of climate change policy. And, as Meyer notes, “Trump is helping solve this problem” by his actions on the Clean Power Plan and his dismantling of the Environmental Protection Agency. His announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accords actually sparked a surge of promises in many states and cities to recommit to the goals of Paris and even exceed them in some cases. But whatever major changes in democratic opinion may be on offer, they still appear to be in the future as the activity of the Spring and Summer has died down.

Finally, Meyer comes to the fundamental energy and economic issues. As he says, “dealing with climate change through any policy is just hard.” For example, while there have been major improvements in the power sector, with emissions dropping 18 percent in the past five years, electricity production only amounts to 29 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Such change has not come to the other large sectors, such as transportation, industry, and manufacturing. Here’s the monstrous dilemma:

In order to draw those emissions down by 2050, consumers will have to opt in to electric vehicles en masse and service stations will have to erect electric chargers across the country. Analysts say that’s unlikely to occur without large public investment.

Do the democrats have any plans to make this happen? Are they even making plans? Meyer sees little evidence of this, which is hardly surprising. Given the state of the country and of their party, democrats in Congress are forced to channel their efforts toward preventing republican disasters such as a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, immense tax cuts for the rich, and the erosion of civil liberties and the rights of residents. It is difficult to fashion coherent responses to multiple policy issues in this political environment. Those issues that do get attention are immediate–such as the possibility of losing one’s health insurance–rather than climate change, which is still remote, something that people may think can be put off for a year or two or until the right moment.

In his concluding comments, Meyer talks about legislative options that the democrats might pursue were they to come to power in 2020. Those options are quite bleak compared with the immense challenge. They include various bills circulating around Capitol Hill that could come into play, although the message he hears from his democratic sources is that a major climate bill of any kind is not something democrats are likely to consider. There could be ways to sneak a carbon tax into some other legislation or to pass tax or jobs bills that help in the conversion from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. In the end, Meyer writes that even if democrats were to gain control of the White House and both houses of Congress, there would still be only a “sliver of time” to get some sort of environmental legislation passed.

The value of this analysis is that it demonstrates quite conclusively that given “normal politics” in Washington, there is essentially no chance of the US decarbonizing its economy by 2050, or coming remotely close to that objective. National politics are just too “hard.” What about states and cities? Meyer says little  about the significant commitments states and cities have made to cut into CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions and to transform transportation networks. So, while Washington fiddles, the rest of the country is doing its best to move along.

Nonetheless, as impressive and encouraging as these state and local efforts are, they are unlikely to get the country anywhere close to its goals in 2050. Our best hope, then, lies in fundamentally reshaping public opinion and remaking politics in Washington by building power from the bottom up (and quickly). Meyer is right that democrats are not going to move the needle very far, even with ruling majorities. Not unless people organize and force them to.

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