As scientists, policy makers and advocates from around the globe gather for Climate Week, their discussions and events will be animated by the possibility that a new Democratic administration can make climate change a top priority, with or without Republican support. Kamala Harris has said she is “prepared to get rid of the filibuster to pass a Green New Deal,” and the Biden climate plan proposes “new executive orders with unprecedented reach.” But transforming the national economy will require vast private-sector investments that will not occur if corporations anticipate policy whiplash with every shift in political power. Here we have a collision of “inconvenient truths”: The climate crisis demands immediate action. Yet sustaining ambitious policies through multiple election cycles is only possible with some measure of bipartisan support.
Advocates of the Green New Deal point to the early years of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency in making the case that dramatic change is possible in times of crisis. But Roosevelt took office with Democrats controlling 73 of 95 seats in the Senate and 311 of 448 seats in the House. Even if Democrats win the Senate, their margin will be razor thin. The politics for senators from energy-intensive “purple” states such as Arizona, Montana, and West Virginia will still be extremely difficult, and their support — especially if climate legislation is seen as a purely partisan exercise — will be far from guaranteed. Moreover, ending the filibuster would facilitate the weakening or repeal of climate mandates by a future Congress.
Obama, who campaigned on climate change and likewise took office during a severe economic downturn did not get action on climate legislation despite unified control of Congress for the first two years of his administration. Instead, vehicle fuel economy standards and limits on power plant emission were advanced through executive action, leaving them vulnerable to future reversals. And executive power has its limits: President Trump’s rollbacks of environmental rules have not brought back U.S. coal jobs.
Meanwhile, experience with the Affordable Care Act points to the broader drawbacks of a strictly partisan approach. Despite the appeal of expanding healthcare benefits now and paying for them later, a decade of bitter Republican opposition has undermined ACA implementation and generated significant uncertainty about the future of health policy. Tackling climate change will be even harder, requiring trillions of dollars to transform our energy systems without offering many citizens any immediate, personal benefit.
Finding a balance that’s ambitious enough for progressives, responsive to the science, and yet pragmatic enough to win support from organized labor, corporate leaders, and some Republicans will be about as easy as landing a jet-plane on an aircraft carrier at night in a bad storm. And it won’t be made easier by using climate legislation to address other policy goals, however worthy. Bundling a higher minimum wage with carbon reductions, for example, makes little sense. Worse, it sets up a conflict between progressives, who see economic disruption as unavoidable and worth incurring to address deep societal inequities, and the more traditional energy policy community, which is interested in working with companies to decarbonize in ways that minimize such disruption.
Meanwhile, the plane we need to land is low on fuel, in the sense that time is running out to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Fortunately, Biden’s history on climate policy gives him some latitude to navigate these conflicts and work with people like Chris Coons and Mike Braun, who lead a bipartisan climate caucus in the Senate, to forge an aggressive but pragmatic agenda. This could include infrastructure legislation that fast tracks climate solutions, increases in clean energy research and development, a farm bill that incentivizes carbon reductions from farms and forests, and legislation to decarbonize the power sector that equally credits all sources of non-carbon power, including natural gas, nuclear, and coal with carbon capture, along with investments in new technologies to pull carbon dioxide out of the air.
Ultimately, this kind of portfolio approach offers the best hope for achieving ambitious environmental targets while sustaining broad public support. It would be tempting for a new president to declare a national climate emergency and spend the next few years producing executive orders, inspirational speeches, and a partisan legislative agenda that is either not actionable or unsustainable. This approach would require relatively little time or political capital and there are certainly other challenges competing for attention. The better and considerably harder alternative is to create the political consensus needed to motivate and sustain a 30 year transition to a carbon-free economy.
William Reilly is a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Jason Grumet is the president for the Bipartisan Policy Center.