From the beginning, federal climate politics in the US have been dominated by symbolism and signaling. Republicans dismiss it or call it a liberal plot. Democrats say “we believe in science!” Activists argue over long-term targets and who cares most.
With the brief exception of 2009-2010, when the Waxman-Markey climate bill was up for debate, the national focus rarely stays for long on the nuts and bolts of policy itself.
Lately, though, climate change has become, according to a recent CNN poll, the single most important issue to Democratic primary voters. After years and years of stumbling along as a second- or third- (or tenth-) tier concern, it’s finally getting its moment in the spotlight.
The Green New Deal and the grassroots energy behind it have ensured that every one of the Democrats running for president will be forced to prioritize climate change. There’s finally going to be a policy discussion.
All right, we’re transitioning off fossil fuels. How? Where are we starting, how are we sequencing, and what tools are we using?
Most of the candidates are not ready to talk about it. Their hearts are in the right place, for the most part, but they don’t have much depth on the issue and don’t speak on it with much authenticity. Very few national Democrats really do. You don’t have to know much to say “I believe in science.”
Last week, Beto O’Rourke opened the climate-policy bidding with a climate plan of his own. It’s a somewhat peculiar creature, best described by Julian Noisecat of the think tank Data For Progress: it reads “like the movement had a baby with a consultant.”
In the positive column, it is quite clear that the Green New Deal and the movement behind it have indelibly shaped the Democratic primary. Beto’s plan targets economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050, proposes a moratorium on oil & gas leasing, promises to prioritize frontline communities, and headlines $5 billion in investments. All of that bears the imprint of the GND. The consultant-speak, focus on leveraging private investment, and attention to the incremental possibilities of executive power for a kind of gloss over it, to help it appeal to normies.
In the less positive column, it feels like a product of the moment, designed to tick various boxes. I don’t hear any singular sensibility or coherent approach in it, something that might offer a hint of how Beto would prioritize as president.
All of which brings us to Washington governor and presidential contender Jay Inslee, who on Friday released the first of what he promises will be a series of proposals on climate policy. Together they will form what he calls his Climate Mission agenda.
It is probably fair to say that Inslee is not a favorite to win the Democratic contest. But if this first salvo is any indication, he is at the very least going to substantially elevate the level of climate policy debate. This is policy made by a team that’s been sweating over the details for years, bringing a level of sophistication and experience that is much needed.
All the policy discussion may all be for naught if Democrats fail to take Inslee’s advice and kill the filibuster. But Democrats need the debate regardless, to be better prepared whenever a window of opportunity opens.
Step one of Climate Mission: electricity, new cars, and new buildings
The Climate Mission agenda will target economy wide net-zero carbon emissions “as fast as possible, and by no later than 2045.” (The Sunrise Movement activists behind the GND feel strongly that the US should target net-zero by 2030.)
That’s the overall goal. But the focus of the agenda will be a ten-year mobilization, per the GND. That will involve an array of policies targeted at various sectors, which the campaign will release over the coming months.
The first piece, out last Friday, is the “100 percent Clean Energy for America Plan.” It lays out three high-level targets for 2030:
- 100 percent carbon-neutral electricity.
- 100 percent zero-emissions in new light- and medium-duty vehicles and all buses.
- 100 percent zero-carbon pollution in all new commercial and residential buildings.
Collectively, electricity, transportation, and buildings are responsible for 70 percent of US carbon emissions, so in many ways this is the central and most significant plant of the agenda. (The campaign promises policy on existing vehicles and existing buildings — in many ways trickier problems — in subsequent proposals.)
Getting the carbon out of electricity
Here, Inslee’s policy is modeled after the 100-percent-clean bill his own state of Washington just passed. It sets a clean energy standard (CES) whereby all utilities must deliver carbon-neutral power by 2030 and 100 percent “clean, renewable and zero-emission” electricity by 2035.
Two notes. First, “carbon neutral” is a specific term of art here. It means that if utilities fall short of 100 percent clean electricity in 2030, they can make up the difference by investing in other carbon-reducing projects, like, say, energy efficiency retrofits for customers. It’s a clever way to induce non-federal investment in those projects.
Second, the language here — “clean, renewable and zero-emission” — pointedly leaves room for hydro, nuclear, and fossil fuels or biomass with carbon capture, a small-c catholic approach to “clean energy” that I think makes sense.