How 'Buy American', other pro-US policies can help advocates pass ambitious climate policies
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As Congress works toward passing historic legislation to address climate change, it’s clear it will be by the narrowest of margins with the most ambitious provisions at risk because the pivotal senator comes from the coal state of West Virginia. Despite the polarization in Congress around climate action, our polling shows there are climate policies that can break through partisan gridlock and appeal to voters across the aisle and to the labor unions concerned that climate action might negatively impact their members. Policies that tackle climate change while bolstering domestic clean energy manufacturing have the potential to significantly expand the constituency in support of climate action. These “Made Clean in America” policies can help us create new good-paying jobs and make America a global leader in clean energy manufacturing while building a durable political coalition that ensures climate policy outlasts pendulum swings in power. 

Data for Progress recently partnered with the National Wildlife Federation to understand how voters perceive climate action through the lens of American industry. Our polling found that 62 percent of Republicans are more likely to support government investments in climate resiliency and clean energy — if the materials are made in America. We’ve also found that Republicans’ preferences for American-made goods extend to their personal purchases. In a July 2021 study, we asked voters to consider a hypothetical situation where they were purchasing solar panels for their home: Would they rather purchase cheaper solar panels that were made overseas, or more expensive solar panels that were made in America? While two-thirds of Republicans (61 percent) chose the more expensive, American-made panels, only 47 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Independents expressed the same preference. By focusing our messaging on supporting American manufacturing, we can not only persuade climate skeptics to support these clean energy investments, but also make them buy into the idea that “big-government” climate policy can impact their lives directly. 

These Made Clean in America policies can reassure unions and senators like Joe ManchinJoe ManchinTrump haunts Biden vaccine mandate in courts IRS data proves Trump tax cuts benefited middle, working-class Americans most Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Dems press drillers over methane leaks MORE concerned that the shift to clean energy will leave their workers behind. These investments can bring union jobs, cheap energy, and economic development to regions of the country that might not otherwise support Democratic priorities, and ensure that investment in combating climate change delivers benefits to those same communities. America will need to invest trillions in clean energy in the coming decades, but those dollars shouldn’t be going overseas, particularly to countries with abysmal labor practices — they should be going to American manufacturers. We shouldn’t be installing solar panels made by exploited workers abroad, we should be installing solar panels made by unionized workers in America.

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“Made Clean in America” isn’t just good politics, it’s also good policy. The pandemic exposed weaknesses in U.S. supply chains that would benefit significantly from a renewed legislative commitment to build out domestic manufacturing. Supply chains tend to go ignored in day to day life, but when a ship gets lodged in the Panama Canal and becomes a meme or millions of American teens can’t buy a PS5, people see the importance of supply chains. We need policies that on-shore American supply chains for semi-conductors — a material critical for building solar panels, among other things — to ensure that we always have an adequate supply for our clean energy economy. Over the next several years, the United States will face a supply chain crunch as China struggles with power shortages. To tackle these challenges, we need policies like the Solar Energy Manufacturing for Act introduced by Sen. Jon OssoffJon OssoffPerdue to challenge Kemp in Georgia governor primary: report Georgia becomes ground zero for 2022 elections Democrats anxious over Abrams silence on Georgia governor bid MORE (D-Ga.) and the 48C advanced manufacturing tax credit to create more incentives for solar and wind energy companies to manufacture their products here in America. Such policies would create high-quality jobs, reduce bottlenecks to clean energy deployment, and boost U.S. competitiveness as the global market increasingly demands clean products. 

In the same vein, the federal government should work to ensure that the commercialization of technologies funded by federal R&D generate domestic benefits. The Bayh-Dole Act, a program very few Americans have ever heard of, aims to require that research funded by the federal government creates jobs here in America. Despite it’s good intentions, the program is currently rife with loopholes. Tightening up the Bayh-Dole should be a priority for the Biden administration as it would create American jobs and has strong support among Independent and Republican voters. 

President BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE has already taken a leadership role  advancing industrial policy for the future. In July, he announced a series of proposed rulemaking changes to the Buy American Act — the most significant changes to the Act in over 70 years. The main objective of these changes include, increasing domestic content thresholds, strengthening domestic supply chains, and reinforcing accountability in the Buy America process. These kinds of changes have the potential to reach voters Democrats have struggled to win over.  

For Biden’s Build Back Agenda to create a permanent legacy, it needs to create a powerful and unignorable constituency in every swing state. Nothing would be more powerful than unionized clean energy workers, who can organize to protect their jobs. Made in America policies will also strengthen support from Republicans, who are increasingly sympathetic to climate action if they believe it can restore American manufacturing and reduce electricity bills. 

For too long, Democrats have allowed Republicans to claim they are the party of putting “America First.” Instead of using this rhetoric to demonize immigrants and promote isolationism, our research shows that there is a way for Democrats to paint a positive vision of “America First” that empowers American workers, builds our manufacturing capacity and tackles climate change. 

Sean McElwee is Co-founder and executive director at Data for Progress and Marcela Mulholland is Political Director at Data for Progress.