The climate primary is heating up

The climate primary is heating up
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Against the backdrop of a Trump administration that has descended into full blown climate denial, it may seem like a strange time to feel hopeful about our clean energy future. To be fair, we aren’t doing well as a country right now preparing for that future.

The administration’s head-in-the-sand approach to everything that might restore us to a course out of climate crisis, even as greenhouse gas-fueled disasters dominate the headlines, goes beyond short-sighted to outright parody. Look no further than their recent coinage of the Orwellian term “freedom molecules” to describe fossil fuels, which keep us shackled to decades of economic, environmental and health harms, to see how through the looking glass we’ve traveled. But there are real glimmers of hope among the current president’s future opponents, where we see a seriousness and detailed focus we’ve never seen before at this level of prominence.

The Green New Deal (and the UN Climate Change report laying out the urgent need for action that inspired it) has largely set out the framework for all the plans — a pathway to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and 10-year mobilization starting immediately to deliver it. Recognizing not only the climate emergency we’re facing, but the scope and the prominence in voters’ minds, candidates are rightly elevating these plans beyond the usual “protect the environment” issue page, the Democratic candidates have been rolling out increasingly bold, aggressive plans to deliver on this promise of making a better world.  

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All the plans recognize solving the climate crisis will require mobilizing trillions of dollars of investment and eliminating the implicit subsidy that fossil fuels enjoy in not having to pay for their use of the atmosphere as a free sewer for their waste. Any of them would be an enormous advance over our current head-in-the-sand approach.

Candidates such as Beto O’Rourke and Joe Biden, generally known for their efforts on other issues, have recognized the moment and have produced solid plans to divert us from our current path toward impoverishing the next generation. But they aren’t alone. 

As a person involved in climate policy for over two decades, what jumps out at me as different this time around is the way in which some of the plans, in particular, go beyond approaching this issue as a regulatory matter and see it as a fundamental opportunity to address inequities in our economy.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) both stand out, for example, in how job-centered their plans are — laying out in detail not only how their plans meet the challenge of the climate crisis but make sure the solution results in a net economic gain for the entire country — both rural and suburban — in the process. 

Warren focuses first on the real opportunity in green manufacturing, making it a priority that the clean energy goods and services procured by the federal government are made by American workers and that American companies have a leadership role in the global clean energy race. Importantly, Warren also links her proposals to the ongoing fight with fossil fuel interests over existing climate-friendly policies such as the Renewable Fuel Standard and the Clean Power Plan, recognizing that it’s only a taste of how big the coming fight will be. 

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Inslee, who has centered his whole campaign on addressing the climate crisis, has produced inarguably the most comprehensive plan for the transition, also with specific requirements for union representation, wage requirements, and community involvement meant to ensure the jobs created are among the most desirable in our economy.

His plan is also a specific recognition that not only are there millions of good jobs in growing industries delivering clean energy in power, transportation, construction and industry, the technology advances have been so great that our remade energy system will be cheaper than our current one. The fact is, the “green” economy is one where Americans can power their homes, drive their cars and run their factories for less money than they spend today in a fossil fuel-driven economy that causes so much harm.

It’s a fundamental American belief that each generation owes it to the next to help in their climb, rather than pull the ladder up behind them and setting us on this clean path is the moral imperative of this political moment. As rural organizer Latosha Brown articulated so well, rural voters can be reached by Democrats, if they see candidates are fighting for them, and the fight for clean energy jobs is fertile ground. The strength of the climate and jobs plans coming from Democratic candidates so far make it seem that the fight is on.

Mike Carr is executive director of New Energy America. He previously served as principal deputy assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and as senior counsel on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.