Congress is ready to tackle climate change

Despite the recent Senate debate on the Green New Deal full of play-acting and show votes, members from both parties now appear open to meaningful dialogue on tackling greenhouse gas emissions. Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate have offered new proposals and engaged in conversations about solutions.

A legislative breakthrough on comprehensive climate legislation may be too much to hope for just yet. But one idea, in particular, offers this Congress a chance to make a strong down-payment on a solution to the climate crisis.

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Last month, Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderDemocrats hit Scalia over LGBTQ rights Here are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 EXCLUSIVE: Swing-state voters oppose 'surprise' medical bill legislation, Trump pollster warns MORE (R-Tenn.) gave a speech proposing a 5-year “New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy,” invoking the kind of rapid and urgent investment in research and development that occurred during World War II. One element of his proposal, in particular, deserves strong consideration: boosting federal funding for energy research. 

Alexander’s proposal specifically seeks to double funding for the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science. This office works closely with many of America’s 17 national laboratories, as well as universities around the country, to pursue projects that could unlock future clean energy breakthroughs.

These projects range from the development of next-generation batteries that would make electric cars the new normal to the advent of technologies for zero-carbon buildings or removing excess carbon dioxide directly from the air. They represent the kind of long-lead projects that federal research dollars have traditionally supported to advance new private sector opportunities. Some may ultimately produce game-changing innovations, while others may not produce practical applications for decades or at all.

Given the urgency of the climate crisis, Congress should also greatly increase funding for DOE’s applied energy programs and ARPA-E(Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy). These programs support the research, development and deployment of technologies more suited than long-term science to rapid commercialization — often through collaborations with the private sector.

Of course, we can’t merely innovate our way out of the climate challenge. As soon as possible, America needs a comprehensive federal climate policy. A strong regulatory framework offers markets predictability and accountability. And a price on carbon — such as the Baker-Schultz plan that has attracted support from conservatives and businesses alike — would be the clear market signal that unleashes the innovation and speed of the private sector. A well-resourced energy research agenda would underpin this framework by enabling breakthroughs that allow actors throughout the economy to move farther and faster.

Businesses and other actors are already shifting toward a clean energy economy and calling for broader change. More than 3,600 cities, states, businesses and other entities have joined the We Are Still In initiative and declared their support for the Paris Agreement. Over 100 U.S. cities have adopted 100 percent renewable energy goals. Nearly 550 companies across the globe have pledged to set science-based climate targets. But few if any of these actors can establish nationwide regulations or finance clean energy breakthroughs at scale. Along with a price on carbon, that’s where we need federal action.

Behind the theatrics, it’s clear that Congress has an appetite to make progress on climate change. Shortly after the Green New Deal vote, House Democrats introduced the Climate Action Now Act (H.R. 9), consistent with their ongoing drumbeat of efforts on this front. This bill aims to keep the U.S. from withdrawing from the historic Paris Agreement and calls for a plan to cut America’s carbon pollution. House Republicans like Rep. Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickHouse Democrats targeting six more Trump districts for 2020 Ensuring quality health care for those with intellectual disabilities and autism House Democrats target 2020 GOP incumbents in new ad MORE of Pennsylvania and Rep. Francis RooneyLaurence (Francis) Francis RooneyMomentum is growing to fight climate change by pricing carbon Bill Weld on climate change: Let the market decide Overnight Energy: House moves to block Trump drilling | House GOP rolls out proposal to counter offshore drilling ban | calls mount for NOAA probe MORE of Florida have joined with several Democrats to support a carbon pricing approach.

And in the Senate, Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Walmart to stop selling e-cigarettes | Senators press FDA to pull most e-cigarettes immediately | House panel tees up e-cig hearing for next week Bipartisan group of senators urges FDA to pull most e-cigarettes immediately Sinema touts bipartisan record as Arizona Democrats plan censure vote MORE (R-Alaska) joined with Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinO'Rourke gun confiscation talk alarms Democrats Clarence Thomas, Joe Manchin, Rudy Giuliani among guests at second state visit under Trump Schumer: I don't know any 'Democrat who agrees' with O'Rourke on gun seizures MORE (D-W. Va.) to jumpstart hearings on climate change in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — the first such hearings since 2012. They too are proposing an innovation agenda.

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These and other developments show that leaders from both parties recognize the urgent need to address climate risk. We are optimistic that action on a carbon price will follow in due course.

While comprehensive climate policy remains challenging under the current administration, that doesn’t mean we can’t put its building blocks in place now. An investment in clean energy R&D for both near-term and longer-term technologies offers fertile ground for bipartisan cooperation. It could unleash a wave of innovations and further embolden cities, states and companies working to slash emissions. At a moment when we need to pursue progress where we can, when we can, it’s a smart proposal that could deliver real results — even as we urge allies of all political stripes to implement the broader policy framework that we need. 

Carter Roberts is president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in the United States.