Winning the politics of the climate crisis

Winning the politics of the climate crisis
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Democratic presidential candidates will try to outdo one another when they participate in CNN’s “Climate Forum” Wednesday. They will propose evermore ambitious plans to fight climate change.  Given the increasingly dire climate crisis, it’s about time. 

As the government’s own National Climate Assessment found last year, rapidly rising temperatures are already causing hundreds of billions of dollars a year in deadly climate-related impacts across the country.  More destructive hurricanes and extreme rainfall and floods, bigger wildfires, stronger storm surges, hotter heatwaves are growing worse more quickly than even most scientists anticipated.  The latest example is Hurricane Dorian, fueled by Atlantic sea surface temperatures 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above average, which is expected to make landfall along the East Coast Tuesday as a Category 2 hurricane

Democrats must condemn President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Warren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes MORE’s nihilistic climate policy rollbacks, and frame climate action as a matter of protecting public safety, national security and reducing long-term economic costs.

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But to beat Trump in 2020, and gain the power to deal with climate change, Democrats will also have to be much smarter about how they handle the electoral politics of energy in the states that will most likely decide the election. While voters in swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin do express support for renewable energy, they also rely heavily on natural gas production, especially, which has actually cut both carbon dioxide emissions and energy costs sharply in the last decade. 

As in 2016, the Trump campaign views energy and climate issues as crucial advantages in those states for 2020.  This was evidenced most recently by Trump’s remarks at an “energy rally” staged last month at a Pennsylvania petrochemical plant, which the president went out of his way to describe as “made possible by clean, affordable, all-American natural gas.”  He then parodied a couple discussing life under Democratic energy and climate plans: “Darling, I want to watch Donald Trump on television tonight. But the wind stopped blowing and I can’t watch.  There’s no electricity in the house.” 

Trump’s goal is to falsely portray climate change action as a culture war waged by left-wing elitists against average people. This signals a more sophisticated version of the “Trump Digs Coal” approach that itself proved effective against Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary Manafort sought to hurt Clinton 2016 campaign efforts in key states: NYT MORE in 2016.

Yet, a number of Democratic candidates are insisting on imposing impossible litmus tests of climate purity that seem to fulfill the Trump stereotype, and will only come back to haunt the eventual Democratic nominee if acceded to.  Before he dropped out of the race, Washington state Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeO'Rourke ends presidential bid Sunrise Movement organizer: Sanders, Warren boast strongest climate change plans Overnight Energy: Farmers say EPA reneged on ethanol deal | EPA scrubs senators' quotes from controversial ethanol announcement | Perry unsure if he'll comply with subpoena | John Kerry criticizes lack of climate talk at debate MORE spent the last debate trying to goad former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes 2020 Dems put focus on stemming veteran suicides MORE into agreeing to end fossil fuel use in a decade and a half. “We have to get off of fossil fuels from our electric grid in 15 years. Your plan simply does not do that,” he told Biden.   

In fact, Biden’s plan, like those of several other leading candidates, would get the U.S. to net zero emissions by 2050, as a key United Nations report last year has urged globally.  But the Trump campaign can only hope that candidates like Biden, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisWarren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Dems put focus on stemming veteran suicides The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary MORE (D-Calif.), and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes 2020 Dems put focus on stemming veteran suicides MORE (D-Mass.) fall for endorsing such a quick phase out of fossil fuels; the attack ad would write itself. 

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Sen. Bernie SandersBernie Sanders2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes 2020 Dems put focus on stemming veteran suicides The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary MORE (I-Vt.) has recently proposed a plan ending shale natural gas production immediately and require that all U.S. electricity come from renewable energy by 2030.  Yet, shale gas has been the key to cutting U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in the last decade,  displacing coal which has twice the carbon emissions. 

Pennsylvania produces the second most natural gas of any state, and it has used it to cut coal use since 2010 by more than half, lowering emissions in the process.  A majority of Keystone state residents use gas to directly heat their homes. In Ohio, full and part-time jobs in the shale industry totaled nearly 150,000 in 2015, the most recent year studied, with more than $7 billion in earnings. Low-cost gas has cut emissions and energy costs throughout the Midwest, and much of the rest of the country. 

Rather than calling for a ban on natural gas, Democrats should propose policies to make gas cleaner, like requiring that over time carbon capture and storage technologies be retrofitted to existing plants, and that methane emissions be sharply curtailed, thus making gas near zero-emitting. 

Nor is 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 necessary ecologically or remotely practical economically, as it would strand hundreds of trillions of dollars of existing assets and drive consumer costs far higher, causing political revolt.  Today, nuclear power provides more than 60 percent of U.S. zero-emissions power, and can continue to do so more cheaply for decades while we integrate ever more renewable energy.

In broader terms, Democrats must articulate to a concerned public what specific zero-emission energy sources can actually replace fossil fuels, which today still meet 80 percent of total U.S. energy demand.   

How can we speed the manufacture and deployment of electric vehicles to displace oil, now the largest source of U.S. emissions, and how can we make sure those EVs are built in the U.S., not China?  Which candidates support renewing the licenses of major nuclear power plants, which, and what role, if any, could “next generation” nuclear plants play?  When and how can we develop electricity storage to realistically move toward ever higher amounts of zero-emissions renewable wind and solar energy?  Why is there not greater focus on cutting non-carbon dioxide pollutants — methane, HFCs, and black carbon which cause as much as 40 percent of warming – and that are the key to limiting near-term temperatures increases? 

And crucially, what plans do candidates have to force other countries, which emit 85 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, to cut their emissions?  Should “carbon tariffs” be imposed against countries who refuse to cut emissions, as some candidates have suggested?

The climate plans of the leading Democratic candidates are the most ambitious in history — and they need to be.  But Democrats must gain the trust of American voters on energy issues to defeat the climate-denier-in-chief Donald Trump and address the climate crisis. Let’s have a serious, fact-based conversation about winning the politics, as well as the policy, of climate protection.

Paul Bledsoe is strategic advisor at the Progressive Policy Institute, and a lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy.  He served on the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.