Opinion | Energy & Environment

A better solution to climate change

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

As scientists, advocates, and lawmakers from around the world gather for the climate summit this month, their talks will be animated by the chance that a new Democratic administration can make climate change a priority, with or without Republican support. Joe Biden proposed "executive orders with unprecedented reach" in his climate plan, and Kamala Harris said she is "prepared to get rid of the filibuster to pass a Green New Deal."

But transforming the economy will take lots of private sector investments that will not occur if companies anticipate policy whiplash with every shift for political power. We have a collision of inconvenient truths. The climate crisis demands our immediate action, yet to sustain ambitious policy over multiple election cycles takes some measure of bipartisan support.

Advocates of the Green New Deal point to Franklin Roosevelt to make the case that dramatic change can occur in times of crisis. But Roosevelt took office with Democrats in control of the House and Senate. Even if they win the Senate this year, their margin will be razor thin. Further, the politics for members from energy intensive "purple" states such as Arizona, Montana, and West Virginia will still be extremely difficult, and their Senate support, especially if climate legislation is viewed as a purely partisan exercise, will be far from solid. Moreover, ending the filibuster would also facilitate new weakening or repeal of climate mandates by any future Congress.

Barack Obama, who ran on climate change and took office during the economic downturn, did not get action on climate legislation despite unified control of Congress in the first two years of his administration. Instead, fuel economy standards and limits for power plant emissions were advanced by executive action, leaving them vulnerable to future reversals. Executive power has limits. Such rollbacks in environmental rules by Donald Trump have not actually brought back coal jobs.

Meanwhile, our experience with the Affordable Care Act notes the broad drawbacks of a strictly partisan strategy. Despite the appeal with raising health care benefits now then paying for them later, the decade of bitter opposition undermined implementation and even generated significant uncertainty with the future of health policy. Tackling climate change will be even harder, as it will need trillions of dollars to transform our energy systems without offering many citizens any immediate benefits.

Finding balance that is ambitious to progressives, responsive to scientists, and yet pragmatic enough to win support with organized labor, corporate leaders, and some Republicans will be about as simple as landing a plane on an aircraft carrier at night on a bad storm. It will not be made easier by using climate legislation to address other policy goals. Adding in a higher minimum wage with carbon reductions, for instance, makes little sense. It starts an undesirable conflict between the progressives, who view market disruption as unavoidable and worth incurring with society, and the more traditional energy policy advocates, who want to work with companies to lower carbon levels in ways that minimize such market disruption.

Meanwhile, the plane we must land is low on fuel, in the sense that we must act fast to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Fortunately, Biden has a history with climate policy that gives him some latitude to navigate such conflicts and work with those like Chris Coons and Mike Braun, who lead a bipartisan climate caucus in the Senate, to forge an aggressive but pragmatic agenda. This could include an infrastructure legislation that supports climate solutions, more funds to clean energy research and development, the bill that incentivizes carbon reductions from farms and forests, legislation to lower carbon levels for the power sector, and investments in new technology for clean energy.

This approach offers the best hope for achieving such ambitious climate targets while sustaining broad public support. It would be tempting for a new president to declare the national climate emergency, sign executive orders, make many inspirational remarks, and enact a partisan legislative agenda that is either not actionable or unsustainable. This strategy could take relatively little time or political capital, plus there are definitely other challenges competing for attention. But the better and harder alternative is to create the consensus necessary to motivate and sustain a transition to a zero carbon national economy over the next three decades.

William Reilly is a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Jason Grumet is the president for the Bipartisan Policy Center.