A Climate Policy for the People

Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa via AP Images

Environmentalists rally on the steps of the Oregon State Capitol in Salem during a lobby day organized by the Oregon Conservation Network

This summer, epic storms and fires in the United States provided some worrisome climate signals. Hurricane Harvey produced rains so strong that meteorologists added new colors to their radar maps. Hurricane Irma maintained Category 5 winds for 37 hours, a record for cyclones. The “unprecedented” wildfires in northern California were a product, in part, of the unusually hot and dry summer.

As the newly released Fourth National Climate Assessment makes clear, the planet is under siege. I’ve watched these disasters with a sense of dread mixed with outrage. My parents had to evacuate their Santa Rosa retirement community because of the wildfires. Luckily, their home was spared. It was surreal to learn about their plight on the same day that the Trump administration announced the repeal of the Clean Power Plan. Yet the reaction to this repeal has been somewhat muted compared to the attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act or DACA. If Americans don’t start dealing with these issues today, exactly when will the country confront the reality of climate change?

Obviously the most immediate roadblock to climate action is the Trump administration and the climate deniers in Congress. However, President Obama presided over the largest expansion in oil and gas extraction in the nation’s history and did not act as forcefully on climate as he could have during his two terms. Yet President Trump, the fossil fuel industry, and their congressional allies pose an unparalleled threat to the planet. Americans need to start immediately building a climate coalition that can actually make the changes needed to confront the problem.

Climate advocates must develop new political strategies. They have been staunch opponents of fossil fuel infrastructure projects like the Keystone XL pipeline, but they also need a broader vision of national-scale policies that can energize popular support. Perhaps one reason why the response to the Clean Power Plan repeal has been so underwhelming is that it’s difficult to explain how the repeal affects the average person. Repealing the ACA would have taken away health insurance from millions of people, while ending DACA may mean deportation for undocumented young people whose parents brought them to the United States.

But if you asked most Americans about the climate policy repeal, few would be able to explain the policy, let alone how it helps them. While surveys suggest Americans broadly support taking bold steps to address climate change, a 2016 University of Maryland/Program for Public Consultation poll found that seven in ten Americans had barely heard of Obama’s signature climate policy. Moreover, a majority of those polled do not believe that climate change will affect them personally.

Americans need to see that climate policy solutions produce tangible improvements in their daily live. The Clean Power Plan offered some answers: using regulation to shift the electricity sector toward cleaner sources of energy. But the concepts beloved by energy wonks like a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system are inscrutable to the average person. The U.S. also should build a popular, mass climate movement to counter the entrenched power of the fossil fuel industry—that is, what journalist Kate Aronoff calls “low carbon populism.” That kind of movement would help Americans who have yet to be affected by climate-change induced disasters to understand how climate solutions will directly improve their daily struggles to pay for housing, food, and health care.

The current liberal climate policy consensus that dominated the Obama years focuses on passing on the “costs” of emissions onto polluters through taxes, regulations, or caps. Anti-climate forces argue these policies will harm working people. But the climate advocates could galvanize people by offering more progressive ideas for delivering cheaper energy solutions for low-income people. While some energy experts think the problem is that energy is too cheap, try explaining that to people who struggle to fill their gas tasks and pay for electricity and heating bills.

During the 2016 election campaign, Bernie Sanders’s plan for free college for all energized many of his supporters, particularly young people. Medicare-for-all was seen as an idealistic pipe dream in 2015 when Sanders first proposed that plan. But now potential 2020 Democratic presidential contenders like Senators Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey are endorsing the idea.

Americans should embrace “energy for all.” An idea like that might all sound like a pipe dream, but some scientists suggest it is technically possible to meet the country’s energy needs with renewable power. Moreover, as solar and wind power costs continue to plummet, renewable power may eventually provide energy that is “too cheap to meter.” Cheaper renewable power is also a great way to make fossil fuels less profitable. (Typically, energy policy analysts suggest the opposite: raising the price of fossil fuels to compete with renewables.).

The cost of solar and wind power is almost entirely up front: Once constructed, wind turbines, solar panels, and electric storage systems (large batteries or pumped hydroelectric systems) could deliver free and inexhaustible flows of energy indefinitely. As political economist Andreas Malm has shown, a shared, commons or “flow” resource like sunshine or wind cannot be enclosed, privatized, and sold (like barrels of oil). This situation creates problems for the private sector, because it is not clear how corporations can maintain acceptable profit margins. Americans have ceded the construction of renewable infrastructure to the private sector today, but there is a better way to pay these upfront infrastructure costs to build an energy-for-all vision.

Public subsidies for residential solar and wind adoption must be preserved (even if federal programs are under threat by Trump). The public sector can also build the transmission lines and storage systems that can connect them. Historically, the public sector builds the massive infrastructure projects that the private deems unprofitable. Consider that the Rural Electrification Act, one of the major components of the New Deal, was premised on delivering energy to poor rural areas that the private sector ignored. Economist Robert Pollin suggests that a “Green New Deal” could also create public sector jobs building a new energy infrastructure system funded in part by a carbon tax. However, a carbon tax is a tough sell: Liberal Washington state said no to a carbon tax in 2016.

Sanders proposed financing his college-for-all plan with a “Wall Street tax.” Climate activists should take a page of the Vermont senator’s playbook and campaign for a “fossil fuel industry tax” to finance cheap or free energy, which would be levied on the industry actors most responsible for the climate crisis–fossil fuel producers and other carbon-intensive industries like steel, cement, and chemicals. If those taxes were dedicated to building new energy systems that could deliver low cost or free energy to all Americans, voters might support a movement dedicated to making “energy for all” a reality—especially if leading progressive politicians also embraced the idea.

The planetary crisis of climate change is as dire as the financial cataclysm of the Great Depression. But unlike the stock market crash, climate change is a slow-moving threat has had uneven impacts on daily life in the United States so far. Nevertheless, the climate advocates should press for bold action. Even if most people do not understand the dangers that greenhouse gases pose, they will certainly back policies that aim to deliver lower cost energy. If the U.S. wants to dent climate change, climate advocates and policymakers need to start formulating policies that the American people can understand and support.

This story was posted in conjunction with the Scholars Strategy Network.

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