Last week, after the Biden administration approved the nation’s first major offshore wind energy farm, the previous president was agitated enough to issue a statement denouncing the project. “Wind is an incredibly expensive form of energy that kills birds, affects the sea, ruins the landscape, and creates disasters for navigation,” he complained. Aside from the usual slew of lies, Trump’s continued his odd habit of attacking the Democrats’ climate agenda at its strongest point. Wind power is plentiful, inexpensive, and so broadly popular that turbines appear in campaign ads by candidates in both parties so often they’re practically cliché.
Moving up toward the loftier points in the Republican intellectual firmament, the objections to the Democrats’ climate agenda are less overtly comic, yet still very far from serious. National Review, as prestigious a conservative organ as can be found, still runs articles on the subject, making crank observations like “Each human exhales about two pounds of the ‘pollutant’ carbon dioxide every day” and “history shows that warmings of a few degrees Celsius — which extended growing seasons — have been good for humanity.”
The only detectable change in the Republican Party’s climate posture over the past decade and a half is that it has evolved from embracing fossil fuels to spite Al Gore to embracing fossil fuels to spite Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And yet the need for a reality-based Republican policy on climate change is greater than ever. The emerging formation of the Biden administration’s climate agenda is already revealing the strains of single-party policy-making. If Republicans were capable of thinking sensibly about climate policy — obviously a purely hypothetical notion at the moment — the space to do so is available.
The need for a conservative climate agenda is amply demonstrated by the shambolic failure of high-speed rail in California. In 2009, President Obama signed a stimulus bill that included partial funding for a project California’s voters had already approved: a rail network that would allow a trip between L.A. and San Francisco in two and a half hours. Even though the state has poured billions into the project, a dozen years later it has almost nothing to show for it. Republicans aren’t the problem. Democrats control the state government, but construction and approval have been snarled in endless local and environmental review.
The California rail debacle is not unique. The United States has gotten miserably bad at building new things. Our subways cost many times per mile what they cost in other countries, and even roads have gotten slower and costlier to construct. Authority to build large infrastructure projects is fragmented between national, state, and local governments. Even for local-scale building, the most provincial interests can easily veto new projects, or make approval so long and costly that it’s not worth the hassle.
When environmentalism became a mass movement in the United States, beginning around 60 years ago, global warming barely registered as a major concern. In recent decades, it has become humanity’s central environmental challenge. But the movement’s DNA is still somewhat mismatched for the problem.
Some of those blind spots can be seen in specific issues. Nuclear power is the most obvious example. As a large source of zero-emission energy, nuclear power plays an important role in weaning the power grid off fossil fuels. Wind and solar energy have lots of room to expand, but will need a complementary source that doesn’t require access to sun and wind.
Nuclear power was one of the primary targets for the movement a generation ago. There’s a reason the villain in The Simpsons operates a nuclear power plant; in the ’80s, nuclear power seemed far more dangerous than coal. Many environmental activists got into the movement in the first place to stop nuclear power. As global warming has become its primary concern, the movement has moved toward embracing nuclear power, but it hasn’t fully jettisoned its anti-nuclear roots. Environmental groups remain split on nuclear power, and Democratic administrations have had little success promoting it. Just this month, Indian Point nuclear plant in New York shut down, throwing the state’s progress toward zero emissions into reverse.
Another example is the development of devices to remove and store carbon from the atmosphere. The technology to do this is still in its infancy, but has showed real promise — and yet both environmental activists and Democrats have met the notion with indifference, or even hostility. “To prevent dangerous levels of climate change, it’s likely that humanity will need to start pulling carbon out of the air,” reported Grist. “The leading Democrats running for the White House, however, don’t seem so sure.”
Labor is another source of friction between Democrats and environmental goals. Putting unemployed coal miners to work building wind turbines sounds nice in theory. In practice, it often means shutting down unionized jobs and replacing them with non-union jobs. The Biden administration has prioritized building its new green-energy infrastructure with domestically manufactured components, pushing up the cost. Democrats have tried to smooth over the friction, but there are important tensions within their coalition between preserving current jobs and transitioning the economy, and between paying high wages and building new infrastructure as cost effectively as possible.
Transitioning to a zero-carbon economy will require huge amounts of change, disruption, innovation, and profit — all things that can make progressives uncomfortable. Many cities have blocked looser zoning rules that would allow denser construction near mass transit — precisely the kinds of changes to the built environment needed to reduce fossil fuel use — only to be stymied by local activists who associate change with the financial interests of developers. The old environmental movement’s instinctive veneration of the old, and distrust of change in general and profit in particular, is an impediment that conservatives ought to be able to avoid.
A reality-based Republican Party could be offering cheaper, better ways to decarbonize the economy. Stop trying to own the libs by propping up coal plants. Start trying to own the libs by promoting dynamism and economy: More nuclear power, less concern for the wages of the people employed in the energy sector and more concern for holding down costs, and a willingness to identify and cut through red tape to get things done.
In the absence of such an alternative, the Democratic Party is the only game in town for people who take climate change seriously. You go to war with the political coalition you have, and Democrats have no margin for error in Congress. Every policy design has to optimize for party unity rather than maximum impact. The only hurdle a Democratic climate agenda needs to clear is the question, Does this plan make more sense than allowing polluters to dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at no cost, forever?
A practical Republican climate agenda would have its own real-world constituencies to deal with and limits of its own. But that kind of party could still play off the Democrats in a helpful way — if nothing else, by expanding the potential voting coalition for pro-climate policies, and giving Democratic administrations more flexibility to replace the bad ideas on their side with good ideas from the other. At the moment, those ideas scarcely exist and have no meaningful Republican support. A better world will require a better opposition.