OPINION — Democratic congressional leaders did not intend to focus on climate change in 2019. Midterm exit polls reinforced voter concern over health care and the economy, and House veterans remember the fallout from their last major climate effort in 2010.
But reinvigorated progressives have forced climate change to the top of the House agenda. Unfortunately, the proposals featured in the various expressions of the Green New Deal are likely to drive deeper partisan divisions and diminish the chances for real action.
Several hundred progressive organizations recently sent a letter to Congress calling for the elimination of fossil fuels and requiring 100 percent renewable power in 10 years. The problem with this version of the Green New Deal is that any serious attempt to pursue it would wreck the economy. As a result, lawmakers are forced to choose between offering disingenuous support or dismissing it out of hand. Meanwhile, responsible discussion grounded in science and evidence is becoming more challenging.
Many environmental leaders are caught in the same conundrum, privately acknowledging that eliminating fossil fuels by 2030 is impossible but hoping that support for the Green New Deal will build political power that can somehow be harnessed to achieve more realistic goals. This is a mistake. The Green New Deal reinforces the caricature that climate advocacy is at odds with economic growth. Decarbonizing the economy over the next 30 years is necessary, difficult and achievable. Pretending that it is quick and easy only empowers the uncompromising hard-line elements within both political parties.
After a decade of reckless argument over the existence of the climate problem, we do not have time for a fact-free debate about climate solutions. Instead, the nation needs a Green “True” Deal that allows government and industry to work together to decarbonize our economy by 2050.
The pillars of a Green True Deal need to speak to both parties. It should include tripling federal investment in energy innovation to accelerate real breakthroughs in energy storage, advanced nuclear power, carbon capture from coal and gas, and technologies that will remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Congress should also consider an ambitious zero-carbon electricity standard that includes nuclear power and carbon capture along with energy efficiency, renewable wind and solar. Efforts to strengthen vehicle fuel economy must be put back on track and augmented with tax and infrastructure policies to enable the widespread deployment of new technologies. Quickly cutting emissions of other climate pollutants such as methane and hydrofluorocarbons must also be part of the package.
While making these investments, both parties must acknowledge the essential role that natural gas, oil and existing nuclear power will play during this this transition and work to cushion economic impacts and worker dislocations.
But to make any real progress, Congress must confront the long tradition of magical thinking in the climate debate. We often talk about the need for political courage to address tough challenges, and one of those moments is upon us. The climate problem is very real, and last year’s storms and horrific wildfires provide a glimpse of the future, absent meaningful action. The protection of the global climate may hinge on whether knowledgeable members of Congress have the integrity to call out the baseless and polarizing positions of extreme elements within their own parties.
For Republicans, the dispute over the existence of the climate problem is demeaning to the party, and it is past time for more members to say publicly what most acknowledge privately.
On the Democratic side, leaders must reject political theater in favor of a fact-based process that focuses on real solutions to a real problem. Fortunately, a growing group of environmental and industry leaders are ready to participate in a debate in which both the climate problem and proposed solutions are grounded in science, engineering and economics.
Over the next few months, we will learn if there are leaders in Congress with the integrity to demand a more honest and constructive climate debate.
Jason Grumet is founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.