There is no "moderate" position on climate change

There is no "moderate" position on climate change

Democrats must resist the call to constrain their ambitions.

Perhaps the most politically difficult aspect of climate change is that, after decades of denial and delay, there is no longer any coherent “moderate” position to be had.

To allow temperatures to rise past 1.5° or 2°C this century is to accept unthinkable disruption to agriculture, trade, immigration, public health, and basic social cohesion. To hold temperature rise to less than 1.5° or 2°C this century will require enormous, heroic decarbonization efforts on the part of every wealthy country.

Either of those outcomes is, in its own way, radical. There is no non-radical future available for the US in decades to come. Our only choice is the proportions of the mix: action vs. impacts. The less action we and other countries take to address the threat, the more impacts we will all suffer.

Politicians who hamper the effort to decarbonize and increase resilience are not moderates. They are effectively choosing a mix of low action and high impacts — ever-worsening heat waves, droughts, floods, and hurricanes. There is nothing moderate about that, certainly nothing conservative.

For years, climate scientists, advocates, and activists have been trying to get politicians to understand this about climate change: that indifference and inaction are not neutral. Every day that goes by, more damages are baked in and getting the problem under control is more difficult. The cost of preventing future impacts is tiny relative to the cost, in lives and money, of adapting to them.

The only way to conserve what Americans love in this country is to act aggressively to limit carbon emissions, commercialize clean-energy technologies, and wind down fossil fuel production — and help other countries to do the same. To do less means to conserve less, to accept more loss.

Has the Democratic Party taken this message to heart? We’re going to find out in coming weeks.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, talking to reporters during infrastructure negotiations. (Photo: Getty Images)
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, talking to reporters about infrastructure negotiations. (Photo: Getty Images)

I’m going to describe some political forces that threaten to limit or constrain Democrats’ climate ambitions in favor of “moderation” and then take a closer look at the political drama going on in DC these days around infrastructure. We’re about to get an unusually clear test case of Democrats’ commitment to climate policy.


The right is creating a new “other side” in the climate debate

Pretty much every demographic outside of hard-core conservatives is concerned about climate change and wants to address it — most notably young people, who aren’t exactly flocking to the GOP these days. A few people on the right are belatedly and begrudgingly recognizing this fact and its electoral implications.

Lisa Friedman of The New York Times brings news of a budding Republican climate caucus. The story is hilarious and sad and worth reading, but here is the nut of it:

“There is a recognition within the G.O.P. that if the party is going to be competitive in national elections, in purple states and purple districts, there needs to be some type of credible position on climate change,” said George David Banks, a former adviser to President Trump …

So, at least some Republicans think science denialism is no longer working and the party needs “some type of credible position on climate change.” The question is, what is the minimum viable position? What’s the least they can do while appearing to do something?

Here is the party’s opening gambit:

A package of bills [House Minority Leader Kevin] McCarthy [R-CA] introduced on Earth Day championed carbon capture, a nascent and expensive technology that catches carbon emissions generated by power plants or factories and stores them before they escape into the atmosphere. It also promoted tree planting and expansion of nuclear energy, a carbon-free power source that many Republicans prefer over wind or solar energy.

Friedman rightly notes that these policies would do very little to reduce emissions. But she also calls them “limited government, free-market policies,” which is a bit of right-wing spin we ought to reject. Carbon capture is entirely dependent on government subsidies and regulatory support. So is nuclear power. So is large-scale reforestation. These are all the very opposite of limited government.

What unites these proposals is that they can plausibly be said to address climate change in some way or another, but they do nothing to limit or otherwise inconvenience GOP donors, especially fossil fuel companies. In fact, carbon capture can be viewed — and likely is viewed by Republicans — explicitly as a bid to protect fossil fuels from climate policy.

Remember, the problem for which Republicans are solving is not climate change but the need to be seen as having “some type of credible position” on climate change, enough for suburban voters to reassure themselves that the GOP is not unreasonable on the issue — that there are once again two legitimate sides. 

Science denial looks ugly and extreme. But rhetoric about “small-government solutions” that are more sensible than the “tax and spend” Democratic alternatives? Well, that’s as soothing and familiar as warm milk. 

It might be possible for Democrats, if they were united in their message, to properly expose this Republican climate PR as the fraud it is … but they are not united in their message. 

Manchin is helping position fossil-friendly policy as “the center”

The majority of the Democratic Party, both voters and legislators, is on board with an ambitious (if still insufficient) climate plan. But on this issue, as on all others, Democrats need total unanimity — it’s all 50 senators voting together, or nothing passes.

So attention tends to focus on the most conservative Dems, the swing votes, and their words carry added weight. 

Senator Joe Manchin, talking to reporters about infrastructure negotiations. (Photo: Getty Images)
Sen. Joe Manchin, talking to reporters about infrastructure negotiations. (Photo: Getty Images)

Republicans want to pretend that climate change is just another pollution problem and the solution is for fossil fuels to clean up a little bit. They want to pretend that “innovation” can keep fossil fuels going forever.

Democrats need to expose that as nonsense, but they can’t, because Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is out there saying, “You cannot eliminate your way to a cleaner environment. You can innovate your way.”

Republicans want to pretend that coal can be saved, that it can somehow find a way to compete in a decarbonizing world. 

Democrats need to expose that as nonsense, but they’ve got Manchin out there whining that his fellow Democrats are “unfairly targeting” coal.

Republicans want to pretend that decarbonizing the electricity sector by 2035 (Biden’s timeline) is impossible.

Democrats need to expose that as nonsense, but they’ve got Manchin out there “concerned” about Biden’s “aggressive” timeline. 

Republicans want to pretend that climate isn’t a threat to the financial system.

Democrats need to expose that as nonsense, but they’ve got Manchin out there scolding big banks for adopting zero-carbon goals. 

Democratic leadership has to tiptoe around all this stuff, because everyone needs to keep Prince Manchin happy.

The result, though, is that in the eyes of the media, the majority Democratic Party consensus on climate change (as reflected in Biden’s climate plan!) becomes “the left” in a debate with Manchin in “the center.” 

Are Democrats going to allow that to happen? The dynamic is going to come to a head around the infrastructure bill. Let’s take a look at the maneuvering taking place right now.

The bipartisan infrastructure plan is not a climate strategy

For weeks, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has been open about the fact that Democrats are pursuing a two-track strategy on infrastructure legislation. A bipartisan Senate “gang of ten,” including Manchin, is working on a bipartisan bill; whatever doesn’t make it into that bill will go into a bill meant to pass through budget reconciliation (which only requires 50 votes).

This has always been a tenuous strategy, but it was apparently unavoidable, because Manchin and his crew of centrists refused to proceed straight to reconciliation. They were determined to do the bipartisan dance that has eaten up the past few weeks.

Last week, the bipartisan group presented an outline of a plan. It would involve $1.2 trillion total spending — about half of the $2.25 trillion in Biden’s infrastructure plan — and just $579 billion in new spending. Democrats fought off Republican efforts to impose a special fee on electric vehicles and raise the gas tax to pay for the bill. Republicans fought off Democratic efforts to pay for it by rolling back Trump tax cuts. They’re still not sure how they’re going to pay for it.

As for climate, the plan has … some stuff. There’s $73 billion for power system infrastructure (HVDC lines!), which is, the White House claims, “the single largest investment in clean energy transmission in American history.” There’s $49 billion for public transit, $66 billion for rail, $7.5 billion for electric vehicle chargers, and another $7.5 billion for electric buses.

It’s better than nothing, and more than a Republican Congress would offer. It’s a small down payment on the investments in clean energy infrastructure that will be needed in the future.

But it’s not a climate plan. Not even in the ballpark.

A real climate plan will include a reconciliation-friendly clean energy standard (CES), clean energy tax credits, a civilian climate corps, investments in frontline communities, and the rest of the climate commitments in Biden’s jobs plan. That’s where the reconciliation bill comes in.

Of course, climate isn’t the only issue competing for inclusion in that bill. At this point, every Democratic interest group is lining up to have its priorities included. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has put together a $6 trillion bill as an opening gambit.

Politico captures the conventional wisdom: “The dollar amount … is likely to shrink as moderates weigh in. At the moment, it appears impossible that all 50 Democrats would get on board with such a large figure.”

Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) are typically seen as the ones with leverage, since their votes will be needed for any reconciliation bill. And they are already making noise that the Democratic plan is too big. Something blah blah deficit something.

But there’s a twist.

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Progressives throw their weight around

Progressives have been trying to exercise a little leverage of their own. They are insisting that the bipartisan bill not be passed on its own, without being linked to the reconciliation bill. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) said, “It has to be one deal and not two deals.” Sanders said, “It's going to be either both or nothing.”

They want an “ironclad” pledge from Schumer that both bills will get a vote before they commit to the first. And so far, Schumer has said he is committed to doing both. "One can't be done without the other,” he said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has been similarly categorical:

No, really.

This message extended all the way to the top. Even as he introduced the bipartisan package, Biden said:

I expect that in the coming months this summer, before the fiscal year is over, that we will have voted on this bill, the infrastructure bill, as well as voted on the budget resolution. But if only one comes to me, [if] this is the only one that comes to me, I’m not signing it. It’s in tandem.

Republicans immediately pretended to be surprised and outraged by Biden’s commitment to pass both bills. Some of them threatened to bail on the bipartisan package.

In response to the faux outrage, Biden clarified that he was not threatening a veto or linking the bills.

It is entirely possible — some might even say thuddingly predictable — that Republicans were never negotiating in good faith and that the whole point of the exercise was to waste time and foster division among Democrats.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) wants to prevent a reconciliation bill. The bipartisan process was a way to blunt Democrats’ momentum and slow things down. I expect he will be perfectly willing to blow up the deal if it no longer serves that purpose.

The question is what Manchin and Sinema will do if their bipartisan deal falls apart. At that point, both they and the progressives on the other side of the coalition will face the same stark choice: find a reconciliation bill that can get 50 votes … or get nothing, and be known forever as the people who tanked Biden’s presidency and denied Democrats their only chance for structural change in a decade.

The stakes are incredibly high. Schumer is promising a “unity budget” that will bring Democrats together, but strains are showing already.

Exactly what and how much climate policy will be in the reconciliation bill will be hashed out in coming weeks.

A campaign (from the Sunrise Movement and Evergreen Action) called “No Climate, No Deal” has been endorsed by a dozen Democratic senators and 38 reps. But it’s not clear what minimum threshold counts as enough climate to get their vote.

This is where the battle between climate “moderation” and climate realism is going to be fought. Manchin will be angling to blunt the parts of Biden’s climate plan that directly displace fossil fuels. But those are the most important parts.

Sunrise pickets the White House. (Photo: Getty Images)
Sunrise pickets the White House. (Photo: Getty Images)

It will be up to progressives to walk a tightrope, rejecting false moderation and insisting on an appropriately ambitious climate plan without tanking the deal entirely. Finding unity and holding it together against what is certain to be a full-on right-wing assault is a fraught undertaking, to say the least.

The pressure in DC to do less, to compromise and scale back, is insidious and inexorable. But this is the moment of truth for climate change in US politics. If big stuff doesn’t happen now, it’s not going to happen for a long, long time.

No climate, no deal.

Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)