Rising to the Climate Challenge, One Step at a Time

For the first time, democratic presidential candidates will engage with a live and televised audience organized for the sole purpose of discussing climate change. It is not the official debate that many in the climate community hoped for, but it is perhaps the most in-depth coverage of the issue in a presidential campaign to date. Each candidate will have to thread an impossibly small needle—illustrating a serious-enough plan to garner support from the progressive base while also achieving a level of practicality to assuage the fears of moderate voters. In truth, some candidates will not try to accomplish this feat. The progressive wing will simply suggest that the urgency of the problem requires more drastic solutions and that the consequences of not doing so are so great that there is no other choice than to act. They have a very valid point. The moderate wing will suggest that yes, bold action must be taken, but that it must be realistic and achievable lest more time be wasted. They are probably right, too.

The entire democratic field of contenders have put out plans to address climate change. They fall along spectrums of expense and ambition and involve different mixes of government and private-sector action, including by federal or local entities at the national or international levels. The campaign cycle has re-energized the broader public dialogue about climate change but oftentimes in the same old divisive ways (Do you support a carbon tax? Will you ban fracking? How much will you spend on the issue?). Here are four themes that deserve time and attention during this campaign cycle and our public policy debate on climate change more broadly:

  1. All Climate Change Is Local – Whether Americans like it or not, the United States is not on track to slow and reverse the impacts of a warming climate. Efforts to reduce emissions in support of climate stabilization are truly a global challenge, but the impacts are and will be felt locally. Any new administration, Republican or Democrat, must address the fact that communities are not prepared for these impacts. Communities are not resilient. Households and businesses by and large do not have the savings to cope with extensive damage to their homes, land, or businesses. Insurance providers will be overwhelmed by the increasing rate and severity of impacts, and emergency and disaster response systems will struggle to deliver services. The United States needs a national conversation about resilience and disaster preparedness. For conservative voices, the United States needs to help people help themselves to prepare for and bounce back from climate impacts, whether they happen in the form of a strong storm, fires, or simply in the changes to environmental conditions that underpin a way of life. For small government proponents, much of this preparation can be done at the local level; individuals can become better prepared to deal with a changing climate just by being more informed about the impacts and assessing their vulnerability. For moderates, there is a lot the government can do to help aid in these efforts through tax incentives, direct financial support, requirements to build better infrastructure, and support for planning efforts. For progressives, there is a huge opportunity to help frontline communities and do so in a way that improves equity and environmental justice by simply providing basic services to communities that lack them today—the clean air and clean water that President Trump seems to think Americans have everywhere today.

  2. Moderate Climate Policy Need Not Be Mediocre – There are policies that already enjoy relatively broad local, state, and federal support that can and should be pursued with gusto at the local, state, and federal levels. These include a clean energy standard (building off renewable portfolio standards at the state level), energy efficiency and clean energy tax incentives, support for research and development, investment in climate-friendly infrastructure, and clean purchasing programs. All these areas have some opposition, but they are the policies that exist today, have existed, and are being advanced in many parts of the country. They have ready-made constituencies to advance them and well-understood policy mechanisms to carry them out. Experts can argue about whether they are the best, most cost-effective, or most desirable policy approaches from a design perspective, but there are ways to mitigate the less desirable attributes of things like renewable portfolio standards, clean energy tax incentives, investment in R&D, and efficiency incentives. Advocates might argue that these approaches are not enough to deliver the necessary emissions reduction gains, but they can be designed to be more aggressive. Also, importantly, each one of these approaches is impactful enough to yield material emissions reduction outcomes, either now or in the future, but narrow enough not to require massive legislative accomplishments to achieve.

  3. The United States Needs a New Deal, So Why Not Make It Green – Political structures like the new deal are fundamentally about reconstituting the social compact between the government and the governed. Americans are living in an era of intense technological, social, and economic change. At the same time, the world’s challenges, like climate change, are becoming more global and integrated; the government’s ability to deliver on the basic needs of its citizens in an equitable way is faltering. At the core of right-wing populism, left-wing populism, and centrist apathy is the recognition that a common vision for the future, the U.S. social fabric, and Americans’ basic compact with the U.S. government all need refreshing. Climate change can benefit from this dialogue because many of the investments we need to make in providing basic resources, improving our competitiveness, and addressing inequality can be achieved through similar policies and investments. Giving communities access to clean air and clean water is a good example. Engaging rural communities about their economic future is another. As I wrote in an earlier posting, the Green New Deal as currently structured will go further in delivering results when it serves as a rallying cry, not a litmus test, when it expands its appeal along the ideological spectrum, and when it can be a shared international vision. The idea has already spread to the local and international levels and has been used as a reference point for judging other plans and policies. Now, the United States needs to ensure that it is an idea that will bring people together rather than divide them.

  4. Industrial Strategy for Energy and Climate – What would happen if the United States made an organized push to be competitive in several clean energy technologies? This means not just supporting the market in a few key places but prioritizing the ability to invest in and deploy low-carbon technologies at a level the United States has not achieved before. These strategies would seek to support and maintain capabilities in key energy technologies not only here in the United States but in building supply chains supported by trade agreements abroad. Hate this idea? You are probably not alone. It would probably lead to over-subsidization and some high-profile failures fueled by government spending (which often receive more attention than successes). But the United States also might find it is a better way to deliver on the promise of a competitive clean energy economy and more gratifying than just wringing hands about China. It makes sense in a few key areas—batteries and electric vehicles, nuclear energy, carbon removal technology (including CCS), and critical minerals—but can also be accomplished through technology-neutral means as well. Whether the United States wants to have an explicit conversation about its current approach to industrial policy or not, it is clear that international competitors going forward have no such qualms and that the United States needs to have a clear-eyed conversation about how to compete relative to places like China, Europe, and India and about what Americans stand to gain or lose from the current approach.

The final, overarching theme that deserves more discussion is how to find a way to make immediate progress, even one step at a time and preferably before the election is decided. Campaigns are a good way to engage the public on important policy issues. Regarding climate change, the public often feels completely detached from the solutions. They see a need for system-wide change that they do not control nor completely understand and, quite frankly, receive so many mixed messages that they do not know who to believe. This often leaves policymakers frozen between two diametrically opposed positions, with entrenched interests on either side and a silent majority in the middle. This makes it very hard to firm up a broad base of public support and pushes climate to the periphery of issues that get discussed. In addition to big bold plans and policy objectives and targets regarding 2050 (all of which are important), most people will likely want to know how the United States plans to put one foot in front of the other and make progress toward these solutions, as well as what that means for U.S. voters.

Sarah Ladislaw is senior vice president and director and senior fellow of the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Sarah Ladislaw

Sarah Ladislaw

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program