To Fight Climate Change, Get Real

Activists want the Democrats to transform America. That isn't happening.

Judging by the claims of many prominent climate advocates, journalists and scientists, the stakes of the 2020 presidential election could not have been higher. If Trump were re-elected, there’d be no hope of limiting the rise in global atmospheric temperatures to safe levels. A Biden victory, by contrast, would bring the boldest climate agenda of any president in U.S. history.

In reality, the stakes were considerably lower.

Thanks to the pandemic, the shift from coal to natural gas to generate electricity, and falling renewable energy prices, U.S. emissions fell at about the same rate during the four years of the Trump administration as the prior eight years of the Obama administration. Biden’s election likely means that the United States will rejoin the Paris Agreement that aims to strengthen the global response to climate change. He will overturn some executive actions undertaken by the Trump administration, and reinstate others undertaken in the Obama years. But, like the Obama administration, Biden’s is likely to find its ambitions hamstrung by a range of long-standing political, economic and technological constraints.

Hopes that a Biden landslide and control of both houses of Congress would allow Democrats and environmentalists to strike a decisive blow against climate change were always illusory. Even if the Democrats had gained a 53-seat majority and abolished the filibuster, it was unlikely that Biden would have had enough Democratic votes in the Senate to spend $2 trillion on clean-energy technology and infrastructure, or to mandate 100% clean energy in the electricity sector by 2035, as he proposed in his campaign.

Since the last major effort to pass federal climate legislation in the early days of the Obama administration failed with virtually no Republican support, environmentalists have bet the farm on the Democratic Party. Green strategists went all in on the emerging Democratic majority hypothesis—the idea that demographic change would eventually deliver lasting majorities to the party. Activists focused their organizing, electoral campaigning and policy efforts almost exclusively on creating a climate faction within the Democratic Party that would demand far-reaching policies in the way that factions on the right enforce Republican opposition to abortion, immigration and tax increases.

Environmentalists persisted in this strategy even after the originators of the emerging Democratic majority hypothesis, John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, had made clear that national dominance was not the inevitable fate of the party. In the recent election, climate change again proved not to be a top concern for most voters, and nearly a third of those who did rank climate change highly pulled the lever for Donald Trump.

In the weeks since the election, prominent philanthropists, activists and scholars have insisted that climate voters have given the Biden administration a “mandate,” that low-income communities of color are the strongest proponents of climate action, and that, contradictorily, more resources need to be invested in communications and organizing within those communities to convince them of the necessity of climate action.

In reality, the preconditions for politically viable and sustainable climate action have always pointed in the opposite direction. The balance of power in American politics is held by rural and industrial states with energy intensive and resource-based economies. Those states tend to be culturally hostile and economically vulnerable to the regulatory and pricing agenda that the environmental community remains doggedly committed to, and Democrats can’t win or sustain governing majorities without them.

As such, there is no path to significant U.S. climate action that is predicated upon routing these areas politically, and thereby moving the nation away from fossil fuels via brute-force regulations, mandates and taxation. This has been the case since climate issues first emerged in the late 1980s, and it remains so today.

A more pragmatic environmental movement would have long ago come to terms with these realities. The states and regions that Democrats need to win for governing majorities place major political constraints on what they can do about climate change. These political dynamics make the speculation that Biden might announce sweeping executive actions—from declaring a national climate emergency to banning fracking to diverting funds from the Defense Department budget to climate action—equally fanciful.

That doesn’t mean that there is nothing to be done at the federal level. Even with continuing Republican control of the Senate in 2021, it is possible that there will be substantial support in both parties for significant investments in clean energy and agricultural innovation, and for substantial new energy and transportation infrastructure to help ensure that U.S. emissions continue to fall, as they have for more than a decade now.

Speculation around executive action has focused on regulatory measures that, even in the best case, will be subject to reversal by a future Republican administration. But there are other pathways for executive action that, over the long-term, could prove both more effective and more resilient. Federal technology procurement has long driven innovation and market formation. As with past cases, such as jet engines and semiconductors, federal procurement of nascent technologies—things like advanced nuclear reactors or hydrogen-refining technologies—could be game-changing, particularly if targeted toward early-stage and pre-commercial technology.

Such steps won’t satisfy much of the environmental community, which continues to view the issue in Manichean terms. But an effective climate response needs to help a variety of regional economies across the nation to transition away from fossil fuels over a term defined by decades, not presidential elections. That demands a response that is resilient to the changing fortunes and ideological priorities of both parties. It needs to account for the substantial costs a rapid transition will impose on energy-intensive sectors of the economy, and to reckon with the limitations of both regulation and top-down planning in a federal system in which neither political representation nor the costs of climate action are evenly distributed across the country.

Hitching the future of the climate to the political fortunes of one party—particularly one increasingly centered around Americans who work in the knowledge economy, live in coastal cities, and won’t bear the lion’s share of the costs associated with cutting emissions—was never a good idea.

A more sweeping Democratic victory could never have proven decisive in the fight against climate change. But the election result has shown us the only way forward. A sustainable path toward significant long-term emissions reductions will require disentangling the issue from the polarizing loop of apocalyptic environmental politics and right-wing climate-change denial that has paralyzed federal efforts to address the issue for decades. 

Ted Nordhaus is executive director and Alex Trembath is deputy director of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research center in Oakland, California.