Democrats: Don’t just declare a climate emergency — make clean energy a winning campaign issue

The decision by Sen. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) to walk away from more than a year of negotiations over a landmark clean energy legislation is a bitter pill for President Biden and other Democrats who made passing effective change legislation a leading promise to voters climate. But they shouldn’t give up. After decades of pushing politically problematic policies like energy taxes that lost them elections and couldn’t get enacted, Democrats have actually finally produced the right climate policy approach: large, direct clean energy tax breaks for consumers and businesses that are hugely popular with voters.

But with Americans preoccupied over record inflation, COVID-19, and an uncertain economy, climate change itself is the top concern of only 1 percent of voters. This means that, if they can’t pass the bill before November, Democrats must make the anti-inflationary, job creation and other economic benefits of clean energy legislation a major campaign issue in the upcoming midterm election to increase their majorities in Congress — and pass a major clean energy and climate bill in January.

The huge popularity of clean energy runs across all voters and regions, including independents and Republicans, and should not be surprising. These policies would not only lower the costs of electric vehicles, renewable energy and other technologies voters say they want now, but would also over time lower all energy costs by utilizing more efficient technologies and expanding energy supply options beyond fossil fuels, which are more subject to commodity price swings.

Voters are smart enough to realize the adoption of electric vehicles and other technologies would also in time begin to limit our long-term vulnerability to global oil shocks, a primary cause of current inflation voters are so rightly concerned about. Pending clean energy tax incentives would jumpstart private sector innovation and deployment throughout the energy economy, unleashing tens of billions of dollars in new investment, creating millions of good new jobs while also improving our energy security and limiting our de facto reliance on global oil markets and Petro-state dictators like Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Equally, however, Democrats must also be more honest with voters and admit, as Biden has, that we will still need to produce domestic oil and natural gas during the clean energy transition, and especially more over the next few years, to limit oil and other energy price shocks related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This way Democrats will present voters with a plan to help consumers fight energy inflation both now, and long-term, while also reducing climate risks. Most voters will, in fact, appreciate this candor.

If Democrats embrace these themes when they campaign this fall, they can draw stark and winning contrasts with House and Senate Republicans — every single one of which has voted against or failed to support these popular clean energy policies. Republicans in Congress bear most of blame for climate inaction, since they have for decades shamelessly tortured and exploited reasonable attempts at climate action for their own short-term political benefit. Yet, it’s also clear that until now Democratic climate policies have never proven politically powerful enough to deal with an issue that has such fundamental implications for our consumer and energy economy.

But now, the clean energy contrast between forward-looking Democrats offering real answers to energy inflation and climate change, and backward-looking, nihilistic Republicans who offer none, could make much of the difference in key races throughout the country. These include Senate battles in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, Arizona and many other states. Winning those races and swing districts in the House would allow Democrats to increase their margins in Congress enough to easily pass major clean energy legislation.

At the same time, only by beating Republican candidates at the ballot box can Democrats responsible force them to finally take more positions on the clean energy transition and climate change more broadly. And only by taking action ourselves and gaining the competitive benefits of a clean energy economy can the US force China and other major emitters to cut their emissions deeply, as well.

While regulations and executive orders to reduce climate pollution have very important roles in climate protection, including the measures announced by Biden this week, they are far more vulnerable to being delayed and overturned by legal challenge, as the recent Supreme Court’s restriction of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulatory authority illustrated. The desire of Biden and the White House to issue a “climate emergency declaration” is understandable — since we do have a climate change emergency.

Unfortunately, many of the measures reportedly under consideration as part of such a declaration — including reducing US government oil leasing or ending exports of natural gas or oil to our allies — would be self-defeating from both a climate and political standpoint. Other, less scrupulous, nations would supply the missing oil and gas so there would be little or no climate benefit. But Biden and our allies would suffer politically as prices would likely rise and the geopolitics of energy made far worse. Most of these proposed expedients would have been difficult and even counterproductive before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; Now many are likely impossible.

Only by changing the basic economic incentives regarding energy through legislation can the US utilize its innovation and technology prowess to address the climate issue in a way that benefits consumers, investors certainty and prevents endless legal challenges. There is no shortcut to gaining political support for this positive consumer clean energy tax cut agenda. Democrats have to go to voters and win the issue. But uniform Republican opposition and issues’ popularity with voters should make it far easier.

As deadly heat waves sweep the US and Europe this week, and the costs of record droughts, wildfires, more extreme storms, flooding and other climate impacts grow annually into the hundreds of billions of dollars, the economic argument in favor of acting on climate change grows stronger every day. Biden is right that we need to take climate action now, as soon as possible. But to win elections now, and take truly effective action on climate, Democrats must convince voters of the consumer and economic benefits of clean energy.

Paul Bledsoe is a strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute. He served on the US Senate Finance Committee, at the US Department of the Interior and White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.

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