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Climate change became a burning issue in the past decade, but also an opportunity

Addressing the danger of climate change has gone from being a political liability to an economic opening.
Illustration of lawmaker watching protests outside a window as smoke stacks billow in the distance.
Addressing the danger of climate change has gone from being a political liability to being an economic opportunity.Kiki Ljung -- Folio Art / for NBC News

Reality bites. In the last few years, the intensity of extreme weather events and their cost for communities and economies has skyrocketed. While this is a global reality, the primary driver of U.S. opinion is events within our own shores, and the fact that these natural disasters struck American soil over the past decade dislodged the denial that many in the U.S. had long entertained on climate change. In 2018-19 alone, we suffered an unprecedented polar vortex, two of the worst hurricanes in American history (Harvey and Maria), the worst wildfire in California history and unprecedented flooding in the bread basket.

The drumbeat of climate-intensified natural disasters appears to have increased public certainty that climate change is real, man-caused and worrying.

The drumbeat of climate-intensified natural disasters appears to have increased public certainty that climate change is real, man-caused and worrying. But more important, it has taken climate from the category of “things we will need to worry about someday, and perhaps someone else will solve for me first” to “things I am scared about right now and want protection from.”

The latest poll from California, for example, showed that 47 percent of Democratic voters ranked climate the most important campaign issue, versus only 32 percent who prioritized health care. Simultaneous national polls demonstrated that the percentage of Americans calling climate “a crisis” jumped from 23 percent to 38 percent over the past five years, and surveys all year have shown climate ranking almost as high as health care in importance for Democratic primary voters.

But to focus only on the fear caused by climate change in trying to understand its dramatic shift from the margins to the center of the U.S. policy debate misses something crucial. Over the same 10 years that the danger of global warming increased, addressing that danger went from being a political liability to being an economic opportunity.

In 2010, politicians were punished for supporting policies to address climate change. Republicans successfully attacked and ousted many of the House Democrats who had voted the year before for the Waxman-Markey bill that had attempted to set economy-wide limits on carbon pollution — particularly representatives from rural or fossil-fuel dependent regions whom voters saw as endangering their jobs. The newly energized tea party even threw out one of the few Republicans who had supported climate action. Democrats lost control of the House partly as a result.

These setbacks came despite polls indicating that the American people favored a more robust climate policy and strongly backed many individual measures to increase reliance on clean energy and reduce dependence on fossil fuels; there was even modestly positive public support for an economy-wide cap on emissions, the most controversial provision in Waxman-Markey. The lesson that politicians of both parties learned was: The public may believe in climate change, but it doesn’t care about it enough to make it a politically safe issue.

But a dramatic shift has taken place since then — not just in the urgency Americans now feel about dealing with climate change, but in their understanding that the solutions need not endanger the economy and, in fact, could aid it. A new economics is steadily accelerating progress towards a clean-energy future, and it is what will also help those whose jobs and industries are most hurt by the transition.

When the Senate rejected Waxman-Markey, it looked like the only pathway to deep emission reductions was to raise the price of energy. But by the time the Paris agreement — under which every country that joined voluntarily agreed to restrict carbon emissions — was signed some five years later, renewable electricity and clean energy prices had actually started to fall. Though in most cases fossil power was still cheaper, Europe, China and many U.S. states had started harnessing larger and larger quantities of wind and solar, creating enormous economies of scale.

Four years later, the new reality can be expressed in a simple equation: CHEAPER = CLEANER. Those same kinds of economies of scale have expanded and cropped up in more places, continuing to make renewable energy more affordable, at the same time they’ve been introduced to new industries, such as electric vehicles and homes powered by renewable energy. For most of the U.S. economy — electricity, cars, trucks and buildings — replacing all fossil fuels with 100 percent clean energy already yields substantial reductions in energy costs. I call it “the climate dividend.”

For Democrats, at least, the issue that in 2009 was too marginal to fight for is now a must-address. All of the significant Democratic presidential candidates have climate proposals vastly stronger than former President Barack Obama’s “all of the above” energy stance. The moderators of the primary debates don’t see enough difference between them to come up with many questions — which frustrates advocates, but suggests that for the party, the politics of climate has become motherhood and apple pie.

Moreover, across this 10-year span, the practicality and desirability of replacing fossil fuels with clean energy have been demonstrated and tested by thousands of American businesses, hundreds of cities and a majority of the states. Indeed, jurisdictions solidly committed to carrying out the climate protection goals agreed to at the Paris Climate Summit even after the Trump administration pulled out of the accord —the so-called “We Are Still In” coalition -- create two-thirds of U.S. GDP and emit a majority of emissions.

These jurisdictions are finding that city fleets filled with electric cars are cheaper to operate than their old gas-powered models, that electric busses clean up the air and quiet down urban noise, and that the renewable electricity that makes all this possible keeps getting cheaper and cheaper.

A key part of achieving this widespread economic and environmental success has been policymakers’ realization that there’s no “magic bullet” — one solution for decarbonizing the entire economy. Increasingly, they are recognizing that smart climate policy requires fixing not one but many market barriers to cheap, clean energy. The Democratic candidates plans, as well as House Democrats’ 100 percent clean energy platform, go light on carbon taxes and permits, policies that raise the cost of fossil fuels, and emphasize the plethora of strategies that make clean energy cheaper.

This isn’t to pretend there are no pockets of America that don’t embrace this vision. With a few exceptions, Republican politicians are utterly unwilling to confront the problem. In 2009, when Waxman-Markey was being debated, they feared the Koch Brothers, Fox and the tea party on the issue. Now they can add to that phalanx the president, Donald Trump.

But climate differs in a vital way from other polarizing political issues, such as immigration, health care or education. Climate as a problem is divisive; the solutions are not. Consider that the 10 states whose reliance on clean, renewable electricity has grown the fastest include four that are solidly Republican (South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Idaho), three purple swings (Maine, Iowa, New Hampshire) and only three solidly Democratic (Oregon, Washington, Vermont).

North Dakota is simultaneously a major fossil fuel producer, and the Godfather of the oil patch, Texas, generates far more renewable electricity than any other state, thanks to major investments made by former Gov. Rick Perry in upgrading long-distance transmission, a multibillion dollar investment now paying itself off multiple times.

Climate has become not only a top political issue, but an urgent test of whether a candidate or officeholder gets it — giving the topic the intensity it has always deserved.

Fox News and Trump aside, a rapid transition to 100 percent clean energy should be welcomed by most Americans, as long as the country recognizes that a rapid transition without insurance for those whose reliance on fossil fuels could leave them behind is both unfair and likely to yield intense political conflict. The oil- and coal-dependent communities that have powered our economy to date will, like all of us, need to move from a legacy 20th century fossil economy to a 21st century clean one — but there is no reason for them to carry the burden when that transition will generate economic opportunity on a scale that can include everyone.

Recent research suggests that for Americans exposed to a diversity of news outlets, climate has become not only a top political issue, but an urgent test of whether a candidate or officeholder gets it — giving the topic the intensity it has always deserved but until this decade lacked.

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