Climate strike spotlights climate change's urgency, even as Democratic candidates reject its fixes

Politicians are prioritizing progressive doctrine that claims renewable power alone can solve the problem, when we need nuclear power and fracking as well.
A car drives past the nuclear plant on Three Mile Island in Middletown, Pennsylvania on March 26, 2019.
The nuclear plant on Three Mile Island in Middletown, Pennsylvania, is part of the solution to climate change.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images file
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By Jason Grumet, founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center

The fight over the existence of climate change is largely finished as a result of mounting evidence, devastating natural disasters and, ironically, the election of a president who dismisses climate science. When the nation was led by progressive professor Barack Obama, it was politically energizing for conservatives to rile up the left by rejecting the science behind a warming planet. But with President Donald Trump sitting behind the “Resolute Desk,” tweaking the liberal elite has lost some of its appeal and Trump’s dismissal of the climate crisis has, if anything, hastened mainstream acceptance of the scientific consensus.

Many in the Democratic Party — particularly those running for president — are engaging in a form of “math-denial,” offering plans that don’t add up ecologically or politically.

Having squandered a decade arguing over the existence of the climate problem, we can ill afford to spend the next several years rejecting key elements of the solution or promising outcomes that ignore the way our government actually works. After years of battling climate denial, many in the Democratic Party — particularly those running for president — are engaging in a form of “math-denial,” offering plans that don’t add up ecologically or politically.

Rather than heed the conclusion from the United Nations and leading scientific bodies that we must pursue all forms of low and noncarbon energy, these politicians are prioritizing a progressive doctrine that supports renewable power to the exclusion of other options. And the problem with their renewable-energy-only strategy is that we are running out of time to save the world.

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Wind and solar energy currently account for less than 10 percent of domestic power supply. If we had a century to improve these technologies, redesign the nation’s power grid, achieve dramatic breakthroughs in batteries and repower the manufacturing sector, it might be possible to decarbonize the economy with only renewable power.

We only have about 30 years to decarbonize the economy to avoid the worst effects of climate change, however. Political expediency and rigidity are nothing new in presidential campaigns, but it is discouraging that the candidates who are the best at describing the urgency of the problem are the worst at appreciating the urgency of the solution.

While some candidates have voiced support for nuclear power and acknowledged the essential role natural gas is playing in reducing emissions today, many have called for eliminating these two energy sources from the equation in favor of complete reliance on renewable power. These candidates seem equally disinterested in technologies that capture and dispose of carbon from existing power plants and factories, as well as the new class of technologies that can remove existing carbon from the ambient air.

This disregard for climate math is even more glaring when one considers the scope of the global challenge. By 2050, the world population is projected to increase by 40 percent, and energy demands will more than double. Even though the Democratic field is pledging to rejoin the Paris accord, the international agreement to reduce global emissions, the next president will quickly realize that the developing world is not about to forgo the use of fossil fuels and nuclear power.

The next Oval Office occupant must support a global effort to replace uncontrolled coal with natural gas fracked here in the U.S., carbon capture on coal and gas facilities, nuclear power from existing and new facilities, and renewables including hydropower if sincere in the promise to protect future generations from the devastation of climate change.

The Democratic candidates are also largely ignoring political math. While the outcome of the 2020 election is up for grabs, it is certain that the next president will have to work with a closely divided Congress. The Democratic contenders have routinely (and rightly) criticized Trump for authoritarian instincts that ignore the prerogative of Congress and seek to evade the legislative process. They have also correctly noted that, in domestic policy, executive action barks more than it bites, which has left the president mired in legal challenges while accomplishing only incremental achievements that a Democratic successor would quickly reverse.

Without appreciating the irony, these same aspirants are promising to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by working around Congress and employing executive actions to fundamentally reshape our economy. The problem with this go-it-alone strategy is not only the abstract lack of principle. It’s also that these strategies won’t work. When it comes to energy policy, the president’s authority is limited. Just look at all the coal mines that have not reopened in the past three years despite Trump’s repeated promises to do just that.

Several candidates plan to solve this math problem by calling for the elimination of the filibuster, which requires a 60-vote Senate majority for most legislation to pass. But even if Democrats beat the odds to secure the Senate seats needed to enact such a change, this still wouldn’t guarantee enough support for strong climate policy.

The last time that Congress rejected serious, though comparably modest, climate legislation was 2009, when Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. Plus, to expand numbers in the Senate, Democrats would have to win races in conservative regions of the country, where support for aggressive decarbonization policies is by no means guaranteed.

Changes of the magnitude required to address the climate crisis are simply not durable without some buy-in from both parties.

There are a variety of bipartisan proposals moving through Congress to accelerate the development and deployment of non-carbon power through increased public investment and tax incentives. These bills would dramatically increase federal research and development and seek to overcome the high costs that are associated with any new technology. While it’s fair to criticize these initial steps as inadequate, real efforts that build bipartisan support for climate solutions offer more hope than false promises based on the governing strategy of “I alone can fix it.” Changes of the magnitude required to address the climate crisis are simply not durable without some buy-in from both parties.

We all remember the middle school elections won by self-confident classmates promising to eliminate homework while throwing candy at the audience. While exaggerated promises and grandiosity are an inescapable part of the primary process, it is important that voters who care about climate change recognize that solutions will not be achieved by a leader who avoids hard choices and further weakens the democratic process.