Major Parties’ Climate Programs Are Miles Apart

Yves here. Even though the Republican response to climate change is little more than a hand wave, the enthusiasm about the Democrats’ approach seems overdone. The Paris Accord goals already look like too little, too late. And that’s before getting to how much hidden carbon we import via Chinese made goods.

There’s too much inertia and wishful thinking and not enough fear.

By Dana Nuccitelli, an environmental scientist, writer, and author of ‘Climatology versus Pseudoscience,’ published in 2015. He has published 10 peer-reviewed studies related to climate change and has been writing about the subject since 2010 for outlets including Skeptical Science and The Guardian. Originally published at Yale Climate Connections

(Photo credit: Ed Schipul / Flickr)

President Biden on Earth Day, April 22, unveiled America’s aggressive new climate target: a 50-52% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2030, on the way to the pledge of net zero emissions by 2050.

That ambitious target would deliver America’s contribution toward meeting the Paris Climate Agreement and the goal of limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial temperatures. President Biden and supportive House Democrats are backing the pledge with a concrete legislative plan to rapidly curb greenhouse gas emissions. That said, important details of the administration’s legislative package remain largely unanswered, and it’s certain to face rough going when, in whatever eventual form, it gets to consideration in the narrowly divided Senate.

In an effort to show that they too care about climate change, House Republicans unveiled their “Energy Innovation Agenda” in the days preceding Biden’s Earth Day announcement. That agenda did not include any specific emissions targets. Rather, it includes a continued reliance on fossil fuels and explicitly opposes putting a price on carbon pollution. It stands in stark contrast to the Democrats’ ambitious plan to meet the Paris climate targets by transitioning to clean energy and leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

Democrats’ Plan

House Democrats had been preparing for this moment. In the summer of 2020, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released a comprehensive 547-page report detailing their plan, which analysts estimate would cut greenhouse gas emissions 40% below 2005 levels by 2030 and close to net zero by 2050.

To meet the Paris target of limiting global warming to less than 2°C, global greenhouse gas emissions must reach net zero by around the year 2075, depending on factors like the rate of pollution cuts and the amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere and sequestered underground. Wealthy nations like the U.S. will need to reach net zero emissions even sooner to allow developing countries more time to make the clean energy transition as their economies and energy needs grow. President Biden’s pledge is thus designed to hit a sweet spot: It’s about as fast as America theoretically can move, and fast enough to avert the worst climate consequences. Anything faster would be politically infeasible, but anything slower would be inconsistent with the Paris goals.

The House Democrats’ plan centers around fully decarbonizing the electric grid by 2040 (President Biden has been even more ambitious, calling for a zero-carbon grid by 2035) and electrifying as many other sectors as possible (think electric cars and trucks for transportation and electric heat pumps and appliances for buildings). To that end, the Biden administration and House Democrats have been working to include a clean electricity standard and $1 trillion in clean energy investments as part of their infrastructure legislation.

To pass these measures, the closely divided Senate may well need to try to proceed through the budget reconciliation approach requiring a bare majority 51-50 vote, which could likely require all 50 Senate Democrats to vote in favor, with Vice President Kamala Harris then breaking a tie.

In short, Democrats have an ambitious climate target and a blueprint to begin delivering on it. But there’s no certainty at this point on what specific legislative language can pass both the House and the Senate and earn the President’s signature for enactment.

Republicans’ Agenda

In contrast, House Republicans did not set a climate target, and their agenda would not achieve a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Instead, Republicans’ “Energy Innovation Agenda” focused on narrow measures like planting lots of trees, capturing carbon from smokestacks and directly from the air, and expanding U.S. fossil fuel production. To defend the latter point, Representatives Carol Miller (R-WV) and Bill Johnson (R-OH) suggested that because some American fossil fuels are less carbon-intensive than some foreign sources like Russian liquified natural gas, the U.S. should increase its fossil fuel exports to help, they reason, reduce global emissions. This argument appears akin to a nutritionist promoting a diet of strawberry cheesecake because it’s less calorie-intensive than a diet of chocolate cheesecake. To reach net zero emissions and meet any climate target, experts agree that vast quantities of fossil fuels must be left undisturbed in the ground.

To skirt that reality, the Republican agenda focused heavily on capturing and sequestering carbon. It proposed that the U.S. participate in the international Trillion Trees Project, although the U.S. contribution would reportedly amount to an increase of less than 1 billion new trees planted annually, which would sequester only about 1% of the nation’s carbon emissions over the next decade. And while technological carbon capture and sequestration would assist in meeting climate targets, the process is currently prohibitively expensive. ExxonMobil, for instance, is developing one such project, and its Chief Executive has stated that a carbon price of $100 per ton would be necessary to make it profitable.

But the Republican agenda explicitly opposes putting a price on carbon pollution, even though historically anti-climate policy groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute have recently endorsed market-based approaches to pricing carbon, and more than 2,000 companies already incorporate a carbon pollution cost into their planning.

The Republican House members’ argued that a carbon price would raise energy prices; that costs would fall disproportionately on low-income households; and that putting a price on carbon would disadvantage American companies relative to foreign competitors and thus simply shift pollution abroad.

Proponents of a carbon price, on the other hand, argue that approach would correct a market failure by revealing the full costs of fuels, including the climate damages currently paid by taxpayers, who foot the bill for damages resulting from higher temperatures and from more and more severe droughts, fires, floods, and hurricanes.

Moreover, carbon pricing supporters point to research showing that because clean sources like wind and solar have become so cheap, a carbon pollution price would not substantially raise energy costs. And Democrats have sought to address the latter two concerns in two carbon pricing bills introduced in the current session of Congress – America’s Clean Future Fund Act in the Senate and the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act in the House. Both would generate income for most low- and middle-income households via rebate checks, and establish a border adjustment to protect American businesses and incentivize other countries to implement a similar carbon pollution price.

Areas of Bipartisan Agreement

There are some climate policies on which policymakers from both parties generally agree. For instance, there is some bipartisan agreement on extending the life of existing nuclear power plants and on funding research of next-generation modular nuclear plants. Some members of both parties support carbon capture and sequestration, although many Democrats view it with skepticism, fearing these technologies would extend the operation of fossil fuel power plants whose emissions of other air pollutants harm public health, disproportionately in communities of color. Moreover, nearly 90% of captured carbon is currently used to extract more oil in a process known as ‘enhanced oil recovery,’ which reduces the climate benefits of the capture process.

Several natural climate solutions also enjoy bipartisan support, like connecting farmers to carbon markets to reward agricultural carbon sequestration practices, preserving and expanding forests, studying the potential of biochar to store carbon, and funding research into other innovative solutions.

These areas of agreement generally would lead to relatively small carbon pollution reductions. Democratic leaders maintain that meeting the Paris targets and minimizing the risk of potentially catastrophic climate scenarios requires a highly ambitious plan such as they have put forth: That’s precisely the kind of plan unlikely to attract much, if any, Republicans support.

This stark contrast highlights the current critical moment, with Democrats holding the slimmest of majorities in Congress and, given Republicans’ structural election advantages over Democrats, now facing a finite legislative window to pass and enact an aggressive agenda to set a path toward a stable climate.

We live in interesting times.

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14 comments

  1. Peter

    What a mess – the Democrats’ targets are way too low. The Paris targets were too low, to begin with, to meet them is not good enough. Fossil fuel needs to STAY IN THE GROUND NOW. That needs to be the focus.

    As for the Republicans, they are either blinded by donator money, ignorant of reality, or simply war criminals in the WAR against Climate destruction – they are traitors to our country and to the people of the world. They need to resign or the people need to throw them out.

    Reply
    1. Grumpy Engineer

      Unfortunately, focusing on the supply side of things by demanding that “fossil fuels need to STAY IN THE GROUND NOW” is a backwards approach that will almost certainly ensure failure.

      Why? Because if you somehow cut off supply without reducing demand, you end up creating shortages. For example, if we ban fracking and reduce our petroleum and natural gas production by two-thirds, we’ll find that there’s not enough fuel for people’s cars and trucks and not enough fuel for their furnaces. We’d end up with people stranded on the side of the road and unable to heat their homes in winter. We’d also have rolling blackouts because most of America’s gas turbine fleet would lack adequate fuel. Support for the “greening of America” would evaporate faster than a puddle of hot gasoline baking in the Arizona sun.

      Until people can live their lives without fossil fuels, we must supply them. So the demand side must be addressed first. Once that’s done, the supply side will take care of itself. Who will bother to produce fossil fuels if nobody is buying them?

      I see a lot of effort aimed at stopping pipelines and fracking, but I see little effort at getting Ford, GM, and Chrysler to stop manufacturing large and thirsty petroleum-fueled SUVs. I see little effort at getting Trane, Carrier, Rheem, and other manufacturers to stop manufacturing oil- and gas-fired furnaces and boilers. As long as these products are being sold, the need for fossil fuels will remain.

      Reply
      1. coboarts

        An additional need for the ongoing use of fossil fuels is to power the energy transition itself. To build out a new energy economy infrastructure, to include manufacturing the new energy economy energy generators requires the use of fossil fuels until the new energy can replace the old energy economy in critical areas. That’s why the insanity of “we want it now” is counterproductive. And I don’t think we’ll get beyond the rare personal commitment to real conservation while the Eurasian continent seems to see a future that completely invalidates current arguments for conservation.

        Reply
      2. Glen

        I agree. I went to replace my 30 year old truck last year, and would have welcomed the opportunity to buy an affordable EV truck. But these are just coming on the market and cost $100K.

        So I bought an ICE truck.

        At some point I would welcome a program where the Feds just do straight swaps and give people EVs in exchange for any vehicle. This could be done in a manner to better coordinate regional conversion as electrical grids are re-worked.

        It’s all work that must be done so it can be used to train people, provide good jobs and revitalize our country.

        Reply
    2. Joe Johnson

      I have to agree with Peter. The system lag time of the global climate systems are so long that we have to respond more quickly. Any thing we do today will take at least a decade to start reversing the damage we are creating now and have created in the past.

      Reply
      1. Jeremy Grimm

        And lag is not the only peculiar systems effect which might complicate responding to Climate Chaos … the rate that CO2 has been added to the climate system has no precedent. Complex systems like the climate system react in strange ways to such rapid inputs. The models suggest it would still be possible to keep the average global temperature increase from exceeding 1.5 degrees Centigrade [“Two graphs show the path to 1.5 degrees”, https://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2021/04/two-graphs-show-the-path-to-1-5-degrees/ ]
        Temperature increase continues to grow as the log of the C02 increase, essentially increasing linearly as the C02 grows exponentially. “Warming has progressed essentially linearly for fifty years in response to increasing CO2 emissions.”

        That is well and good but models can only model effects they know to model. I suspect a lot of unpleasant surprises remain unrevealed. Paleoclimate — as described in Hansen et al. 2016 — did not behave nicely. Humankind has made changes to the climate system difficult to find replicated in times well beyond any of those found in the records of “recent” geologic past.

        Reply
        1. Joe Johnson

          I stayed away from mentioning Chaos simply because I couldn’t find away to simply explain Chaos, You did a good job, thanks!

          In the old days of we quickly learned to stay away from from multi-dimensional non-linear models because of weird results. It wasn’t until later that Chaos theory was defined enough to explain that the results could be true.

          Reply
    3. Pwelder

      Your passion is admirable, but I’m more impressed by the large and growing body of analysis and evidence – from better scientists than you or me – to the effect that what is currently known of climate science doesn’t begin to warrant declaring an emergency and putting the energy economy through the wringer in the manner you seem to favor.

      In ordinary times I’d be fine with having the climateers push ahead with their program and see how things work out. The voters chose the Dems, and democracies learn by trial and error.

      I’m less fine with it in the current context. If/when this Greeniac thing comes a cropper, with great expense and aggravation throughout the land, we will have greatly raised the odds of returning an aspiring anti-constitutional ruler to the White House.

      Perhaps not the most likely outcome. But IMO a much higher probability than the climate apocalypse you seem to envision.

      Reply
      1. Joe Johnson

        Pwelder,
        I spent my 35 active years as an engineer and then a manager in doing multi-dimensional thermodynamic modeling for a major oil company. I breathed this stuff. I would dearly like to know where you get “what is currently known stuff”.

        I think you should expand your knowledge a bit more.

        Reply
  2. Chris Herbert

    Movement conservatism is going to ground everyone to a halt. No policies other than the one keeping the status quo for rich people. No infrastructure modernization. Costs too much and due to 40 years of serial tax cutting, can’t pay for anything anyway. Republicans have always known that the best way to win elections is to subtract voters. Not add them, silly. Plus the Democrats are expert at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. First exhibit, West Virginia US Senator Joe Manchin.

    Reply
  3. Susan the other

    Demographics. In the second half of 2021 we will see improvement anyway because the population will have peaked and be on the tip of turning down. So if either the democrats or the republicans are pushing their goals out beyond 2050 it is almost subterfuge. Both of them have good ideas. I don’t see why we can’t do it all. Fossil fuel is the one thing in all this that cannot be cold-turkeyed. We need it to accomplish sustainability, as irony would have it. And strict conservation is a good idea so that these resources last us well into the next century. And I can’t help wondering, in my dementia, (remembering the 50s) if we might even be fine-tuning the ice age here. The “sweet spot”. Like insulin. If it gets too cold we use more CO2; if it gets too hot we use less.

    Reply
  4. Jeremy Grimm

    Alas … Republican, Tweedle Dums adhere to “a continued reliance on fossil fuels and explicit opposition to “a price on carbon pollution” while Democrat Tweedle Dee advocates for “transitioning to clean energy and leaving fossil fuels in the ground” while “important details of the administration’s legislative package remain largely unanswered”. Sounds like an argument between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. Both wait! Bipartisan agreement is not dead — Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee agree on nuclear power which seems hardly surprising. The connection between farmers and “agricultural carbon sequestration practices” among other carbon sequestration practices should hotly warm the hearts of ‘family farmers’ everywhere … along with the ‘?’ of Cartels in the bipartisanly embedded Agriculture Industrial Complex. Both parties agree biochar is a good way to store carbon. I suppose that might be judicious and very beneficial to the disposal of the from the renewable wastes created from burning shredded trees renewably harvested from our renewable forests.

    Reply
  5. rjs

    both parties are a bad climate joke…the Democrat’s infrastructure cum green energy plan will have the largest carbon footprint of any US Govt policy initiative since the Vietnam war…

    Reply

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