Why I see hope for climate action in Washington

As a new Congress gets underway, voices across the political spectrum are speaking to climate change. Is there reason to think that there may be opportunity for genuine bipartisan progress?

I believe the answer is yes, and here are some of the reasons why.

First, the risks of inaction are clearer than ever. If the dire forecasts of the IPCC 1.5C Special Report and the new U.S. National Climate Assessment are not enough, the increasing frequency and severity of flooding, wildfire and extreme weather are demonstrating the here-and-now impact of climate change.

Second, emissions are going in the wrong direction. Globally, emissions continue to climb. And after three years of decline, U.S. emissions grew 3.4 percent last year.

Third, a growing number of Americans are deeply concerned and looking to government to take stronger action.  A majority of both self-reported Republicans and Democrats recognize that climate change is real and happening today according to a recent Monmouth poll.

There are signs that, despite the hyper-partisanship gripping Washington, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are getting the message.

As Democrats assume leadership in the House, Speaker Pelosi established a select committee to develop near- and long-term recommendations to address the climate crisis, and Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone announced his first hearing will focus on climate change. Meanwhile, some Republicans are signaling a new receptivity to policies aimed at carbon reductions. John Barrasso, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, wrote last month in The New York Times that “we have a responsibility to do something about” the changing climate.

Adding to the momentum and stirring a healthy debate, many are rallying around the idea of a “Green New Deal” to invest aggressively in a deep low-carbon transition. If care is taken with the debate I believe a plan can emerge that would have bipartisan support, it should be a goal.

While their preferred approaches may be far apart, the fact that both Republicans and Democrats are talking about the same goal – carbon reductions – suggests a possible opening for Congress to take steps to re-engage the federal government in the fight.

Can they find common ground? That’s exactly what C2ES is committed to helping create, as the path to durable climate policy must be broadly supported by both Democrats and Republicans.

To achieve the deep emission reductions needed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and stave off the worst potential impacts of climate change, we must aim for an ambitious, comprehensive federal solution. That will inevitably require some form of economy-wide program to harness market forces for emission reduction. But even if that’s unlikely in present-day Washington, there are plenty of wins to be had now.

As part of our Climate Innovation 2050 initiative, C2ES has been working with companies in key sectors to identify a set of achievable near-term federal actions that produce both climate and economic benefits. We plan to release these recommendations soon, but here’s a preview of some of the things we’re looking at:

  • Strengthening and better targeting support for low-carbon innovation, including increasing funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E);
  • Supporting the next generation of clean energy solutions, including offshore wind power, energy storage, intelligent efficiency, advanced nuclear, and carbon capture;
  • Ensuring that new infrastructure investments facilitate low-carbon choices in the power and transportation sectors such as carbon pipelines and vehicle charging capacity;
  • Supporting consumers and state and local governments to help build the market for zero emission vehicles; and
  • Helping farmers adopt soil practices that boost carbon sequestration and sustainable soil health.

None of these steps, taken individually, is a silver bullet, but each can deliver near-term climate benefits while strengthening the foundation for more comprehensive solutions delivering deeper long-term reductions.

With the change in House leadership, we’re certain to see new checks on the administration. House Democrats are already laying the groundwork for investigations, and there will be stormy fights over the rollback of environmental regulations. But we believe there will also be room for climate progress.

There must be room, because we have little time left, and there’s no alternative. Cities, states, and businesses have all stepped up their commitments, but only committed leadership of the U.S. government – here at home, and abroad – can achieve the necessary reductions.

While comprehensive climate policy may remain a longshot in a government divided both in fact and in ideology, the urgency of action means seizing whatever opportunities we can for bipartisan action. The perfect cannot be the enemy of the near-term good as we work for a broader political consensus on action, and time is of the essence.