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MIT Technology Review

Why Democrats shouldn’t reject the GOP’s climate “innovation agenda”

But they do need to keep pushing for far faster and bolder policies, too.

February 8, 2020
Republicans are applying a Band-Aid on the problem of climate change.Republicans are applying a Band-Aid on the problem of climate change.
Republicans are applying a Band-Aid on the problem of climate change.
Ms Tech / Earth by Batibull from the Noun Project

Republican legislators are fast-tracking a package of climate-related policies through the US Congress. That marks a fairly stunning shift for a party that spent decades smearing scientists and spreading disinformation about climate change.

It seems the gradually growing acceptance among Republican voters of the need for action on the climate has made it increasing untenable to carry on with the absurd exercise of insisting we’re not bound by the laws of physics and chemistry.

But let’s not give out any gold stars just yet. The GOP remains as beholden as ever to business and fossil-fuel interests, and that shows in the policies it’s pushing.

The proposed measures include planting lots and lots of trees, streamlining development of advanced nuclear reactors, and boosting research and development funding for grid-scale energy storage, carbon-capture systems that absorb emissions before they escape power plants, and other technologies.

  • Carbon Capture Modernization Act

    Increases tax credits for carbon capture projects.

  • LEADING Act

    Establishes a research and development program to advance carbon capture for natural gas plants.

  • Nuclear Energy Leadership Act

    Accelerates the development of advanced nuclear reactors.

  • BEST Act

    Creates a research and development program for grid-scale energy storage.

Most of the measures fall into what’s become known as the Republicans’ “innovation agenda.” It’s a free-market-friendly counterproposal to the far more aggressive climate policies that Democrats and activists are demanding—most notably the Green New Deal, a sweeping overhaul of the US economy that would require 100% of the nation’s electricity to come from zero-emissions sources within a decade.  

It’s not just that innovation is insufficient for combating climate change, though it is, and massively so. The larger problem is that absent other climate policies, it will amount to a form of delay at a moment when we don’t have time to spare.

Conspicuously, none of the measures demand that fossil-fuel plants or automakers begin cranking down their emissions today. And while advances in carbon-capture systems could eventually reduce climate pollution from the power sector, the primary motivation for them is to keep the fossil-fuel industry going for longer.

We certainly do have technological gaps that will make it very expensive and very difficult to reach zero emissions. We don’t know how to make jet aircraft that don’t belch out CO2. We don’t have immediately scalable and affordable ways of curbing emissions from livestock, fertilizer, cement, or steel.

But we do pretty much have the tools we need—wind and solar farms, nuclear power plants, and electric vehicles (EVs), among others—to produce carbon-free electricity and road transportation, which would make huge dents in emissions. We don’t need to innovate our way out of those problems.

What we need to do is start building a whole bunch of stuff—and shutting down a whole bunch of other stuff. The Republican agenda is not about shutting down stuff.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is coordinating the GOP's climate policy package.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is coordinating the GOP's climate policy package.
US House of Representatives

Achieving that is going to take much more aggressive government policies: emissions mandates, supportive subsidies, and—sorry, yes—carbon taxes (the bigger the better). And on those scores, federal climate policy is generally tacking in the opposite direction.

A few GOP legislators support a carbon tax, and a growing number of conservative organizations do too, but any proposal with the word “tax” in it remains as unpopular as ever among the vast majority of the Republicans in Congress.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has worked relentlessly to unwind every climate and clean-energy effort it can, including the Paris accord and crucial planks of California’s decarbonization plan. And under the federal budget passed late last year, lawmakers refused to extend tax credits for solar power and electric vehicles, extended them only a year for onshore wind farms, and snubbed proposed new subsidies for offshore wind and energy storage.

The standard Republican line on subsidies—and one I’m sympathetic to on most matters—is “Hey, these technologies have secured their foothold in the marketplace; it’s time to let them fend for themselves.” But that argument pretends clean energy is like any other industry, be it airlines or telecoms, which we can allow to rise or fall purely on economic merits, rather than a sector that must become dominant if we hope to preserve our way of life. (It also ignores the fact that the government has lavishly subsidized the fossil-fuel industry.)

We don’t need solar, wind, batteries, and EVs to compete on a level playing field; we need to hand them massive, sustained advantages. In a matter of years, we need to force a huge share of fossil-fuel plants offline, and gas guzzlers off the road.

Keeping global warming below 1.5 ˚C is a pipe dream, but if we still hope to prevent 2 ˚C, the world needs to slash emissions 25% within a decade and reach zero by 2070, according to the UN’s climate panel. And the US should make even faster and deeper cuts. That’s a moral, economic, and practical imperative for a rich, technologically advanced nation that’s produced the highest cumulative emissions through history.

The risk of doing nothing

But a critical question here is: How should Democrats and climate activists respond to these proposals?

There is a school of thought that they should reject them out of hand, preserve climate change as a cudgel to bludgeon the GOP with, and hold out for much more aggressive action. Some of this is driven by a dislike among pockets of the left for the technologies involved, particularly nuclear energy and carbon-capture tools that could grant a second life to fossil-fuel plants.

But the truth is that even if Republicans’ motives are suspect, some of these measures could help cut emissions faster and more cheaply over the longer term. It may be easier to retrofit some parts of the electricity system than to rebuild it entirely. And our first priority should be to slash emissions, not to punish industries we’re justifiably furious with.

Democrats should certainly push Republicans for compromises in exchange for their support: say, assistance for other technologies like solar, wind, and EVs. And they need to make clear at every step that these measures will achieve only the tiniest fraction of what’s required, and keep pushing for much more stringent rules.

But Alex Trembath, deputy director of the Breakthrough Institute, a pro-technology environmental research center, believes Democrats can support the Republican measures and build on them without forgoing the demands for more aggressive action.

“The risk actually runs in the opposite direction,” he says. “If we commit to viewing climate change as a partisan issue through which to accumulate energy and power on one side, then that could damage policy efforts even more in the long term.”

In other words, arguing that we shouldn’t do anything until we can do everything means we run the risk of doing nothing.

Even if a Democrat is elected as the next US president, which is far from assured, it doesn’t mean he or she will have the firm majorities in Congress necessary to push through sweeping climate packages. And who can even begin to guess about the results of election cycles beyond?

“It seems to me that even if you’re skeptical about aggressive and effective Republican action on climate, betting the future of the planet on single party control (for as long as it takes to manage climate risk) is also risky,” Jane Flegal, of the environment program at the Hewlett Foundation, said on Twitter.