April 29, 2019 - From the April, 2019 issue

USC Climate Forward: Navigating the Politics of Climate Change

Without federal leadership to address the realities of global climate change, the responsibility has fallen largely on states, cities, and the private sector to implement the system change necessary to stave off the worst effects of a warming planet. This panel, presented during USC Dornsife’s Climate Forward conference and moderated by Robert Shrum, includes former CA State Senator Kevin de León, former US Representative Bob Inglis, New York Times writer Lisa Friedman, Helena CEO Henry Elkus, and Associate Professor of Climate Science Jean Emile-Geay, who discuss what it will take to muster the political will for national climate action.


Kevin de Leon

“Our generation will be defined by changemakers like Elon Musk—entrepreneurial superheroes who address the climate space.” —Henry Elkus

Robert Shrum: Bob, as a former Republican Congressmember from South Carolina, you faced a primary challenge in 2010 in which you punished for the courage you showed on climate. Can GOP candidates make the case on climate and still win primaries?

Bob Inglis: Mine was a cautionary tale. If you represent the reddest district in the reddest state in the nation, you probably don’t want to introduce a carbon tax in the midst of the Great Recession. After 12 years in Congress, I got 29 percent in a Republican run-off. Ever since, I’ve been out to convince fellow conservatives that it is no heresy—it is actually completely consistent with conservative orthodoxy—to act on climate change.

I started on this path in 2011. In the early days, it was hard. But lately, things are starting to pop. It’s exciting to see Republicans coming around—sometimes out of convenience, sometimes out of conviction; I’ll take it either way.

Robert Shrum: Lisa, do you see signs of bipartisan concern about climate?

Lisa Friedman: It may be that the Green New Deal has opened up a space for more Republican discussion of climate change. It could also be that, now that Democrats have the House, they are forcing a discussion. 

But we’ve now seen Senator Mitch McConnell, under questioning from Senator Schumer, acknowledging that climate change is real and is caused by human activity. We saw Senator John Barrasso make the case that he has been talking about climate change for a long time, and that he has his own proposed solutions. Congressmember Matt Gaetz is introducing his version of Green New Deal legislation. Congressmembers Greg Walden and John Shimkus have written that we can find bipartisan solutions on climate change. 

There is still a lot of climate denial in Congress, but we’re definitely seeing new activity.

Robert Shrum: Kevin, can we get voters in other states to care about the environment like Californians do?

Kevin de Léon: We can, and it’s already happening. People forget that, as blue as California is today, we sent two Republicans to the White House: Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. We are the home of Ed Rollins, Cap Weinberger, George Schultz, Ed Meese, and until recently, Senator Pete Wilson. Now, California is decisively a blue state and becoming more progressive.

Throughout the country, subnationals are leading the way. California is the largest economy in the world to legally commit itself to 100 percent clean energy. We will decarbonize the grid by 2045 by sending out strong market signals to the private sector to attract the capital that’s critical for the innovation, creativity, and technologies that will get us to 100 percent clean energy.

California has set this pathway. Now, New Mexico has just signed 100 percent clean energy into law. The states of Nevada, Illinois, Washington, Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts have all introduced such measures. Idaho, a red state, recently introduced the same, as did the state of Montana and the city of Boise.

You can’t defy the economics: the price per kilowatt of renewable energy is less than that of natural gas. If you’re a consumer in a red state, do you want to pay more out of your pocket for energy?

This is about the environment, our own survival, and economic growth and creating jobs. The economics are very clear: We’ve created 500,000 jobs in the clean energy space in California. That is 10 times more jobs than there are coal mining jobs in all of America. It’s the responsibility of politicians at the local, state, and federal levels to set the tone, pace, and vision—and many of them have failed their constituencies miserably.

Robert Shrum: Do you think the prominence of the Green New Deal has helped this cause, or set it back?

Bob Inglis: I think it’s analogous to the anti-war demonstrations that created a dissonance that accelerated the end of our involvement in Vietnam War. The Green New Deal seems to be creating that dissonance among Republicans, such that now conservatives feel they must give a rejoinder. There is clearly some tension that could help us.

Julien Emile-Geay: My one concern is that I see a danger to climate being identified as a blue issue. It’s important to emphasize that there are politically feasible solutions right now that appeal to market principles, and so theoretically should be much more appealing to the right than to the traditional government-oriented left.

Lisa Friedman: There is no doubt that the Green New Deal has generated debate on climate change like few other things have in Washington. It has become a benchmark for all the Democratic candidates, such that where you stand on the Green New Deal is seen as shorthand for where you stand on climate change.

Robert Shrum: Henry, how do you assess the current dialogue on climate change and the Green New Deal?

Henry Elkus: The best analogue I’ve heard is that we are in purgatory. We need to repent for our sins—i.e., scrub the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and deacidify the ocean; and we also need to act better in the future—i.e., prevent excess emissions of CO2 and methane. That delineation is missing from the current dialogue.

I see the Green New Deal as a philosophy. The first New Deal represented an American age that required a transformation of our society on a scale that was unprecedented at the time. The statement of the Green New Deal is simply that we need an effort at that same scale to combat a problem we’re facing that is unlike any we’ve ever had before.

There has been a politicization of the Green New Deal that I think has been negative, but its becoming “the” topic in D.C. has forced a discussion on the need for an enormous response to this problem on many different fronts. That is hopefully going to be the legacy of the legislation.

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Kevin de Léon: I want to decentralize this conversation away from Washington, D.C. Frankly, no one in the world is looking to Washington, D.C. for any type of leadership—whether on climate change and the environment or immigration. They’re looking to California. In Washington, D.C., things happen at a glacial pace. This is a crisis before us that requires immediate action.

The issue of climate change is not scientific. All the world’s best scientists have already given us the empirical evidence and data points. They have done that work. This is now a political issue and a leadership issue, and there is a lack of leadership before us.

Robert Shrum: Henry, describe how Helena supported the first commercial use of carbon-capture technology. How do you see projects like that factoring into larger-scale solutions to climate change?

Henry Elkus: I’ve heard it said that there is no silver bullet to climate change; it’s more like a silver buckshot, with lots of pellets. We have to do a lot of things simultaneously. One of those pellets is carbon capture and storage (CCS)—or hopefully, carbon capture and then selling it as a product. Two years ago, Helena started a project to identify the Steve Jobs of this field and support them as much as possible. We supported a company called Climeworks that is able to sequester carbon dioxide out of the air and do different things with it. Now there are many different companies in this space blossoming into hydrocarbon fuels and other uses.

How is this economically feasible? About three years ago, the American Physical Society put out a report projecting that, even at full economies of scale, there would be no feasible way to suck a metric ton of CO2 out of the air for under $600. Climeworks’s first plant beat that, and there are now projections getting it to $100 or below. 

This is just one example of a technology that we should be supporting on a state, federal, and international level—and indeed there is a lot of support for it; our plant used subsidies—but that is in no way a substitute for inaction on the political side. We need both simultaneously.

We need national-level movement on subsidies to make climate a more economically feasible market to get into. The second we start seeing multibillionaires in the carbon capture field, it’s going to change the public dialogue. I think our generation will be defined by changemakers—entrepreneurial superheroes—who address the climate space. The obvious example is Elon Musk. Once there are more of them, I think that will be a rallying cry to act on this issue.

Kevin de Léon: Change agent entrepreneurs are absolutely needed to create technologies. Government is absolutely critical as well; they have to work together. If the goals we are trying to accomplish are not etched in stone, legally or statutorily, the capital won’t flow and the entrepreneurial spirit will not come as easily. We have to set the benchmarks.

California has set some wildly ambitious goals, without question. We’re dependent on exactly that entrepreneurial skillset—that innovation and creativity—to find or create the technologies to get us there. Those technologists and entrepreneurs will also create jobs and an economic ecosystem that puts everyday folks to work and grows an economy while eliminating carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Robert Shrum: Julien, how can the academy ensure that the facts on climate change actually shape the political conversation?

Julien Emile-Geay: We need to make the threat of climate change visible. In China, the impetus to move away from coal isn’t so much about the invisible threat of climate change; it comes down to basics. People don’t want black lung, and they’re tired of seeing their kids sick every day.

I’ve studied the climate over the past hundreds and thousands of years, and there are many examples of past societies that have fallen at the hands of climate change. The difference is that today we have a more interconnected world. 

We think of ourselves as more resilient to threats because of technology, but in fact, we are more vulnerable in many ways because we are more interconnected. Think of the disruptions to global supply chain that happen when even one tropical storm hits the south Atlantic coast, and how that has ripple effects on the market. Now imagine magnifying that. Once you start connecting the dots, you start envisioning things in a new way.

Droughts, wildfires, storms, and other climate impacts are the most visible consequences of the failure to price carbon. Climate change is a market failure. We need to price carbon because as it is, we are not adequately pricing the cost of climate change to our society. These costs are measured in very real terms—in terms of lives and property destroyed.

Robert Shrum: What climate change narratives have the most resonance with voters?

Bob Inglis: There are two different languages being spoken on climate change. Progressives generally speak in terms of doing with less, using a morality argument. On the right, the language is more about innovation, creating new opportunities, and freedom. 

Talking about walking more and eating bugs is just not going to work on the right. You have to talk in terms of energy abundance and entrepreneurs creating new stuff. The right will engage when they sense that there is an opportunity—not just a danger.

Years ago, Reagan’s economic advisor Milton Friedman would go on Phil Donahue show. Once Donahue asked him, “What are you going to do about pollution if you don’t want to regulate it?” And Friedman said, “Well, you tax it, of course.” I remind conservatives of the words of Dr. Friedman: Tax pollution. Internalize the negative externalities. Fix the economics problem, and then the environment takes care of itself.

There is an incredible opportunity here because many progressives agree with this. Someday, we’ll bring them together and lead the world to a solution.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.