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The Climate Fight Needs Both Technocrats and Firebrands

A two-pronged approach can help the planet now while building the necessary voter support for major change in the future.

Environmental groups demand action at a youth-led climate strike in New York City in 2019.
Scott Heins/Getty Images
Environmental groups demand action at a youth-led climate strike in New York City in 2019.

Climate campaigners on Tuesday received a rarity amid President-elect Joe Biden’s appointment announcements: good news. Former Environmental Protection Agency administrator and current National Resources Defense Council head Gina McCarthy will become the next administration’s climate czar, a Cabinet-level position organizers in the Sunrise Movement and elsewhere had long pushed for, in addition to the internationally oriented climate role soon to be occupied by John Kerry. Ali Zaidi, who’s helped implement New York State’s ambitious, albeit controversial, climate and energy programs, will be McCarthy’s deputy. In addition, former Michigan governor and renewables booster Jennifer Granholm, outlets reported Tuesday, will be tapped to head the Department of Energy.

McCarthy’s record isn’t perfect, and Granholm wasn’t at the top of progressives’ list. But both are a huge improvement, in climate advocates’ eyes, from longtime fossil fuel ally Ernest Moniz and the Google executive rumored to have been in the running for top jobs. The mandate and powers of McCarthy’s post remain to be seen, with more details likely to emerge with an official announcement from the Biden camp. Yet with climate math growing more bleak by the day, she and Granholm face similar tasks: Do as much as possible, as quickly as possible.

But there are competing ideas about how to do that. An under-the-radar fight this week has put those divisions on display.

Those who aren’t waist-deep in energy-related Twitter feeds have probably been spared the debate around the energy package moving through Congress as part of an omnibus spending bill. It includes provisions for lots of uncontroversial things like energy efficiency and phasing out a potent class of greenhouse gas known as hydrofluorocarbons. It’ll also help fund projects that amount to corporate subsidies for activities that climate advocates are divided about—namely nuclear power and a kind of carbon capture and storage, or CCS, that most often puts captured carbon to work extracting more fossil fuels.

Climate and environmental justice advocates who oppose the package see carbon capture as a means for oil and gas companies to extend the life of their toxic business models indefinitely, and evade near-term cutbacks. Dismissing such concerns—touting the necessity of both nuclear power and CCS for decarbonization in climate modeling—energy wonks have pointed to the bill as a promising test case for climate action in a divided government: pulling together bipartisan agreement on things that are good and necessary for decarbonization.

The fracas around carbon dioxide removal and nuclear power, though, has tended to mask the deeper disagreements over how change happens. There’s a well-worn tradition among Beltway environmentalists of trying to sneak climate policy in around the edges, pushing for an earmark here and a tax credit there to gradually nibble away at emissions. Just about anything called climate policy is good, the thinking goes, particularly when it’s brokered under the less than ideal circumstance of Mitch McConnell controlling the Senate.

There’s a variant of this approach that’s gained steam in discussions about the executive branch: With the adults back in charge, the thinking goes, competent administrators will be free to push through decidedly unsexy but important climate measures that roll back the Trump administration’s anti-regulatory agenda and funnel more support to clean energy. It’s a rosy realpolitik vision of how to get things done: that enough smart people, using their mastery of the levers of power, can solve just about any problem the world throws at them. And barring control of the Senate, is there any other option?

The problem, though, is that while any nibbling away at emissions is certainly appreciated—as is making use of every executive branch power under the sun—the scale of climate action needed can’t reasonably be snuck in behind Republican backs, without taking the case to the public. Similar approaches have been tried before. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act devoted around 10 percent of its entirely too small $730 billion stimulus to a range of clean energy projects, largely through incentives for private sector companies. That money did a lot of good and has been instrumental in dropping the price of wind and solar power. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone besides a solar entrepreneur who could explain how the Renewable Energy and Electric Transmission Loan Guarantee Program has made their life better, much less what it is.

An expansive new study from Princeton University researchers—that, to note, was partially paid for by ExxonMobil and BP—offers perspective on the scale of change needed. Reaching the arguably still-too-modest goal of net-zero U.S. emissions by 2050 means that, by the end of this decade, just about every coal plant will need to shut down; half of new cars sold will need to be electric, compared to 2 percent now; and the country’s electrical grid will need to expand by 60 percent. You’d have to be not just a free-market believer but a free-market fanatic to think that can be done without large-scale government intervention and buckets of public money. Legislative action on this, in turn, almost certainly requires Democrats winning durable majorities in Congress. And that means Democrats need to think bigger than technocratic tinkering.

Wonky details and changes around the margins are important, but they’re not a political strategy for winning the kind of democratic majorities needed to tackle the climate crisis. High-level administrators and academics with doctoral degrees probably aren’t going to be much help in building the groundswell of support for the vast changes their PDFs suggest are necessary. The huge number of jobs to be created as the United States transitions to an electric fleet and rapidly expands its grid, however, might.

Thanks in large part to Green New Deal advocates, there’s been modest progress on this front. Biden ran on a platform that tried to fuse climate and jobs through a “Build Back Better” agenda (although arguably didn’t do much to make that feel concrete to folks currently struggling through a painful recession). Just months ago, Gina McCarthy signed on to a detailed proposal for a jobs-focused green stimulus, with hearty investments in environmental justice. And, hailing from Michigan, Granholm is no stranger to a good old-fashioned jobs pitch, nor will she be unaware of the dynamics involved in shifting the auto industry toward electric batteries. To make the case for climate action down the line, climate-minded administrators should embrace their most populist impulses in public and put the technocrats to work behind the scenes.

Climate policy should give people stuff. At the very least, its backers should clearly state that they want to give people stuff. And they should paint a clear picture of who’s standing in the way, rather than asking people to be grateful for the crumbs furnished by bad deals. And by “stuff” here, I mostly mean jobs.

Instead of the failed Obama-era “all of the above” climate strategy that encouraged renewables and natural gas, let’s have an “all of the above” climate strategy that encourages both technocratic tweaks, grand gestures, and big legislative action, all aimed at rapid decarbonization: Behind the scenes, do the unglamorous work of inserting line items for expanded research budgets, extending tax credits, and rebuilding the regulatory state that’s virtually incomprehensible to the general public. Earmark away. Out front, tell anyone who’ll listen about the millions of jobs going green is going to create—and is already creating!

Show them those jobs. Bring news crews to the workers making a living wage installing insulation on bad housing stock in Ohio, the union electricians retrofitting the government buildings being transformed by procurement policy, and the mail carrier humming along in her American-made electric postal truck. Slap a government plaque on every single project federal climate investments help fund, and make sure there’s one prominently displayed in every county in the country. Make Republicans explain to their voters why they’re blocking bills that would create millions of well-paid jobs.

Barring an upset in Georgia’s runoff handing Democrats the keys to the Senate, making any progress on climate in the next few years will take a lot of quiet, behind-the-scenes wins. But it’ll also require a lot of loud losses, broadcasting the way the GOP is holding the country back from prosperity and providing proof of concept for why Democratic control and serious climate action will bring that prosperity. Bring out the bullhorn—and let the technocrats tinker behind the scenes.