“A version of this article appeared in Bloomberg Opinion”
In naming former Secretary of State John Kerry to become America’s global climate czar, President-elect Joe Biden is wasting no time making emissions reduction a top White House priority. Political observers are already gaming how much Biden will be able to accomplish on climate protection. Will Mitch McConnell lead a Republican Senate to tie up legislation? If the two Georgia Democratic candidates prevail in their runoff elections, can a Chuck Schumer-led Senate bridge divisions among Republican oil minions, progressive climate hawks and moderate “all of the above” straddlers?
Either way, the conventional wisdom runs, President Biden will have a hard time delivering on his pledge to decarbonize the U.S. power and road-transportation sectors on the way to achieving a 100% clean energy economy by mid-century.
My bet is that Beltway political gridlock won’t be such a big problem — just as Trump’s presidency wasn’t as big an obstacle to progress as it once appeared.
Just after this month’s election, a friend sent me a blog post I wrote four years ago in the wake of the Trump triumph, noting how accurate my predictions on climate under a Trump presidency had proved to be. I checked and was surprised by how close I got. But even back then there was reason to assume that Trump’s desperate efforts to preserve the coal industry would be undone by the economic reality of the fuel’s collapsing profitability. And it was possible to hope that congressional battles between climate deniers and progressive advocates of emissions reduction would be overshadowed by the clean-energy momentum of American cities, states, and businesses — along with international government mandates to lower emissions.
Even then, wind and solar power were undercutting coal and gas generation. Today electric batteries have become cheap enough to leave gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles in the dust. And an emerging competition between hydrogen and electricity is preparing to decarbonize heavy industry, which emits the final third of global greenhouse-gas pollution. Cities, states, and businesses are seizing the economic opportunities these shifts provide.
Just this week, it was announced that the aptly named Samson Solar Energy Center — at 1300 megawatts, the biggest in the U.S. — would-be built-in Texas, of all states. This is the result not of a government mandate, but of power purchase agreements among four Fortune 500 corporations and three moderate-size Texas municipalities, all wanting the 20 years of guaranteed cheap power that Samson promises.
And this happened during Trump’s presidency. It is hard to imagine a Republican Senate deprived of the White House turning back the clean-energy tide that’s transforming the U.S. power sector, and electrifying cars, trucks and buildings.
Climate-industrial innovators, as I call them, represent most of the U.S. economy and half of the country’s emissions. As Biden reverses the White House course on climate, American society will outpace whatever he and Congress can do. Even so, the U.S. no longer leads the world on climate policy. Europe took post position with its green stimulus. And the Covid-19 pandemic has extinguished any long-term future for fossil fuels. Within five weeks of Europe’s action, China, Japan, and Korea all committed to zero carbon economies before 2060.
As the global transition to clean energy accelerates, the supply chains and investment dollars on which the U.S. economy depends will shift further from fossil fuels — whatever politicians might prefer. Take transportation. As the world’s big vehicle manufacturers — European, Chinese, Korean and Japanese — stop investing in internal combustion engines, even countries that haven’t made ambitious climate pledges (Saudi Arabia, Russia) will nonetheless buy electric vehicles, because they will be better and cheaper. American manufacturers, required by California’s zero-emission coalition to produce a low-carbon fleet for half the country, will put pressure on Congress to support a national transition to electric cars and trucks. And as research and development dollars flood into EVs, and dry up for internal combustion engines, EV performance advantages will improve even as prices continue to fall.
This is not to say that Biden’s ambition does not matter. It does — not so much for how many American drivers get behind the wheel of a zero-emission car, but for where that car gets made. Biden and Congress may not determine the pace of the clean-transportation revolution, but they can help determine its leadership.
One more thing that policy makers do control and must confront is how American families and communities fare in the transition. What happens to North Dakota as its Bakken Shale oil remains more costly than shrunken global oil demand will allow? How do we ensure that the surge of new jobs in clean energy recreates a middle-class economy, with well paying, career-building, family-supporting jobs? Here Trump’s voters and Biden’s voters have a lot in common. And advocates of climate mitigation share their concerns, because if the clean energy revolution does not benefit average families, it won’t live up to its promise.