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Paris, 2020 and the Return of Bipartisan America



By Eban Goodstein

Much of the focus in the Paris climate talks has been on a process that supports deeper cuts in global warming pollution. Should the nations of the earth come back in five years with a new set of proposed reductions? The commitments now on the table have taken us half of the way there: from a business-as-usual global warming of 8 degrees Fahrenheit only a few years ago, down to a projected post-Paris warming of 6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.

To avoid catastrophic, runaway warming, we need to get that number down further, to 4 degrees Fahrenheit. But in reality, the road to deeper global warming pollution reductions depends little on the wording of the Paris agreement. Instead, it is a function of the evolution of domestic political appetite for further action, in particular, in the U.S., China and India, the biggest polluters. Will the politics line up for more aggressive policy steps supporting the 4-degree F target? And if so, how soon?

On first glance, prospects for more medium term action in the U.S. seem grim. As I discussed here, President Obama’s Paris pledge is rooted in a 45 year-old law, the Clean Air Act. Republicans in Congress, and Republican Presidential candidates, have vowed to undo the commitment if given the chance. So at best, a President Clinton is likely to execute successfully on the U.S. pledge, getting the nation on track for 30 percent reductions below 2005 levels by 2030. To do so, Clinton would have to fend off attacks on the policy from Tea Party politicians at both the federal and state level. Given the Tea Party lock on the House of Representatives, and the extraordinarily partisan nature of the current climate debate, major national climate or clean energy legislation in a Clinton first term seems out of the question.

And for any deeper cuts, new legislation will indeed be required. The EPA leaned very hard on the Clean Air Act in setting the Paris target. There will be no “Round 2” emerging under existing U.S. law in the next decade. Further U.S. action driven by new national legislation will therefore follow the elections of 2020. Or it won’t. The 2020 U.S. political contest will be a critical turning point in history, determining the American response to climate change, in turn driving the global response, and setting the course for the future of civilization on the Earth.

Is it possible to move beyond gridlock on climate? The rise of Tea Party politics in this decade can be traced in significant measure to Tea Party strength at the state-wide level in the 2010, off-year elections. Extreme gerrymandering post-2010 then created super safe districts for both Republicans and Democrats. Safe districts rewarded politicians, particularly on the Republican side, who represented radical voices in the party base. Post-2020 redistricting can undo this rigged election system and restore competitive elections, favoring moderation on both sides.

Back to Paris, and the process going forward. For America to take the next step on climate will require a post-2020 return to bipartisan policymaking on climate. By this, I mean 10-20 clean energy Republican votes in the House, and 5 in the Senate. Reasons for optimism about a post-2020 political realignment:

  • U.S. elections in 2020 will coincide with a presidential race, favoring clean energy advocates who can dismantle the radical gerrymandering of 2010.

  • The decline of the Tea Party base, and the rise of majority minority states and districts, driving politics towards the middle.

  • Rapidly falling costs of clean energy Solar, wind, storage, and electric vehicles are increasingly affordable (and in the case of Tesla and BMW, sexy), making climate policy smart policy in red states and blue states.

  • Green economic success With California, Germany, and other states and countries pushing the limit, and with car companies delivering on higher fuel economy, opponents of climate action will find it harder and harder to cry wolf on jobs versus the environment.

  • Collapse of coal, low oil prices & stranded assets. The implosion of the coal industry in the last three years has brought home to investors the near-term reality of stranded assets in fossil fuel. With Saudi Arabia committed to pumping its oil as fast as possible, low gas prices will reduce the political clout of oil companies and petro-states, and also stall exploration for new reserves.

  • The growing strength of a morally-based, American climate movement, making the case for the kind of action that science and justice demand. Watch for major post-Paris action from 350.org and other groups.

  • Hotter and hotter planet More and more weather disasters.

All of these trends will move politics in a bipartisan direction, but ultimately, over the next five years, the Republican Party will need to regain centrist voices in purple states and districts. This scenario is most likely if Trumpisme implodes in an electoral disaster for Republicans in 2016—either with Trump as a candidate or following a deadlocked convention. The impact will cascade all the way down the ticket to state and local elections.

This is not a prediction, just a scenario. One could easily tell a story that extends climate gridlock in America well into the 2020s. However, the political landscape can change quickly. In 2006, Republicans controlled the Presidency and the Senate. In 2008, the reverse. Just seven years ago, the two major Republican Presidential candidates had both proposed major action on climate. Seven years from now, we may again see bipartisan support for further reduction in global warming pollution.

Regardless, from the perspective of Paris, the most likely path to American leadership within a five-year time frame involves electoral defeat for the Tea Party, enabling Republican centrists to regain their historic leadership on the environment once again. In the coming months, this means spending time registering voters and making phone calls with a dozen other volunteers in the dingy, strip mall office of your favorite clean energy candidate. Enjoy the pizza.

Eban Goodstein is an economist and is Director of the MBA in Sustainability and the Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.

Image credit: Mark Dixon, Flickr

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