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:
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.