Climate and Energy TransitionFeaturedThe Environment

A Bridge to Somewhere? Progressive Democrats’ “Climate Ambition” Must Confront Energy Realities

Volume 27, Issue 1, Winter 2018

When a group of hurricanes got together in the late summer 2017, a crazy thing happened. Climate change became a major political issue again. The National Climate Assessment (denounced as “doom porn” by climate change deniers) had some weeks earlier provided its assessment of what is happening to climate in the U.S. and what could well happen in not too distant future.[1] But how many record-breaking hurricanes does it take to back up the sewage system known as American politics? Were Harvey’s 17 trillion gallons of rainfall not enough to sufficiently irrigate demands for measures strong enough to deal with this country’s world-beating contribution to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs)?  And are not Puerto Rico’s biblical levels of torment not severe enough to warrant climate change to be declared a national emergency?

Leftward Tide  
Encouragingly, in the turbulent weeks before deadly storms ripped through hundreds of towns and communities across the Caribbean and the southern United States, progressive Democrats, along with Senator Bernie Sanders, threw down a climate policy challenge to both Congress and the present Administration. Two bills have been submitted that, while an act of defiance at this stage, signal a determination to make sure that ambitious action on climate change is central to the political agenda of the Party’s progressive wing.

Although aspirational, these bills indicate a willingness to respond to the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agenda, one that is anchored in the climate change denial, withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and a push to export the United States’ considerable surpluses of gas, oil, and coal to meet rising global demand. The bills may appear to be “gesture politics” in the context of the present Congress, but they also reflect a rising “Paris from Below” sentiment in key states like California and New York.

Driven by a Sanders-like sense of hope, the two bills are an attempt to look beyond Trump and the present Republican domination of Congress and the majority of state legislatures. The oceanic tides may continue to rise, but the political tides will sooner or later turn—and we’d better be ready.

Pledges, and Resistance
The first of the two bills was introduced in April 2017 by Senators Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders, and Ed Markey. It calls on the U.S. to transition 100 percent off of fossil fuels by 2050. The “100×50” Act would impose new federal mandates requiring “zero carbon” vehicles, while barring federal approval of oil and gas pipelines. The act proposes an auction of “climate bonds” that would raise money to support renewable energy projects.[2]

The House bill, submitted by Tulsi Gabbard on September 7, 2017, along with six other representatives seeks to end fossil-fuel use in the U.S. as early as 2035—a full 15 years earlier than the 2050 target date proposed by Sanders and Merkley. Titled “Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act” (OFF Act), the more ambitious OFF Act would also mandate the U.S. to transition to 80 percent clean renewable energy by 2027 and 100 percent by 2035.

The House bill . . . seeks to end fossil-fuel use in the United States as early as 2035—a full 15 years earlier than the [Senate bill].

Both bills are strong in terms of “just transition” protections for workers, and provide for job training for low-income Americans and Americans of color. The OFF Act requires that people in impacted communities have a leading role in developing clean energy plans, and provides for a new Center for Clean Energy Workforce Development.

Before Denial, Dishonesty
Most important, the two bills depart significantly from the approach taken by both mainstream Democrats and the Obama White House. Liberals like to think President Obama was a forceful leader on climate change, or he at least deserves credit for trying his best. After all, he ruled against the Keystone XL pipeline. And did he not get noticeably misty whenever he talked of rising sea levels or was responding to weather-related disasters like Sandy?

But it’s important not to sugarcoat the Democratic Party’s record during the Obama period. In 2009, Democrats Representative Henry Waxman and Senator Ed Markey proposed a House bill that narrowly passed in the House, but failed in the then Democrat-controlled Senate. The bill focused on bringing emissions down 83 percent by 2050 by introducing an economy-wide “cap and trade” system under which the federal government would set a cap on total GHGs. However, the interim target for reductions was only 17 percent by 2020 based on 2005 levels.[3] It is the interim target that requires actions in the here and now, whereas a 2050 target is essentially someone else’s problem. Clearly, the 2020 target was not consistent with reaching the 83 percent reduction, and this set the tone for the ensuing years.

With the failure of the Senate bill, all eyes turned toward the White House. It’s important to recall the State Department’s notorious actions at the December 2009 U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen. Obama’s special envoy Todd Stern insisted that a binding global agreement was not necessary, and a voluntary “pledge and review” approach would do just fineStern proposed the same weak 17 percent by 2020 emissions reduction target, and managed to move the goal posts so that U.S. emissions were measured based on 2005 levels, ignoring the internationally agreed 1990 benchmark. This wiped from the board a 12 percent increase in U.S. emissions from 1990 to 2005.

Six fruitless years later, at the 2015 Paris talks, the United States pledged to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, describing its commitment to be “both ambitious and fair.”[4] Given the U.S.’ off the charts emissions levels, both current and cumulative, it was anything but.[5]

Both bills are strong in terms of “just transition” protections for workers, and provide for job training for low-income Americans and Americans of color.

Of course, when viewed alongside Trump’s perverse promise to “tear up” the Paris Agreement, the former President’s climate record looks bold and progressive. But it was, in fact, neither. Whereas Trump today prefers flat out denial, Obama told the world that the United States was “the global leader” in fighting climate change—a blatantly dishonest assertion.[6] Obama also said the Paris Agreement “will mean less of the carbon pollution that threatens our planet.” This claim was also plainly false. The “national contributions” made in Paris will lock in rising emissions until 2030 at the earliest, even if all of the 192 countries reach their targets.[7] The White House knew this to be the case, but it did not stop someone deciding that it was okay for the president to say the opposite.

Breaking with the Past
In contrast, the goals of the two recent climate bills are informed by the core findings of the scientific community. The “100 x 50” bill of Senators Sanders and Merkley was the first bill introduced in Congress to propose turning the “end fossil fuels” target into law.[8] For Sanders and Merkley, it’s 2050; for Gabbard it’s 2035. These targets are not arbitrary, but reflect the scientific consensus and the policy priorities the science community has helped develop, principally, the need to deploy large-scale renewable energy in accordance with clearly stipulated time frames. The 15-year discrepancy between the two bills, however, is not insignificant. The House’s “OFF Act” is more mindful of the “well below 2 degrees Celsius” target adopted in Paris and is therefore more ambitious, whereas the “100 x 50” Senate bill is more consistent with the scenarios developed after 2007 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Timetables aside, the two recent bills are different from the Obama period in that they mandate a moratoria on any new coal, oil, and gas projects (extraction and infrastructure, including power plants, pipelines, and export terminals). Unlike the Democrats’ Obama-era legislation, the bills focus on the source of the emissions (the extraction and burning of fossil fuels) and not just how to deal with the consequences (global warming pollution, or GHGs, etc.)  If either bill became law, it would amount to a declaration of war on fossil-fuel interests, because much of the present day stock market value of coal, oil, and gas companies is based on their below- the-ground reserves.

If either bill became law, it would amount to a declaration of war on fossil-fuel interests . . .

The “100 x 50” Act proposes a “cap and trade” carbon trading scheme, but, in contrast to the 2009 legislation proposed by Waxman and Markey, it is not the bill’s main provision.[9] Significantly, the “OFF Act” goes further and rejects carbon trading altogether because it has “proven ineffective in significantly reducing emissions.” This rejection is enormously significant in that it essentially acknowledges that the “polluter pays” policies normally preferred by market-focused Democrats are simply not capable of delivering the levels of emissions reductions the science says are required.

Beyond Ambition Fixation
Both climate bills have been praised for their ambition. For some years now the global labor and environmental movements have rightly insisted that the reduction of emissions follow the pathways determined by the best scientific evidence. When governments or multilateral global agreements fail to do this, then the appeal for “more ambition!” rings from the rafters.

[T]he difference between aspirational targets and actual accomplishments is not always acknowledged by leading green nongovernmental organizations.

Ambition surely has its place, but committing to a crash diet on the morning of January 1 is one thing, being 50 pounds lighter in time for the July 4 weekend is something else altogether. Strangely, the difference between aspirational targets and actual accomplishments is not always acknowledged by leading green non-governmental organizations (NGOs). According to one, “The OFF Act ensures that the U.S. make a just transition to 100 percent clean renewable energy by 2035 (and 80 percent by 2027).” But, if history is any guide, instructing the EPA or other agencies to pursue such a massive transformation will probably not “ensure” anything. Mandating electricity retailers to source 80 percent of their power from renewables does not answer the question how that power might be produced, integrated into the grid, or who will do the work. Will the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) be given the necessary powers to intervene in energy markets in a manner similar to the Rural Electrification Administration during the New Deal?

The implementation issue therefore goes to the heart of challenges facing progressive climate policy. At least twenty states have adopted both the “80 percent reduction by 2050” emissions reduction target and have set mandatory energy efficiency goals. In June 2017, the U.S. Council of Mayors said their cities, 250 in total, would run entirely on renewable energy by 2035.[10]

At the risk of stating the obvious, the more ambitious the targets, the harder it is to answer questions about how they will be reached. “100 x 50” is the more conservative of the two bills, but getting the U.S. 100 percent off of fossil fuels by 2050 will be a very heavy lift. The OFF Act’s “80 percent renewable energy by 2027” would, in just a decade, mean a roughly ten-fold scale up of wind and solar power from its current 8 percent level.

. . . [T]he more ambitious the targets, the harder it is to answer questions about how they will be reached.

And the 80 percent by 2027 target also includes the transport sector, which will mean cars and trucks will also need to be powered mostly by renewable sources of power—thus requiring a massive increase in the amount of electrical power generated in the U.S. from renewable sources. Energy efficiency and storage systems each have a huge role to play, but the levels of investment are presently far too low to meet the needs of such a transformation.

Taking Ownership
The fact that progressive Democrats and Senator Sanders have submitted ambitious bills to Congress is to be welcomed, as is the break with the “America is leading the way” myth cultivated by President Obama and Secretary Clinton. But turning an ambitious science-based approach to climate change into transformational pathways will require a decisive shift toward expanding social ownership and democratic control in key sectors, particularly the power sector, transport, as well as a more publicly-driven approach to financing the energy transition. [11]Accomplishing a comprehensive energy transition in just two or three decades will require, among other things, careful planning, cooperation, and adequate levels of R&D—the kind of things private markets and their for-profit calculations have, with stunning consistency, failed to deliver.

For labor and its allies, there is a compelling need to go much further than ensuring strong “equity provisions” for communities of color and labor protections and standards. Important as these are, we cannot afford to leave it to others (including private investors and corporations) to shape the speed and direction of the transition. The past decade has shown us that those presently in charge are not capable of doing what needs to be done.

The bills recently submitted to Congress therefore constitute the starting point for the debates among progressives in labor and other social movements on how to engage workers and communities on addressing climate change in a way that can offer the best chance of stabilizing the climate and controlling temperatures over the longer term.



[2] The bill (HR 3671) was submitted by Representatives Tulsi Gabbard (HI), Barbara Lee (CA), Jamie Raskin (MD), Nanette Diaz Barragán (CA), Ted Lieu (CA), Jan Schakowsky (IL), and Keith Ellison (MN).










Author Biography

Sean Sweeney is director of the International Program on Labor, Climate and Environment at the Murphy Institute, and coordinator of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy.

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