The midterm congressional elections are still a year away, but hundreds of rookie candidates are crafting policy positions for the first time.
Most of them are Democrats, spurred by polls showing their party with the edge for 2018.
In Texas alone, so far 35 Democrats are challenging House incumbents, while just two Republicans are doing so (both in primaries against Republican incumbents).
In previous elections, many candidates glossed over their positions on climate change, assuming they were of secondary interest to voters. That could be a mistake this time around.
President Trump’s decision to exit the Paris Agreement has galvanized support for climate action. A new survey by Politico and Harvard shows that Democratic voters rank climate change alongside Trump scandals and healthcare as the top issues motivating them to vote in 2018.
A whopping 49 percent of Democrats call Trump’s Paris withdrawal an “extremely important” motivator for their vote. Even before the withdrawal, a Gallup poll in March found concern for global warming at a three-decade high.
But what actions should candidates endorse to ride this wave of public interest? Having spoken with several first-time candidates so far, here’s some of the advice I’ve given:
- Accept the science — As an atmospheric scientist, I can attest that the Earth is warming, that our emissions are causing it, that it’s a problem, and that we can slow down the warming. Rather than dispute settled science, it’s time to focus on the best ways to slow the warming and to prepare for climate changes that lie ahead.
- Support the Paris Agreement — Reviving our Paris commitments would end America’s isolation from the global response to combat climate change. Paris is popular with voters too — a Yale survey found 69 percent of all registered voters, and 86 percent of Democrats, support U.S. participation in the agreement.
- Clean energy is cheap but not inevitable — Wind and solar have plunged in cost far faster than most politicians realize. Efficient technologies like LED lights and programmable thermostats save consumers billions of dollars. But we’re not adopting any of them fast enough to meet Obama’s Paris pledge. Federal action can bolster efforts by cities, states, and businesses to accelerate the adoption of clean energy and efficiency.
- Put a price on emissions — A price on emissions, whether via a tax or a cap-and-trade market, incentivizes action without costly subsidies. Groups like the bipartisan Citizens’ Climate Lobby and the conservative Climate Leadership Council (CLC) promote carbon taxes paired with per-person dividends that keep them from being regressive. In oil-rich Texas, influential employers like ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell have endorsed the CLC plan. In other states, candidates might advocate even faster progress by devoting some of the revenue to clean energy infrastructure or research.
- Look beyond a price on emissions —To paraphrase David Roberts, a price on emissions is neither necessary nor sufficient, merely useful. In some anti-tax districts, a carbon tax may be political kryptonite, even if it provides a dividend or offsets other taxes. With or without a carbon tax, there are many other ways to combat emissions as discussed below.
- Build infrastructure — Our electric grid was designed to transmit electricity from massive power plants to cities and towns. Modern grids must connect a myriad of smaller wind and solar sources, using storage and advanced technologies to balance fluctuations. Texas has shown how careful planning can open vast regions to wind and solar farms, spurring investments and driving down electricity rates. But elsewhere, developers have been stymied in building transmission lines needed to access the windiest and sunniest areas. We also need better infrastructure for charging electric cars, to compete with hundreds of thousands of fuel stations.
- Remove red tape — Rooftop solar costs more to install in the United States than in countries like Germany, where they have streamlined the process. Solar and wind farms have been blocked from locations where there environmental impacts would be far less damaging than the fossil fuels they displace. Even worse, President Trump is now considering tariffs on all solar panel imports. All of this drives up costs and slows adoption of solar, threatening the installation companies that employ far more Americans than panel manufacturers.
- Boost jobs — Speaking of jobs, the wind and solar industries each employ more than twice as many workers as coal mining. That’s because building and maintaining wind farms and installing solar panels on rooftops takes a lot more workers than the massive machinery that extracts coal from the ground. In states like Texas, most of our coal is imported from Wyoming, but wind and solar employ thousands of technicians, installers, and marketers.
- Support research and development — Certain technologies like energy storage, electric cars, cellulosic biofuels, smart grid devices, and advanced nuclear reactors need further R&D to improve affordability and performance. Programs like ARPA-E support cutting-edge energy research, but have been put on the chopping block in Trump’s budget.
- Adapt — However much progress we make on emissions, the climate is changing. Even in the best case scenarios, sea levels will continue to rise and droughts and floods may become more severe. That means we need to make our communities more resilient to the changes that lie ahead.
- Benefits beyond climate — Let’s say climate change is a hoax (it’s not). By pursuing the above, we’d still benefit from cleaner air and water, better health, less mining and drilling wastes, more jobs, less subsidies, a more robust electric grid, conserved fossil fuels, better technologies, and more resilient cities and coastlines. Few voters would reject those benefits, whether they accept climate science or not.
In sum, vigorous positions on climate can be a winning strategy for congressional candidates of all stripes.
It’s time to move beyond phony debates about science to instead develop the policies needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Daniel Cohan is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice University.