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US climate politics just got even more polarized. Here’s how Democrats can move forward.

Bipartisanship is unlikely, but progress is possible.

House Speaker Paul Ryan And GOP Leadership Address The Media After Weekly Conference Meeting
Carlos Curbelo, Republican climate champion, now between jobs.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For as long as I’ve followed climate-change politics, a debate has raged among advocates: go bipartisan, or go left? Seek compromise with the right, or cut it loose and accept that progress will only be made where Democrats can amass unilateral power?

Proponents of the former strategy make the reasonable point that no comprehensive federal climate change legislation (or federal legislation of any kind, really) is possible without at least some Republican cooperation. Every major environmental law of the last several decades has passed with bipartisan support. And Democrats are unlikely to have a filibuster-proof Senate supermajority any time soon.

Proponents of the latter strategy respond: Well, that’s nice, but it’s just not happening. Republicans have have made their opposition to serious climate action extremely clear, repeatedly, and they are only getting more ideologically extreme. In recent years, tangible climate progress has happened where (and only where) Democrats are powerful enough to force the issue. The unilateral model is the only model showing any success, albeit not nearly enough.

jerry brown
Jerry Brown, getting ’er done at the state level.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Since compromise and cooperation are off the table for the time being, the only way forward, they say, is for Democrats to go for broke. That means: fully champion decarbonization, make it a winning political issue, cobble together coalitions at the state and city level, and eventually force Republicans who want to compete for young or POC voters (should they ever again want to do so) to come to the table. Make them scared not to. That might work; persuasion hasn’t, and won’t.

Whatever your feelings on that debate, political reality in the US seems to be weighing in on the side of the latter strategy. Opportunities for bipartisanship are shrinking. On climate, as on most major political issues, the Democratic Party is moving left and the GOP is moving right, a trend the midterm elections only reinforced.

But elections also put Dems in a better position to pursue the go-for-broke strategy, to abandon the project of persuading Republicans, take full ownership of the issue, and simply grind out victories on climate and clean-energy policy wherever power aligns makes them possible.

We will get to that strategy, what it might consist in and how it might play out, in a moment. First, though, let's have a look at how the midterm elections reinforced the deepening partisan divide on climate change.

The GOP climate caucus got kicked right in the members

Consider how the midterms affected the much-vaunted (yet thus far inconsequential) bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus in the House. The caucus was designed to have an equal number of R and D members. They were up to 90, with 45 Republicans, before the elections.

At last count, somewhere between 22 and 26 of those GOP members were either defeated or are retiring this year. That’s more than half the caucus.

Among the losers was Florida’s Carlos Curbelo, the leader on the GOP side of the caucus, who had even proposed a carbon tax bill. He lost (by 1 percentage point!) to Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who racked up several endorsements from climate hawks. They made the calculation that a Democrat with a reliable vote for clean energy is more valuable than a Republican whose commitments on climate change are mostly symbolic and who has no hope of prevailing in his party.

This Oct. 17, 2018, file photo shows Florida Democratic congressional candidate Debbie Mucarsel-Powell at a campaign event in Coral Gables, Fla. Mucarsel-Powell is running against incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo in Florida’s 26th Congression
Debbie Mucarsel-Powell
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

One by one, remaining GOP quasi-moderates — Mike Coffman in Colorado, Barbara Comstock and Scott Taylor in Virginia — fell to Dem challengers.

Among its other effects, the loss of all these GOP quasi-moderates dims the prospects for bipartisan cooperation on, say, carbon taxes, like the much-discussed carbon tax proposal from the Climate Leadership Council, backed by several (retired, moderate) Republicans. Such prospects were not particularly bright to begin with; now you have to squint to see them.

All of this reflects larger political trends. The remaining moderate Republicans in the House are moderates because they run in purple districts. But that makes them the easiest ones to pick off, while the true believers remain in office. “When Republicans lose elections,” Brian Beutler writes at Crooked Media, “the ones swept out of office tend to be from closely divided districts and states, which means those who survive are, on average, more reactionary than the previous class of Republicans.”

When they win, conservatives are emboldened. But when they lose, they are still emboldened. They double down on resentment and paranoia, to freak out their increasingly homogenous, increasingly paranoid white suburban and rural constituents and get them back to the polls. That’s what the Tea Party was.

“Every incentive points the same way,” Beutler writes. “The answer to every strategic doubt is always to lie more and stoke more ethnic division in order to protect tax cuts and corporate deregulation.” The tax cuts and favors for wealthy donors ensure that the movement well-financed; the lies and ethnic division serve as cover for the tax cuts and favors. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle and electoral defeats alone will not dislodge it.

The grim implication: even if they lose in 2020, the GOP is only going to get more extreme in the short- to mid-term, on climate change and everything else.

And sure enough, as McKay Coppins reports, the immediate GOP response to midterm losses was to double down on Trumpism.

Meanwhile, Democrats are heading in the other direction.

Democrats elected a slate of climate champions

Clean energy and anti-fossil fuel state ballot initiatives got crushed by fossil fuel money this year, including a carbon tax in Washington state. But those defeats happened within the context of a fairly strong year for clean-energy Democrats.

First, start with the obvious: Dems took the House. That alone is seismic, for climate and everything else.

There is no chance Democrats will be able to pass any aggressive climate legislation as long as Republicans control the Senate, but they can use control of the House to stop the bleeding and institute some oversight (more on that in a second).

Second, there are lots of Democrats with bold clean-energy ideas among the incoming freshman class. Rising superstars Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Antonio Delgado in New York, along with Ilhan Omar in Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan — a notably young and diverse group — are part of a growing bloc of Dems supporting the latest big climate idea on the left: a Green New Deal, a large-scale package of government investments in clean energy jobs and infrastructure. (At Huffington Post, Alexander Kaufman has a good story on this topic.)

Democratic Congressional Candidate In New York Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Attends Election Night Party
Noted Green New Dealer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Rick Loomis/Getty Images

Another solid addition to the clean-energy bench: Sean Casten, who beat Rep. Peter Roskam in Illinois’s Sixth District. Casten has a STEM background, used to run a waste-heat capture company, and is well-versed and clear-eyed on the subject of energy transition.

(A side note: long-time climate change denier Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California lost his seat, which is not the most significant result of the elections, but is a source of deep, schadenfreude-y satisfaction for climate advocates.)

Third, there were numerous clean energy champions elected at the state level.

As my colleague Umair Irfan wrote, Dems won seven governorships away from Republicans, with candidates who ran on clean energy. Jared Polis in Colorado, J.B. Pritzker in Illinois, and Janet Mills in Maine all ran on plans to target 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 (Polis by 2040!). Stephen Sisolak in Nevada (who supported the state’s successful initiative targeting 50 percent renewable energy by 2030), Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico, and Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan all beat Republicans with clean energy as a key part of their agenda.

Michigan Democrats On The Midterm Ballot Attend Election Night Party In Detroit
Michigan’s new governor, Gretchen Whitmer.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Democrats have eight new majorities at the state level and a “trifecta” — governor and both houses of the legislature — in 14 states, representing a third of America’s population.

At Grist, Eric Holthaus singles out six states as potential climate champions, some, like New Mexico, not the usual suspects. I would add the three west coast states, which strengthened their existing trifectas.

California and Oregon now have climate-friendly governors (Gavin Newsom and Kate Brown respectively) wielding Democratic supermajorities. And in Washington, Democrats will expand their majorities in both houses; it opens up the possibility of a legislative climate solution to compensate for this year’s failed carbon tax initiative.

One other state win worth mentioning: Stephanie Garcia Richard, who won her race to become New Mexico’s first-ever female state land commissioner. She ran squarely against the fracking industry, staring down almost $2.5 million in opposition money from Chevron.

Finally, it’s important to remember that state attorneys general have played a crucial role in fighting Trump’s environmental and energy agenda in court. More Dem states likely means more crusading AGs.

Add it all up and Democrats are now in a position both to slow down Trump’s anti-environmental initiatives at the federal level and to accelerate the blossoming of ambitious state energy policy.

Here’s what the go-for-broke strategy might look like

Climate hawks who favor bipartisan cooperation have fewer and fewer Republicans to talk to, as the last remaining moderates are picked off. The GOP climate caucus is in danger of becoming spectral, mostly existing in think tanks, advocacy groups, and op-ed pages. Trump’s unstinting support for fossil fuels is federal Republicanism for now, with shrinking exceptions.

There may be opportunities for bipartisan cooperation on clean energy at the state level (here’s an example from 2016), but those typically come when economic incentives align and Democrats are operating from a position of strength. Focusing climate-change advocacy efforts on Republicans is beginning to seem pointless.

So what would it mean, then, to go the other way — to go for broke?

As I see it, there are three prongs to that strategy, which I will get to momentarily. But the unifying thread is a change in attitude.

Dems have always approached climate change from a defensive crouch. Even now, every time one of them opens their mouth about it, the first thing they say is some version of “I believe it’s real.” This is not a preface they use in comments on, say, Social Security, or the housing market, or Yemen. We all know those things exist. Why would you bother to say so unless you viewed it as an open question, an ongoing debate? Unless you were trying to convince yourself?

The key is to act like it’s real (because it is). It’s going to get worse and worse. It’s going to be a bigger and bigger political problem. The world is plunging headlong into an energy transition of unprecedented scale. Time is short.

A home in Fort Lauderdale is surrounded by water, during a September 2015 flood. Florida cities are among the most vulnerable in the US to rising sea levels.
Flooding in Florida is probably not going away.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In hockey great Wayne Gretzky’s words, smart players skate to where the puck is going, not where it is now. Climate change and clean energy are going to be top-tier political issues across the world for decades to come, more so with each passing year. That’s where the puck is going.

For Democrats, claiming and owning those issues today — the way Republicans claimed “strong on national security” during the Cold War — is a way to plant a flag in the hopes, industries, and jobs of the future.

Just as Democrats spent years chasing after Republicans, crying, “We’re tough on national security too!” so too will Republicans eventually come running: “We’re strong on clean energy too!” It is enormously valuable political terrain, upon which Democrats have an almost uncontested early claim. Maybe they should quit trying to share it!

More than anything else, what would motivate a go-for-broke strategy is confidence — confidence that the science on climate change is accurate and the time for incremental measures is past. And that it’s the morally right thing to do.

All right. Say Dems fully embrace climate and clean energy, forget about begging Republicans to join them, and push forward on all fronts. What does that look like? Here are the three prongs of the strategy:

1. Grind it out in Congress.

Mark my words: There will be no legislation. Nancy Pelosi may talk like she thinks an infrastructure bill is possible (remember Infrastructure Week?), but ... color me skeptical.

At the very least, there will be no substantial climate or clean energy legislation, so House Dems shouldn’t pretend otherwise. This isn’t to say they shouldn’t develop or propose legislation — more on that in No. 3 — but they shouldn’t fool themselves that it’s passable. They can block legislation, but they can’t hope to pass any, so there will be none.

No, Dems’ practical efforts are best directed toward bottling up Trump’s headlong regulatory rollback and attendant gross corruption.

With control of the House comes control of key committees. New Jersey’s Frank Pallone, a noted skeptic of Trump’s efforts to bail out aging coal and nuclear plants, will now lead the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. Arizona’s Raúl Grijalva, a long-time environmental champion, will chair Natural Resources. New York’s Nita Lowey will have Appropriations.

Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) Holds News Conference Day After Midterm Elections
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

With control of committees comes subpoena power for investigations. Trump’s collusion with industry has already proven a minefield of corruption; there are still Pruitt scandals to investigate, along with newer Zinke scandals. And there are plenty of questions to be raised about the administration’s attempted coal bailout, its meddling with EPA science, and the process whereby it axed regulations on everything from methane to coal ash to carbon dioxide.

The regulatory rollbacks have been so crude that they are already beginning to founder in court. Now Dems can begin holding hearings, gathering testimony, and strengthening the case that the rollbacks were not well considered, as required by law.

And control of committees also comes with agenda-setting power. Dems can hold hearings on the IPCC report, the need for long-distance electricity transmission, the danger of methane leaks, or whatever they like. It is never easy to wrest the media’s attention from Trump, but control of the House will at least give Dems a foothold.

2. Get funky in the states.

As I mentioned, Dems are now very well positioned to start pushing bold energy ideas at the state level. A growing number of cities and states are targeting 100 percent clean energy, following California’s lead — it’s practically the default Democratic position these days, and spreading fast.

Carbon taxes may have foundered for now, but regional cap-and-trade systems are still going strong. Virginia is just about to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeast.

States control electricity distribution systems and several have already embarked on innovative plans to modernize their grids and utilities. They also control their own fuel-economy standards, with the option to join California’s more ambitious targets. They can empower cities to encourage density and multimodal transportation. They can start the long work of shutting down fossil fuel production and distribution.

There is enormous room to run in the states where Democrats gained power.

Annual Pendleton Rodeo Round-Up Draws Crowds To Pendleton
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has a rootin’, tootin’ Democratic supermajority in her legislature.
Natalie Behring/Getty Images

For the foreseeable future, Democrat-controlled states will be the laboratories where climate and energy policies are tested.

But that doesn’t mean a big, ambitious federal plan should be completely off the radar.

3. Look to the future.

Ambitious federal legislation is a pipe dream for now, and will remain so for as long as the GOP a) is bananas and b) holds at least 40 seats in the Senate. Changing either of those two things could take a while.

Nonetheless, it is incumbent upon the left — nay, upon humanity — to develop plans to meet the climate threat with the response it actually warrants, even if political reality limits the application. Which is to say: Dems need to figure out their Big Idea on climate. (As Emily Holden reports in the Guardian, they currently lack one.)

There will be institutional venues in which to do this work — Pelosi is said to be talking about reviving the late, lamented Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, or at least some contemporary version thereof — but the key is not to get confused about what the process is meant to accomplish.

The process should not be aimed at developing “bipartisan legislation” meant to actually get votes and pass. Again, no climate legislation will pass in this Congress.

So there’s no need to pre-compromise, to concoct some bill designed to please the imagined good-faith fiscal conservative. There’s no need to accept crusty myths about balanced budgets and “pay-fors” and the sanctity of markets. There’s no need to bend over backward to line up a few token Republican sponsors, to impress the nation’s editorial pages with how bipartisan it all is. Those kinds of concessions gain Democrats nothing — no credit, no respect, no leverage, and certainly no legislation — so they should stop making them.

It’s not a bill to pass. It’s a big ideas bill, to show voters what Democrats believe in, to inspire a sense of hope and national purpose, and to orient future political organizing.

For once, Democrats should start not with the question of what can pass, but at the other end: What does the problem demand? What does a real solution look like?

As I said, the energy on the young left today is around a Green New Deal, a large-scale program of national investments in clean energy projects and jobs, perhaps coupled with gradual drawdown of fossil fuel production. The details remain fairly nebulous (I’ll be looking into it more soon), but the idea behind it is simply that climate change is a true national emergency and requires an emergency response, a mobilization of national resources that is, in Jimmy Carter’s words, the moral equivalent of war.

On the other side, centrists still prefer the pursuit of bipartisanship, which typically means a policy approach centered on carbon pricing. There’s going to be a battle in coming years over who gets to define ambition and “realism” in climate policy.

But it’s important that the left not devolve into factions again (as in 2009), each clutching its own favored policy, each unwilling to critically examine its own premises, each convinced of the other’s irrational maleficence. There’s no time for that.

With federal legislation off the table for the time being, the next few years mark a crucial opportunity for the left to step back, shake off the cobwebs of old ideas and the shackles of old failures, and do some blue-sky thinking about what climate policy ought to look like in the 21st century. It’s important to develop a courageous, inspiring vision of a sustainable future, even as everyone slogs through the current muck.

As the midterms show, the partisan divide is only getting wider, on climate like everything else. But that, like all things, will end some day, and when the rare opportunity for bold action finally rolls around, it would be good for climate hawks to have a shared vision in place, ready to be adopted.

Until then, climate progress in the US will be a matter of Democrats grinding out victories, mostly on their own, where and when they can. It’s not ideal, and it will never be enough, but for now, it’s all there is.