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At last, a climate policy platform that can unite the left

The factions of the Democratic coalition have come into alignment on climate change.

Zac Freland/Vox; Getty Images

Update, July 9: The Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force on climate change issued its policy recommendations on Wednesday, and they are largely in line with the recommendations of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which are in turn largely in line with the recommendations of various climate advocacy groups. In short, the broad US left-of-center coalition appears to be aligning around a common climate policy vision. That vision is described in the following piece, first published on May 27.

After the ignominious failure of the Democratic climate change bill in President Barack Obama’s first term — the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill that narrowly passed the House but never came to a vote in the Senate — what little unity there was on climate change within the Democratic coalition fractured. Everyone went their own way, furious at everyone else.

Democratic members of the House were angry at Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was angry at the climate movement, which was angry at the big mainstream green groups, which were angry at Obama, who was reduced to addressing climate change through regulations that President Donald Trump wound up repealing.

In all, the decade of climate politics from 2008 to 2018 netted frustratingly little progress at the federal level or consensus about the path ahead. No one was happy, and no one agreed on what to do next. Robinson Meyer captured it well in a 2017 piece in the Atlantic: “Democrats Are Shockingly Unprepared to Fight Climate Change.”

But something different has been happening lately, as groups across the left come together to hash out their differences on climate policy. It turns out they agree on quite a bit. In fact, for the first time in memory, there’s a broad alignment forming around a climate policy platform that is both ambitious enough to address the problem and politically potent enough to unite all the left’s various interest groups.

With the coronavirus raging and the economy facing a bleak near-term future, there is more appetite than ever for something big, a vision of a better post-virus economy and society. And such a vision is taking shape on the left.

If presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden were smart, he would embrace this vision, serve as its champion, and make a serious bid to unite the left behind him. And there are signs that he will try to do just that. It’s still a long shot, but there’s at least a chance that Democrats could go into the 2020 election with their act together on climate change. And who saw that coming?

In this post, I’ll offer an account of the new climate alignment: how it came to be, what kinds of climate policies it contains, what it leaves out, and its prospects moving forward. In the next post, I cover Biden’s climate strategy.

The coming together of the climate left

After a decade of dissolution, work on climate policy development cranked back up in earnest around 2018. States where Democrats took control passed climate and clean energy bills. Every Democratic candidate for president produced ambitious climate plans. “All of those people who ran for president, who are currently sitting electeds, had a much more expanded vision on climate by the end of their campaigns than when they started,” said Maggie Thomas, who served as deputy climate director of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s campaign and then policy advisor to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign.

Gov. Jay Inslee met with solar workers while campaigning for president in San Francisco, California, in May 2019.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Democrats in both the House and Senate drafted climate bills (the CLEAN Future Act and the Clean Economy Act, respectively), and the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which has been holding hearings all year, is expected to release its recommendations this summer.

Perhaps most notably, behind the scenes, nonprofits on the left began a flurry of climate policy conclaves and discussions — often across factional lines, involving mainstream groups, left groups, environmental justice groups, and unions — to try to determine where there was consensus and where disagreements remained.

A few of these groups and efforts are worth mentioning. There was the Green New Deal, which burst onto the scene in November 2018 and utterly transformed the climate discussion, though it was a bit light on concrete policy. The US Climate Action Network convened a policy process that ended up involving more than 175 people from at least 106 separate groups across the climate-concerned spectrum; this May, it produced the surprisingly substantial Vision for Equitable Climate Action.

The BlueGreen Alliance, a group that brings together environmentalists and labor, developed “Solidarity for Climate Action,” the first serious climate platform to get a sign-off from United Steelworkers. The Equitable & Just National Climate Platform was developed by a long list of environmental justice groups alongside some bigger players like the League of Conservation Voters. Finally, in April, the brain trust behind Inslee’s gold-standard climate campaign plan spun up a group called Evergreen Action to advocate for it.

Over the past few weeks, I have talked to more than a dozen people involved in this extraordinary burst of policy discussion and development. Just about every one of them made a point of commenting on the degree of comity and good faith shown thus far, even across some traditionally tense factional lines.

“Having groups all work together on a national climate policy platform — people from different regions, environmental stressors, gender identities, races — really did help to build alignment and trust,” Lindsay Harper, executive director of the environmental justice group Georgia WAND and co-chair of the US Climate Action Network process, told me.

Because policy development did not begin within a legislative process, it was not bound from the outset by compromise. Thanks in part to the Green New Deal, it began in imagination and aspiration. And it uncovered more and deeper agreement on climate policy than anyone might have predicted a few years ago. Though plenty of issues remain to be addressed, the broad left-of-center appears aligned around rapid decarbonization through stringent sector-specific standards, large-scale public investments, and a commitment to justice (“SIJ,” in my unwieldy acronym).

“After more than 20 years of working in and with the progressive movement, I’m more cynical than most about prospects for unity on the left,” said Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance. “But I’m increasingly hopeful that we can unify the movement’s factions, and all Democrats, around a policy agenda that frames climate action as industrial policy geared toward rebuilding America’s infrastructure and manufacturing base, with justice and equity baked in rather than an optional ingredient.”

Before getting into SIJ’s constitutive parts, it is worth discussing a few of the principles that have guided its development.

Net-zero emissions by 2050 is the new baseline

The first has to do with the explosive impact of the 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That report examined the difference in impact between a 1.5°C rise in global temperatures and a 2°C rise. Spoiler: It is huge and disastrous. The IPCC concluded that to limit temperatures to 1.5°C would require the entire world to reach net-zero carbon emissions, emitting no more than it is absorbing, by midcentury. (It also concluded that most countries are far off track.)

That goal — net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 — has become table stakes, the new baseline for US climate policy. Virtually every candidate and climate platform mentioned above endorses it. Democrats in both houses of Congress endorse it. Even the American Conservation Coalition, a politically conservative group of young people concerned about climate change, endorses it. Now net zero by 2050 is what it means to “address climate change.”

That is an enormous change in climate politics, inconceivable even a few years ago.

The Extinction Rebellion movement led a direct action protest in London in February 2020.
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Several such coordinated global protests are set to continue throughout 2020.
David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Some groups, like the Extinction Rebellion protesters who have led civil disobedience actions in cities around the world, argue that wealthy countries like the UK and the US should decarbonize by 2030 to allow more time for developing countries to catch up. Initially, some left groups in the US, including the youth-oriented Sunrise Movement, argued the same thing. But that demand more or less faded into the background as it became clear that very few groups or candidates, if any, would endorse it.

Though some activists might still wish for an earlier target, net zero by 2050 is incredibly ambitious. It will require a large-scale, rapid transition, driven by policy. Many of the people and groups endorsing it do not seem to fully comprehend this yet, but if you work backward from net zero by 2050, you arrive at policy radicalism. There’s no avoiding it.

Republicans aren’t going to help

The second principle is that Republicans aren’t going to help. There are still some centrist groups that pursue bipartisan cooperation on climate, and groups of (retired, young, or otherwise not in power) conservatives that will talk to them. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Trump have convinced the vast majority of people on the left that there is simply nothing to be gained by pursuing Republican cooperation. For the foreseeable future, Democrats will achieve on climate change whatever they can achieve on their own, however little it may prove to be. Wishing it were otherwise doesn’t make today’s GOP any less dysfunctional, irrational, and corrupt.

Because there is no help coming from the right and the left must do the job on its own, the political strategy becomes about uniting the left — getting as many of the left’s constituent interest groups as possible on board — to maximize the ambition and freedom to act of Democratic politicians.

From left, Sen. Roy Blunt, President Trump, Sen. John Barrasso, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, following the weekly Republican Senate policy luncheon on May 19.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

It is not Republicans’ willingness to act that should set the limit on climate policy aspirations. “We’re not really fighting against another party,” said Thomas, who is now political director at Evergreen. “We have to respond to science.”

Carbon pricing has been dethroned

The third principle, which falls out of the first two, is that carbon pricing — long treated as the sine qua non of serious climate policy — is no longer at the center of these discussions, or even particularly privileged in them. For one thing, there’s the political economy: Raising prices is unpopular, and raising prices enough, fast enough, to hit the 2050 target will be an almost insuperable political challenge. Cap and trade is still in the reputational toilet. Carbon taxes never saw the bipartisan support their backers always promised. The politics of carbon pricing just don’t seem to be going anywhere.

“The debate about whether a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax is the right solution for this crisis has completely gone out the window,” said Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement.

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash at a climate rally in January 2020.
Andrew Harnik/AP

There is still room for pricing in climate policy (if environmental justice concerns are taken into account), but the dream of having one simple plan that solves the climate problem is, at least on the left, dead. It is now clear, if only from the experience of states that have actually passed legislation, that something more pragmatic and targeted, something more like industrial policy, is needed.

So with those principles in mind, let’s look at the three pillars of the new SIJ alignment.

Standards: Electricity, cars, and buildings

An economy the size of America’s is unlikely to fully decarbonize by 2030. There are sectors of the economy (think heavy industry) where clean alternatives are not yet fully developed and economically competitive. It will take some time to work them out.

But it is vitally important that the US make rapid progress in those sectors where clean alternatives are available and just need to be scaled up. Primarily, that means electricity, cars, and buildings.

Together, those sectors make up close to two-thirds of US emissions. The core of any aggressive 10-year mobilization on climate must be to target them, not sideways through a carbon price, but directly, through sector-specific performance standards and incentives, to drive out the carbon as quickly as possible.

Though the details differ, this basic electricity-cars-buildings approach can be found in recent legislation from states like Colorado, Washington, and California. It was the part of Inslee’s climate plan (by 2030, a net-zero electricity sector, no new fossil fuel cars sold, and no new fossil-fueled buildings built) that Warren subsequently adopted as her own. Sanders had his own, characteristically turbocharged version. Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg had a version that achieved aggressive targets in those sectors entirely through executive action.

The same standards-based approach was at the heart of the Green New Deal and has found a place in virtually every green group climate platform and both the House Democrats’ CLEAN Future Act and the Senate Democrats’ Clean Economy Act.

The policies are not identical. In electricity, Evergreen calls for a clean energy standard (CES) to hit net zero by 2030. Bloomberg promised 80 percent emission reductions in the sector using only strengthened EPA authorities, including a souped-up version of Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The Vision for Equitable Climate Action endorses 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 (rather than net-zero carbon, the more permissive standard that most states have adopted). The CLEAN Act also proposed a CES, but it targets carbon neutrality in the sector by 2050 and includes a credit-trading scheme.

There is similar variety in policy on cars and buildings. The Evergreen platform would crank up fuel economy standards to ensure that all new vehicles sold in the US are zero-emission by 2030. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer proposed a plan to make all vehicles on US roads clean by 2040, combining trade-in incentives and grants for electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Recommendations on buildings range from updating codes to decarbonizing all federally owned properties to launching a massive national energy-retrofit program.

Denver’s popular electric buses produce no local air pollution.
Denver’s popular electric buses produce no local air pollution.
RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The details vary, but there is a strong common core: performance standards and incentives for the three biggest emitting sectors, aimed at making rapid, substantial progress on emissions in the next 10 years. The ultimate vision is a carbon-free electricity sector powering an electrified, emission-free vehicle fleet and building stock.

“We know from state-level action that clean energy standards are driving the most significant and sustained emissions reductions,” Thomas said. “So let’s scale that up, apply it nationally.”

Investment: We can have nice things

One idea that the Green New Deal revitalized on the left is large-scale public investment. That idea is not new, but something about the moment — the rising danger of climate change, the growing influence of Sanders-style democratic socialism, the pent-up public need after decades of austerity politics — made it resonate.

The former Democratic presidential candidates got the message. Sanders put forward the largest bid: $16.3 trillion in public investments over 10 years. Elizabeth Warren and Julián Castro came in at $10 trillion, Jay Inslee at $9 trillion, Cory Booker at $3 trillion, Amy Klobuchar between $2 trillion and $3 trillion, and Tom Steyer and Pete Buttigieg at around $2 trillion. (With the exception of Sanders, most of those numbers represent not only public money but also private investment pulled forward by public spending.)

Public investment plays a huge role in the BlueGreen Alliance platform and the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform. Oregon Rep. Peter DiFazio is still pushing his $760 billion infrastructure bill and there are substantial infrastructure investments in the Clean Economy Act.

A wide range of investments are recommended by these platforms, everything from a national green bank (Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Chris Murphy have sponsored a bill to create one) to rural electrification, universal broadband, long-distance electricity transmission, and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

The investment ideas cover a wide range, but the focus in all of them is supporting green industries, manufacturing, and research, and, above all, creating jobs.

And not just any jobs: well-paying, high-quality jobs. Which brings us to our third category.

Justice: For unions, fossil fuel workers, and front-line communities

Unions, hard-hit fossil fuel communities, and vulnerable front-line communities have not always been prioritized in climate policy discussions, but this time around, in a break with past practice, they have been at the table from the beginning, helping to shape the policy platform.

In part, this reflects a moral imperative — past transitions in the economy have tended to come at the expense of workers and vulnerable communities. But it also reflects a political imperative. Remember, the strategy here is to unite the left, pulling together a coalition that extends beyond traditional environmental groups and demographics. To do that, climate advocates will need both the environmental justice movement (one of the left’s fastest rising forces) and unions (one of the left’s most powerful existing forces) on board.

Wyoming Mining Association executive director Travis Deti, pictured working from his home in Cheyenne on April 13, has been calling for help for the coal industry in the form of lower federal royalties and other aid due to the decreased demand for coal during the coronavirus crisis.
Mead Gruver/AP

That won’t be easy. Those groups have demands of climate policy that are not always commensurate, and relations between them — and between each of them and the climate movement — are still somewhat tentative and fragile.

Nonetheless, putting justice first represents the most notable shift in green thinking and strategy over the past decade, and it has uncovered a few elements that draw broad support.

1. Unions

Last year, Washington state passed a 100 percent clean energy bill that offered tax incentives to clean energy projects, but it made the incentives contingent on project labor standards. Projects paying prevailing wages could get 75 percent of the value of the incentives; to get 100 percent, they had to sign a “community workforce agreement or project labor agreement,” agreeing to a package of wages and benefits.

“Washington’s 100 percent clean law is just five months old and is already leading several developers to opt for union workers, including a 144 MW wind farm and others in development,” said Vlad Gutman, Washington director for the nonprofit Climate Solutions. “The renewable industry isn’t new here, but these will be some of the first projects built by unions. We’re happy to see the law working as intended.”

Climate advocates want to take such ideas to the national level. Evergreen’s climate plan proposes to “reunionize and empower workers in every industry with new tools to collectively bargain.” It would repeal “right to work” laws, amend the National Labor Relations Act to make it easier to unionize, step up enforcement of labor laws, raise the minimum wage, modernize overtime laws, and much more. Virtually every Democratic candidate stressed the creation of “union-friendly jobs.”

The BlueGreen Alliance recommends the “application of strong Buy American and Davis-Bacon requirements, as well as utilization of project labor agreements, for all public spending, and procurement policies that ensure the use of domestic, clean, and safe materials made by law-abiding corporations throughout the supply chain.”

The Vision for Equitable Climate Action recommends policies that require any jobs created by public investments to “abide by high-road labor standards, with unions, frontline communities, and other impacted local populations taking the lead on developing these policies, such as prevailing wages, strict safety standards, and project labor agreements with unions.” The Equitable and Just National Climate Platform stresses “high-quality jobs with family-sustaining wages and safe and healthy working conditions.”

One of the reasons unions have traditionally been suspicious of climate campaigners is that, despite all the flowery talk about a “just transition,” in reality, the jobs being created by the clean energy economy pay less and are less likely to be unionized. Across the left, there is a shared recognition that public policy should aim to change that.

2. Fossil fuel communities

Similarly, communities dependent on fossil fuel jobs do not yet believe they will find equal or better livelihoods in a clean energy economy. They, too, have heard a lot of pretty talk, but the reality, from Appalachia to the shale fields of North Dakota to the coal mines of Wyoming, is that the loss of fossil fuel jobs tends to leave behind economic wreckage.

Democrats have been at least fitfully trying to help. Obama had a comprehensive plan to help these communities, but the Republican Senate didn’t pass it. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 platform included a $30 billion aid package to impacted coal communities.

But putting emissions first and adding something for workers as an afterthought “is just the wrong order of operations,” Prakash said. “I think people are starting to get that. We’re seeing people foreground equity and frontload a plan for worker transition.”

Evergreen’s plan, for instance, contains a “G.I. Bill for impacted fossil fuel workers and communities” that would guarantee the retirement, pension, and health care benefits of all affected fossil fuel workers and provide them with ongoing income support and retraining opportunities. That’s the scale of intervention necessary to truly keep fossil fuel workers whole. And it’s probably much less expensive, economically and politically, than forever trying to overcome the opposition of fossil fuel communities.

Similar prioritization of worker transition can be found across climate platforms on the left. It is not an afterthought anymore.

3. Front-line communities

The idea of environmental justice grows out of the simple fact that virtually every environmental harm disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable communities: low-income communities, communities of color, indigenous communities, and so on. They are more likely to live next to roads and industrial facilities; breathe the most pollution, indoors and out; suffer most from industrial waste; depend most on public transit ... the list goes on.

Environmental justice has been around on the periphery of the green movement for years, struggling to get real recognition and resources. But again, something about the moment, particularly the impact of the Green New Deal and the strength of the resurgent left, has vaulted it to the center. Rather than doing something for or about environmental justice communities, greens are making policy with them, around the same table. As Harper told me, “if you are down with equity, you’ve got to give us space.”

The best example of this is the Equitable & Just National Climate Platform, which pulled together big national green groups and environmental justice groups. “It has been a good process, a just process,” said Michele Roberts of Environmental Justice Health Alliance, which was involved in the work. “It’s been a very intentional building of relationships, a very intentional dive into everything from policies to the alignment of resources.”

That platform is the place to go to see the full range of environmental justice concerns and recommendations, from clean air and water to access to affordable energy to wealth-building and anti-displacement efforts.

Protesters marched in Newark, New Jersey, on August 26, 2019, to bring attention to the water crisis gripping the city.
Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Areas in Newark have had drinking water lead levels higher than in Flint, Michigan.
Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Every Democratic candidate addressed the issue; Warren had what was probably the most detailed plan. The House’s CLEAN Future Act has an entire title (VI) devoted to environmental justice, and the Senate’s Clean Economy Act was written, according to its authors, to “address the cumulative environmental effects in economically distressed communities, communities of color, and indigenous communities.”

“Our climate action plan will prioritize investment where it is most needed,” said Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida, the chair of the Select Committee, “including rural and deindustrialized areas, low-income communities, and communities of color.”

Once again, the policy details differ. Some common recommendations include better “equity mapping” to identify vulnerable communities, an “equity screen” on all public investments to ensure that they go first to vulnerable communities, and high-level environmental justice committees in the White House, EPA, and/or DOJ.

These measures will build on work already happening in the Democratic caucus. “You see other pieces happening on Capitol Hill such as the Environmental Justice for All Act with Congressman [Raúl] Grijalva,” Roberts said. “And you see momentum in the work of Sen. Booker, Sen. [Tammy] Duckworth, and others. You see huge momentum in congressional staff members wanting to actually engage to make sure that there’s justice language in all these pieces.”

A common vision, not a compromise

So that’s the alignment, at least at a high level. “It was the culmination of all the candidates trying to outdo one another,” said Thomas. “Now the best of those ideas are out there and the party is coalescing.”

“Standards, investment, and justice,” she said, “are the future of federal climate policy.”

SIJ is not quite as compact or easy to explain as a carbon tax. One of the consequences of giving up on carbon pricing as a silver bullet is that you end up with silver buckshot — lots of smaller policies that add up to sufficiency.

The disaggregated nature of the policy has substantial political benefits, though. It was never easy to explain to industries or individuals how they would be affected by a complicated, indirect system of carbon credits, trading, and offsets — ask anyone involved in the 2009 Waxman-Markey fight. Because it is more sector-specific and investment-focused, the effects and benefits of SIJ for particular constituencies are easier to trace and explain.

It is likely to be more resilient than a single national program as well. The breadth of the SIJ approach is meant to infuse climate as a focus throughout the government, not just in one agency or policy, so that if any individual part of it is blocked or rolled back, all is not lost.

And finally, whereas cap and trade or any other one-ring-to-rule-them-all climate policy must be passed in Congress, where Republican use of the Senate filibuster continues to make everything impossible, a great deal of SIJ policy can be accomplished in other ways. Much of the standards and justice pieces could be done through the executive powers of the president and federal agencies.

And the investment piece could be tackled in a stimulus bill (assuming Republicans allow a Democratic president to pass a stimulus bill) or — because it’s purely about spending and not about standards or regulatory changes — through a process called budget reconciliation, which requires only a bare majority in the Senate.

In other words, there’s a great deal in the SIJ framework for which a president can be held accountable, even with an uncooperative Congress.

Best of all, the SIJ framework emerged organically, from the ground up. “Through our stakeholder outreach and hearings,” said Castor, “we’ve found broad consensus for a climate plan that’s centered on building and rebuilding America’s infrastructure and creating a new generation of secure, middle-class jobs, all while enacting commonsense policies that support a clean energy economy and reinvigorate American manufacturing.”

The SIJ platform is robust and would constitute an ambitious climate program on its own. However, it doesn’t contain everything. There are still significant issues that don’t command full agreement across the left, that remain to be worked out.

I will list some of those outstanding issues, from closest to consensus to furthest. To be clear: I’m not arguing that the items on this list are bad policies or even bad politics. They may still find a place in comprehensive federal climate policy. But there are intra-left conflicts around them that remain to be resolved.

Accountability for fossil fuel companies

This one is extremely popular across the left. Every Democratic candidate supports it, along with almost every nonprofit climate platform.

The idea is that fossil fuel companies have known for a long time that their products are harming public health and have done everything in their power to cover it up, including funneling untold amounts of money into the political system and running some extremely deceptive public campaigns. Still, today, they are heavily subsidized and financed by public and private institutions that ignore their growing risks.

There are three policy avenues that fall under the broad rubric of accountability.

President Trump holds a roundtable meeting with energy sector CEOs in the Cabinet Room of the White House on April 3, 2020.
Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

The first is supporting the growing number of lawsuits against fossil fuel companies. Sen. Kamala Harris especially emphasized this in her plan, playing on her history as a prosecutor, as did Sanders, playing on his history as an anti-corporate crusader, but virtually all the Democratic candidates (including Biden) agreed.

The second is taking steps to reform the financial system to force financial institutions to better account for the growing risks of fossil fuels in their investment decisions. (This post has the policy details.)

The third is ending fossil fuel subsidies, something practically everyone says they want to do, and has said they want to do for decades, but never manages to actually do. (See this post for more on the breadth of those subsidies.)

The only reason I didn’t include accountability in the alignment above is that direct confrontation with fossil fuel companies still makes some quarters of the left uncomfortable, especially more conservative Democrats and some parts of labor.

Speaking of which ...

Keep it in the ground

Supply-side climate efforts — attempting to directly restrict the mining, drilling, and transportation of fossil fuels — exploded in popularity in the wake of the 2010 Waxman-Markey failure and have been a key organizing axis for the climate movement ever since, helping it ally with affected communities and grow its grassroots reach.

Such efforts have won the grudging respect of some wonks and the support of more left-leaning Democrats, including Sanders, Warren, Inslee, Steyer, and even Bloomberg. (Honest, he is left-leaning on climate!)

Biden has sent mixed rhetorical signals about supply-side policy, but his platform includes “banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters” and “modifying royalties to account for climate costs,” two key requests of supply-siders.

It is not always clear what the policy stakes of this debate are. Activists have pushed for a national ban on fracking, but that’s not something a president can do (most fracking is on private land) and it’s not something any Congress will do. The president can control fossil fuel projects on public land, but most available policy tools go after supply indirectly by reducing demand.

It’s clear that some kind of supply-side effort is a shared priority across the left and is likely to be part of the Democratic platform. The limiting, or at least complicating, factor is unions, specifically the old-line industrial unions, the steelworkers and pipe fitters who make good money working on drilling rigs and pipeline projects and don’t want to see them blocked or canceled.

They do not constitute a majority of unionized workers. The service sector unions — the health care workers, teachers, and public service employees — are larger and growing the fastest, and they are generally more climate-friendly. But the old-line unions have disproportionate political influence and command the loyalty, or at least fear, of many Democrats.

Carbon pricing

Most Democratic candidates and Democrats in Congress still include some kind of price on carbon in their plans, including Sanders and Inslee. There are still people fixated on a carbon price as the One True Climate Policy, and parts of the climate left that have turned on it completely, but for most climate types these days, the attitude toward pricing is: It would be helpful — and if it turns out to be possible, go for it — but it is neither necessary nor central to comprehensive climate policy.

The environmental justice community is not monolithic, but it is generally opposed to any kind of carbon trading or revenue-neutral carbon taxes. EJ advocates want polluting facilities shut down, not buying credits, and they want public investment in their communities. This was illustrated in Washington state, when environmental justice groups notably failed to rally around a revenue-neutral carbon tax ballot initiative in 2016 but were core supporters of a ballot initiative two years later with a tax that would have distributed most revenue to vulnerable communities. (Both measures lost.)

It is possible to design a carbon pricing system that addresses these concerns, but the price will be there as a backstop supporting other policies (as it is in California), not as the primary policy instrument.

Nuclear power

Nuclear power has long been an incredibly divisive issue in the left coalition. Lately, it has become marginally less so, as it becomes clear that there isn’t as much concrete policy disagreement as the heat of the conversation would indicate.

There is a widespread softening of opinion toward existing nuclear plants, which are increasingly seen as valuable carbon-free energy. Even the broad array of groups involved in the Vision for Equitable Climate Action agreed that those plants should be kept open until they can be replaced with renewable energy. (Today, nuclear plants that shut down are replaced mostly with natural gas.)

Even most nuclear enthusiasts have come to see that building more of the current generation of nuclear plants would be an expensive disaster, as Vogtle in Georgia is so theatrically demonstrating. That’s why no one will finance them.

Most people across factions agree that R&D into new forms of advanced energy, including modular, low-waste, meltdown-proof nuclear reactors, should be substantially increased.

So ... what is the policy debate about, exactly? It doesn’t seem like the stakes justify the intense feelings.

Nonetheless, the environmental justice community is concerned about the local pollution problems around nuclear plants and uranium mines, and industrial unions are protective of jobs in the nuclear supply chain, so this remains a possible source of discord.

Carbon capture, use, and sequestration

This one is sticky. Carbon capture serves as an entrée to climate policy for many Republicans and conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin. If there’s any chance for bipartisan climate policy, it probably starts with carbon capture, use, and sequestration.

But it is problematic on the left, especially in the environmental justice community, for much the same reason as carbon trading. The fear is that allowing dirty power plants and industrial facilities to profit by capturing and selling carbon will allow them to stay open longer, with front-line communities suffering from the air pollution. They want the facilities that are poisoning their communities shut down, not monetized.

It’s a sensitive subject. In the Vision for Equitable Climate Action, the 100-plus groups involved managed to agree to support direct air capture of carbon — the kind of carbon capture that’s not attached to other industrial facilities — but that’s about as far as they are willing to go for now.

It creates another tension with industrial unions, which stand to benefit from the jobs building carbon capture projects and CO2 pipelines, and with Democratic moderates who are beholden to those unions. And it’s going to create a long-term tension with carbon wonks, who increasingly agree that, like it or not, gigatons of carbon need to be pulled from the atmosphere.

This, too, could probably be worked out with sufficient good faith on all sides, but in the grinder of politics, it is certain to create some friction.

Climate unity is at hand, if Democrats can grasp it

There are plenty of climate policies that don’t appear on either of my lists: regenerative agriculture, adaptation and resilience, international climate justice, decarbonization for heavy industry, and much more. They deserve consideration in comprehensive climate policy. This is not meant to be a comprehensive accounting.

The point is simply that, through many different paths, the factions of the left-of-center coalition have aligned around a fairly robust climate policy platform centered on standards, investments, and justice. They have done so through an inclusive process that has helped build trust and capacity across longstanding lines of division. And the issues that remain outstanding are difficult but not intractable, given a little solidarity. They needn’t stand in the way of progress.

It’s not an alignment many people saw coming. “This is a literally unprecedented group of people to work together,” Prakash said. The fact that such diverse participants have agreed on a set of policies, she said, “is mind-blowing.”

What began as an aspirational vision has become a full-fledged, crowdsourced policy platform — the “Green New Details,” as Thomas joked — and it is ready for the national stage.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden might adopt a climate platform strong enough to bring Democrats together.
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

It remains to be seen whether this nascent alliance can hold together under the inevitable political rigors of the coming years. It will face stresses from within and without the Democratic coalition.

In many ways, its fate lies in the hands of a man many in the climate movement have spent the past year bashing: Joe Biden. Does Biden’s campaign have the agility and acumen to embrace the new alignment and serve as its champion? Could Biden, of all people, unify the climate left?

As fanciful as that idea may sound, there are, it turns out, reasons for hope. In my next post, I take a closer look at the political road ahead.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated how much electricity, cars, and buildings contribute to US emissions. Those sectors make up close to two-thirds of US emissions.

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