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Politicians must ensure that American families welcome the shift
Politicians must ensure that American families welcome the shift

A Senate gridlock can’t thwart America’s clean energy thrust

Green fuels will gain popularity regardless of what politicians do

In naming former secretary of state John Kerry to become America’s global climate czar, President-elect Joe Biden is wasting no time making emissions reduction a top White House priority. Political observers are already gaming how much Biden will be able to accomplish on climate protection. Will Mitch McConnell lead a Republican Senate to tie up legislation? If the two Georgia Democratic candidates prevail in their runoff elections, can a Chuck Schumer-led Senate bridge divisions among Republican oil minions, progressive climate hawks and moderate “all of the above" straddlers?

Either way, the conventional wisdom runs, President Biden will have a hard time delivering on his pledge to decarbonize the power and road-transportation sectors.

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My bet is that Beltway political gridlock won’t be such a big problem—just as Donald Trump’s presidency wasn’t as big an obstacle to progress as it once appeared.

Just after this month’s election, a friend sent me a blog post I wrote four years ago in the wake of the Trump triumph, noting how accurate my predictions on climate had proved to be. But even back then there was reason to assume that Trump’s desperate efforts to preserve the coal industry would be undone by the economic reality of the fuel’s collapsing profitability. And it was possible to hope that congressional battles between climate deniers and progressive advocates of emissions reduction would be overshadowed by the clean-energy momentum of American cities, states and businesses—along with international government mandates to lower emissions.

Even then, wind and solar power were undercutting coal and gas generation. Today electric batteries have become cheap enough to leave gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles in the dust. And an emerging competition between hydrogen and electricity is preparing to decarbonize heavy industry.

Just this week, it was announced that the aptly named Samson Solar Energy Center—at 1,300 megawatts, the biggest in the US—would be built in Texas, of all states. This is the result not of a government mandate, but of power purchase agreements among four Fortune 500 corporations and three moderate-size Texas municipalities, all wanting the 20 years of guaranteed cheap power that Samson promises.

And this happened during Trump’s presidency. It’s hard to imagine a Republican Senate deprived of the White House turning back the clean-energy tide that’s transforming the US power sector, and electrifying cars, trucks and buildings.

Climate-industrial innovators represent most of the US economy and half of the country’s emissions. As Biden reverses the White House course on climate, American society will outpace whatever he and Congress can do. Even so, the US no longer leads the world on climate policy. Europe took post position with its green stimulus. And the covid-19 pandemic has extinguished any long-term future for fossil fuels. Within five weeks of Europe’s action, China, Japan and Korea all committed to zero carbon economies before 2060.

As the global transition to clean energy accelerates, the supply chains and investment dollars on which the US economy depends will shift further from fossil fuels. Take transportation. As the world’s big vehicle manufacturers stop investing in internal combustion engines, even countries that haven’t made ambitious climate pledges (Saudi Arabia, Russia) will nonetheless buy electric vehicles, because they will be better and cheaper. American manufacturers, required by California’s zero-emission coalition to produce a low-carbon fleet for half the country, will put pressure on Congress to support a national transition to electric cars and trucks. And as research and development dollars flood into electric vehicles (EVs), and dry up for internal combustion engines, EV performance advantages will improve even as prices continue to fall.

This is not to say that Biden’s ambition doesn’t matter. It does—not so much for how many American drivers get behind the wheel of a zero-emission car, but for where that car gets made. Biden and Congress may not determine the pace of the clean-transportation revolution, but they can help determine its leadership.

One more thing that policymakers do control and must confront is how American families and communities fare in the transition. How do we ensure that the surge of new jobs in clean energy recreates a middle class economy, with well paying, career-building, family-supporting jobs? Here Trump’s voters and Biden’s voters have a lot in common. And advocates of climate mitigation share their concerns, because if the clean energy revolution doesn’t benefit average families, it won’t live up to its promise.

Carl Pope is a former chairman of the Sierra Club and the coauthor, with Michael R. Bloomberg, of Climate of Hope.

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