A majority of Americans understand that climate change is a problem. A recent poll found that about six in 10 adults in the United States say the effects of global warming are already happening and a slightly greater proportion believe human activities are to blame for the Earth’s rise in temperature. Another study found that 65% of Americans believe that climate change is an emergency.
Americans’ concern about climate translates into approval for action: 83% favor tax breaks for utilities that develop renewable power and 62% favor taxing companies for their greenhouse gas emissions. Such opinions are not just held among Democratic voters. A poll just before the 2020 election showed more than three-quarters of Republican voters favor government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s not just the American people that are concerned about the climate and favor action. The American Petroleum Institute (API), a trade association that represents America’s oil and gas industry, announced in March 2021 a slate of actions that it favors to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including a price on carbon. Several large European oil and gas companies have set goals of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. U.S.-based companies generally haven’t taken this step, but several have come out in favor of a price on carbon emissions.
Some skeptics believe that oil company support for carbon policy is cynical, an attempt to prevent even more onerous regulation or a ploy to protect investments in natural gas or carbon capture. But even if the shift is tinged with cynicism, it still provides an opening for conversation and policymaking.
The U.S. financial industry is on board as well. The Climate Finance Working Group is made up of several trade associations for banks and financial institutions. In February 2021, the group issued a list of policy principals that would encourage financing for a low-carbon transition, including science-based policy in alignment with the Paris Agreement, long-term policy signals to foster innovation, and a price on carbon.
Living and working in Germany for the past few months, I am frequently asked why U.S. greenhouse gas policy is behind Europe, when the United States will establish a price on carbon, and similar questions. The answer to those questions is Congress, where Republicans stand steadfast against serious legislation to deal with climate.
Many Republicans legislators still reject the science of climate change, a position not held by other mainstream parties in democratic countries, but rising among far-right parties in Europe. Their positions have not kept up with their constituents, or even some business groups with which they are typically aligned. After the API made its announcement, Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, issued a statement saying, “Proposals that impose a cost on carbon will hurt American families.” In April, Representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania announced at a hearing of a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that he planned to introduce a bill to withdraw the United States from the United Nations Framework Commission on Climate Change. He introduced his bill, which has no chance of passing, on Earth Day.
How did we get here? A total unwillingness to cooperate with Democrats is part of the problem. The polarized atmosphere in Washington is such that it is difficult for a Republican to support anything proposed by the Biden administration, lest they be demonized by right-wing media and the party’s activist base. A lack of honesty exacerbates this problem. Just in the last few days there was a flareup on the political right that President Joe Biden’s climate plan intended to severely limit Americans’ meat consumption. His plan said no such thing, but as the saying goes, a lie can travel around the world while the truth is lacing up its boots.
The climate policies that Biden has proposed so far are a mix of executive action and proposals for Congress to fund climate-friendly investments. His American Jobs Plan includes encouragement for electric vehicle purchases and charging station construction, a clean electricity standard and tax credits for clean electricity development, and support for low-carbon industrial processes. He’s more focused on carrots than sticks, in part because carrots are easier to get through a skeptical Congress. Yet those policies are condemned by Republicans as “socialism.” “Our best future won’t come from Washington schemes or socialist dreams,” said Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina in response to President Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress, on April 28.
The situation of one political party out of step with a majority of the American people seems like an unsteady state, a disequilibrium that cannot hold. As an American concerned about climate and looking toward a low-carbon future, I wish that were so. But the Republican Party is sticking together in opposition. Although 57% of Republican voters support the American Jobs Plan, Republicans in Congress are saying no. The anti-majoritarian structure of the Senate gives the minority power to block legislation and require 60 votes for passage. Democrats can take advantage of their narrow control of the Senate to pass support for green investments through the budget reconciliation process, and perhaps afterward point out the popularity of the legislation among average Republicans. But in today’s tribal political environment, will it matter? Ultimately, hope for change among Congressional Republicans lies with voters, who say they care about climate, but haven’t made it a central issue determining their vote. Unless and until that changes, I fear that U.S. climate gridlock will continue.
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On March 19, 2021, Samantha Gross joined The LA World Affairs Council for a discussion on climate policy, domestic challenges, and geopolitical strategy.