In a nutshell, he has shown that it’s possible to eliminate 70 percent to 80 percent of US carbon emissions by 2035 through rapid deployment of existing electrification technologies, with little-to-no carbon capture and sequestration. Doing so would slash US energy demand by around half, save consumers money, and keep the country on a 1.5° pathway without requiring particular behavior changes. Everyone could still have their same cars and houses — they would just need to be electric.
The US has everything it needs to decarbonize by 2035. August 6, 2020, David Roberts, Vox.com.
In the runup to World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enlisted the entire US economy in an effort to scale up production of war material. All of the country’s resources were bent to the task. In 1939, the US had 1,700 aircraft and no bombers; in 1945, it had 300,000 military aircraft and 18,500 B–24 bombers.
By the time the war was won, the economy was up and humming with a massively expanded workforce (drawing in women and African Americans) and turbocharged productive capacity. Investments made during the war mobilization yielded a robust middle class and decades of sustained, broadly shared prosperity.
A similar mobilization will be necessary for the US to decarbonize its economy fast enough to avert the worst of climate change. To do its part in limiting global temperature rise to between 1.5° and 2° Celsius, the US must reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest. To achieve this, the full resources of the US economy must be bent toward manufacturing the needed clean-energy technology and infrastructure.
FDR began with two questions. First, he asked not what was politically feasible but what was necessary to win the war. He also asked not how much funding was available in the federal budget but how much productive capacity was available in the economy — what was possible.
Saul Griffith is trying to answer those same questions on climate change: what is necessary, given the trajectory of global warming, and what is possible, given the resources in the US economy.
A physicist, engineer, researcher, inventor, serial entrepreneur, and MacArthur “genius” grant winner, Griffith’s recent work spans two organizations. First, he is founder and chief scientist at Otherlab, an independent research and design lab that has mapped the energy economy.
And alongside Alex Laskey, co-founder of Opower, he recently started Rewiring America, which will develop and advocate for policies to rapidly decarbonize the US through electrification. (The organization is going to release a book called — be still my heart — Electrify Everything.)
Last week, Rewiring America made its big debut with a jobs report showing that rapid decarbonization through electrification would create 15 million to 20 million jobs in the next decade, with 5 million permanent jobs after that. For the most part, the media covered it as just another jobs report, saying basically what other clean-energy jobs reports have said.
But the jobs are, in many; ways, the least interesting part of the work. Much more interesting is Griffith’s larger project the model he’s built and its implications.
In a nutshell, he has shown that it’s possible to eliminate 70 percent to 80 percent of US carbon emissions by 2035 through rapid deployment of existing electrification technologies, with little-to-no carbon capture and sequestration. Doing so would slash US energy demand by around half, save consumers money, and keep the country on a 1.5° pathway without requiring particular behavior changes. Everyone could still have their same cars and houses — they would just need to be electric.
“The report reinforces a key finding,” says Leah Stokes, an environmental policy expert at the University of California Santa Barbara. “Cleaning up the electricity system solves the lion’s share of the problem. It allows us to electrify our transportation and building sectors and parts of heavy industry, which would address more than 70 percent of total emissions.”
Some of Griffith’s conclusions run contrary to conventional wisdom in the energy space. And they are oddly optimistic. Despite the titanic effort it would take to decarbonize, the US doesn’t need any new technologies and it doesn’t require any grand national sacrifice. All it needs, in this view, is a serious commitment to building the necessary machines and creating a regulatory and policy environment that supports their rapid deployment.
In this post, I will walk through the energy data he’s assembled, what the data reveals about the fastest way to decarbonize, how fast that decarbonization could be accomplished, why it’s doable, its political challenges, and its political promise. Griffith’s work is among the most interesting contributions to the climate discussion in ages. There’s a lot here, but it is worth your time. Let’s start with how he built the model.
How energy is used in the US economy, explained
In 2018, after applying for years, Otherlab was finally awarded a contract from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy to assemble in one place, for the first time, all publicly available data on how energy is used in the US.
As it happens, the US has great energy data. In response to the oil crisis of the 1970s, presidents created the Energy Information Administration, the Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Those agencies began gathering data on how energy is generated, transported, and used in various parts of the economy, and since have accumulated an enormous catalog.
Oddly, all that data has never been gathered, harmonized, and put in a single database. So Griffith and colleagues spent years poring over agency output from the last 50 years — he ruefully cops to being “the only person on the planet who has read every footnote of every DOE report since 1971” — and assembling it in a massive dashboard, which you can view here.
It tracks where every unit of energy enters the economy and how it is used as it passes through.
This is not a model, per se, it’s just lots and lots of data visualized, a close-up “machine-level” view of energy flows in the US economy. But having the data in one place provides the raw material for Rewiring America to build a high-resolution model of what it would actually take to decarbonize — how many machines must be built, what kind, and how fast.
“Where most studies look at decarbonization in specific individual sectors such as transportation, the electricity grid, or buildings — and mostly only on the supply side,” the Rewiring America report says, “we build a model of the interactions of all sectors, both supply and demand, in a rapid and total decarbonization.”
The fastest way to decarbonize is to electrify everything
Griffith begins with a core assumption: We need to make a plan to solve the problem with the tools available. It is unwise, for instance, to bet on a large amount of carbon capture and sequestration coming online in time to make a difference. The technologies are still in the early stage and there are strong arguments they will never pencil out.
Griffith takes a “yes, and” approach. If carbon capture sequestration works out, great. If next-gen nuclear reactors work out, great. If hydrogen-based fuels work out, great. But we shouldn’t rely on any of them until they are real. We need to figure out how to do the job with the technology available.
On that score, Griffith’s modeling reaches two key conclusions.
First, it is still possible to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions in line with a 1.5°C pathway. Specifically, it is possible to reduce US emissions 70 percent to 80 percent by 2035 (and to zero by 2050) through rapid electrification, relying on five already well-developed technologies: wind and solar power plants, rooftop solar, electric vehicles, heat pumps, and batteries.
Think of those technologies as the infrastructure of 21st century life. If everyone uses carbon-free energy to heat their homes and get around, the bulk of the problem will be solved.
Second, to decarbonize in time, substitution of clean-energy technologies for their fossil-fuel counterparts must ramp up to 100 percent as fast as possible, after a brief period of industrial mobilization. Every time a gas or diesel car is replaced, it must be replaced with an EV; every time an oil or gas furnace is replaced, it must be replaced with a heat pump; every time a coal or gas power plant goes offline, it must be replaced with renewable energy.
There is no room left in a 1.5° or 2° scenario for more fossil fuel infrastructure or machines.
We need to radically ramp up production of electrification technologies and implement the policy and financing tools that will enable 100 percent substitution.
Clocking the maximum feasible transition to clean energy
Griffith and his colleagues set out to model a “maximum feasible transition” to carbon-free energy, limited only by the country’s production capacity. They describe it like this:
The maximum feasible transition (MFT) involves two primary stages: (i) an aggressive WWII–style production ramp–up of 3–5 years, followed by (ii) an intensive deployment of decarbonized infrastructure and technology up to 2035. This includes supply–side generation technologies as well as demand–side technologies such as electric vehicles and building heat electrification.
When it says production ramp-up, it’s no joke. Within three to five years, production of electric vehicles would have to increase four-fold, batteries 16-fold, wind turbines 12-fold, and solar modules 10-fold.
Accommodating all those new electricity loads would also mean expanding the size of the grid by three- or four-fold. “Today, we deliver about 450 gigawatts constantly,” says Griffith. “In the model of the future — where everyone’s house is the same size, everyone’s car is the same size, but it’s all electrified — you need to deliver 1,500 to 2,000 gigawatts.”
(To be clear, Griffith doesn’t necessarily think Americans should keep driving giant cars and living in giant houses. He supports urbanism and cycling and downsizing generally. He spent many years running a radical downsizing experiment on his own life. But he wants the public to know that changing their lifestyle is not necessary for decarbonization.)
Almost all the heavy lifting in the maximum feasible transition is done by electrification, “the exception being 5-10 Quads of non–electrical energy sources coming from [biofuels]” the Rewiring America report says. “Hydrogen or other synthetic fuels (which are generated from electricity) are deployed for a few high–temperature applications. The scenario does not rely on any deployment of carbon capture and storage, and all primary energy sources are net zero.”
In terms of generation, wind and solar do the bulk of the work, “along with a doubling of the current nuclear electricity fleet from 100GW to 200GW.” In particular, distributed energy (rooftop and community solar and batteries) plays a huge role, “accounting for around 25% of energy supply and a high degree of the storage capacity” would reduce the amount of energy the US needs by half.
One key aspect of electrification makes this transformation possible, and it represents perhaps the most astonishing finding in Griffith’s modeling: Large-scale electrification would slash total US primary energy demand in half, from around 100 quads to about 45-50. This a huge deal — it means America only needs to produce about half the energy with renewables that it is currently producing with fossil fuels.
And that massive drop in demand assumes no behavior change, no insulated buildings or double-glazed windows, no traditional “efficiency” measures of any kind. The transition from fossil fuel combustion to electricity, in and of itself, is the largest demand-side climate policy available.
How is that possible? The simple answer comes down to the fact that electric motors are more efficient than fossil fueled motors at converting primary energy into useful work.
The somewhat more complicated answer is this. You cut almost 10 percent off of energy demand right off the bat, says Griffith, because the Energy Information Administration has been overestimating, due to the way it accounts for nuclear and hydroelectric energy. (It’s too complicated to get into here.)
Another 10 percent of energy used in today’s economy goes toward “finding, mining, refining, and transporting fossil fuels,” Griffith says, and that demand goes away in an electrified economy. So it’s down to 80 percent left to replace.
Shifting from fossil fuel power plants to renewable energy saves another 15 percent, because carbon-free, non-thermal power sources rely on fewer energy conversions than thermoelectric sources. Electrifying transportation gets another 15 percent, because electric vehicles (EVs) are more efficient than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Electrifying buildings gets another 6 percent to 9 percent.
To be clear, the US could reduce demand even more if it continued to better insulate buildings and other efficiency measures, if it downsized homes, drove less, and relied more on walking and electric cycling to get around.
But it is worth emphasizing, again: The biggest demand-side policy by far is electrification, which could slash US energy demand by half.
“You can’t efficiency your way to zero,” Griffith says. “You have to transform.”
Industry is not as big a carbon problem as it appears
The alleged difficulty of decarbonizing heavy industry has been a major topic in carbon circles lately. (I have written about it myself.) It is one of the reasons often offered for why large-scale negative emissions will be needed.
Griffith disagrees. He points out that a big chunk of the carbon emissions attributed to industry are devoted to fossil fuels and will disappear as they do. For instance, 4 percent to 5 percent of US energy is used to turn oil into gasoline, a subcategory of industry that will decline along with ICE vehicles.
As for the rest, “steel is tiny, and we can use hydrogen to make steel,” he says. “Aluminum traditionally makes a lot of CO2 because we use carbon electrodes for the smelting process; Alcoa and Rio Tinto already have carbonless electrodes for aluminum. Cement is still hard, but that’s only 1 percent. And the rest of industrial heat can mostly be done with induction for high-temperature heat or heat pumps for low-temperature heat.”
In short, industry is a problem, but a relatively small one. “It’s the last 5 percent of emissions,” Griffith says. “It’s hardly the thing that should stop us.”
There’s no way to accomplish a rapid energy transition with market-based policies
In his decarbonization “field manual” (written with colleagues, also on the Rewiring America site), Griffith is frank about what will be necessary to drive the MFT:
A 100% adoption rate is only achieved by mandate. The invisible hand of markets is definitely not fast enough; it typically takes decades for a new technology to become dominant by market forces alone as it slowly increases its market share each year. A carbon tax isn’t fast enough, either. Market subsidies are not fast enough.
Businesses and the market can and will help, he says, but “when Mother Nature arm–wrestles with the invisible hand, she will always win.”
A MFT cannot be accomplished through the usual incremental tax tweaks. A three- to five-year industrial ramp-up, followed by a sustained period of 100 percent substitution, would require wartime mobilization, which entails government taking a direct hand in industry, working with it to hit specific production targets through some mix of incentives, penalties, and mandates. For the first three to five years, it would be something more like a command economy than Americans are used to.
It is difficult to imagine such unity of purpose in today’s political circumstances (to say the least), but America has met big challenges with decisive government action before.
And Griffith emphasizes that, in proportional terms, today’s task is less substantial than FDR’s. It took the equivalent of 1.8 US GDPs to win World War II, whereas “the total cost of decarbonizing America is more like 1.2 to 1.5 GDPs,” he says. “Proportionally, it’s a significantly smaller interruption to the economy.”
FDR’s interventions did not spoil America’s market economy, they strengthened it. The enormous investments the US made in its productive capacity yielded an expanded and more egalitarian workforce and decades of prosperity.
Unlike Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Griffith and his colleagues do not envision government picking up the bulk of the tab for the energy transition. The Rewiring America report says that “the total government share of the expense is likely only $250-350 billion per year, with the total public and private spending over 20 years at about 20-25 trillion dollars.” Three trillion in direct government spending over 10 years is well within the range proposed by most Democratic presidential candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden.
Rather than direct public funding, the MFT leans heavily into the idea that government capital will attract private capital through the establishment of new financing mechanisms. (Contrary to popular imagination, much of the original New Deal worked this way as well.)
The best way to ensure universal access to clean energy is clever financing
Energy infrastructure used to be comprised exclusively of big public projects like dams and high-voltage transmission lines. But in an age of distributed energy, much of what can reasonably be thought of as infrastructure is small and distributed, located “behind the meter,” on the customer’s property. Solar panels on the roof, a heat pump and a battery in the basement, and an electric vehicle in the garage are 21st century infrastructure — they are all connected to, and interacting with, the grid.
To accomplish the MFT, the US needs to stop financing those behind-the-meter technologies like consumer items and start financing them like infrastructure, with low-cost, government-backed loans.
America has done this before, too. The US invented auto financing in the 1920s, radically democratizing car ownership, and the 30-year, government-guaranteed mortgage in the 1930s, radically democratizing home ownership. During the New Deal, the US invented electric co-ops that could access cheap government loans, radically democratizing access to electricity.
Consumers need access to cheap loans for electrification. How cheap? Griffith writes:
If we have to pay for it on a credit card, solving climate change will be very expensive — credit card interest rates hover at 15–19%. If we use the common financing options available for [rooftop] solar today, we’ll be paying around 8%. If we can pay for it with a government–backed, low–interest rate loan at something like mortgage interest rates of 3.5–4%, it will be affordable for nearly everyone.
For the average American household, going fully electric (rooftop power, heat pump, battery, EV) requires about $40,000. Obviously, most people can’t pay that up front, but 4 percent financing could bring it in reach for almost everyone.
So the question is how to extend low-cost, government-backed loans to every homeowner and building owner such that electrification becomes the default choice any time a piece of equipment or roof is replaced.
The Rewiring America team has been thinking about this and will release some formal policy proposals soon. Adam Zurofsky, a constitutional lawyer who helped oversee New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s climate and energy portfolio and has been consulting with the group, says the first step is determining a “qualifying list of machines,” which is no simple matter. Second is determining a target, a state-by-state interest rate that is low enough to make electrification a money-saver for everyone.
Third is extending loans to consumers. Zurofsky mentions several models. One is securitization and “wrapping” of loans, i.e. bundling them and having the federal government guarantee them up to a certain amount.
Another is along the lines of the Electric Home and Farm Authority (EHFA), created in 1935 in connection with the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA’s dams were generating too much electricity and the government needed consumers to buy more electric appliances, so the EHFA, backed by the Treasury, bought loans directly from businesses that extended low-interest credit to consumers for approved products. Zurofsky imagines something like the same model, only drawing on private capital.
A third is “on bill financing” by utilities, which are already “a long way ahead on customer acquisition and relationships,” Zurofsky says. Local utilities are one of the few entities most Americans trust with energy decisions.
All these models are being batted around as the team thinks over financing. It will be worth revisiting the subject, because as Griffith writes, “if done right, innovative low–cost financing will be the most effective way to ensure equity and universal access to cheap, reliable energy in the 21st century.”
Full electrification will bring all kinds of political benefits
For ages, the climate community has been accused of being too gloomy and doomy, lacking a positive vision for what decarbonization could mean for ordinary folks around the proverbial kitchen table. Climate is said to be too big and abstract to motivate most people, especially if they are being asked to give up things and use less.
Griffith’s model undercuts all that. Its benefits are extremely tangible at a kitchen-table level.
First, obviously a massive industrial mobilization would create jobs. Specifically, the MFT would create “as many as 25 million net new jobs at peak,” with 5 million ongoing new jobs after the initial surge. These jobs would be distributed over every zip code in the US, in a wide variety of well-paying trades and professions. What’s more, the jobs involved in installing solar panels and smart appliances, retrofitting buildings, and constructing high-voltage electricity lines cannot be outsourced. (If you want more on this, the report gets into extreme detail on the types of jobs that will be both destroyed and created, and how they will be distributed.)
Second, full electrification would practically eliminate most major sources of air pollution, which would bring transformative social and health benefits in the form of fewer respiratory and cardiac illnesses, lower health costs, fewer missed work and school days, and better work and school performance. The benefits would be especially concentrated in low-income and communities of color, which suffer disproportionately from air pollution. Electrification of transportation would also eliminate an enormous amount of urban noise pollution (buses would hum rather than roar).
Third, the report concludes that “with appropriate regulatory policies and implementation, energy costs will be lower and the average [US] household will save $1,000–2,000 per year.” Even including the cost of building and deploying all those new solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, EVs, and heat pumps, electricity beats fossil fuels on efficiency such that the costs still pencil out in consumers’ favor, even in the short term.
Fourth, from the consumer’s perspective, electrified life will just be cooler. Electric vehicles are better than ICE vehicles. They have better torque and handling. They can be continuously updated with new features and capabilities over wifi. They have much lower fuel and maintenance costs.
Well-insulated homes and apartments with heat pumps and radiant floor heating are more comfortable than fossil-heated buildings, with far better indoor air quality.
Solar panels on the roof coupled with batteries in the garage provide cheap, guilt-free power, a potential income stream, and resilience in the case of grid outages.
You might not notice that your water heater is communicating with your refrigerator, or that they are coordinating with your solar panels and batteries, or that the whole system is coordinating with the larger grid, but you will notice that your power is quietly, invisibly reliable.
All these benefits make perfect sense at the kitchen table, and with the right policy and financing, they can be available to every American.
This is the Green New Deal technical manual
The Green New Deal made some lofty demands for rapid industrial mobilization and decarbonization. The response of its critics was often that it lacked a detailed roadmap to accomplish its goals. Griffith has provided that roadmap, with detail down to the machine level. It is possible to substantially decarbonize the US economy by 2035 — we know what to build, how fast to build it, and where to put it.
Where governments have implemented clear standards and invested in electrification technology, it has grown quickly and gotten cheaper. Griffith cites Australian rooftop solar policy, German heat pump policy, and California EV policy as examples.
“The report is clear that our old policy approaches will not cut it,” Stokes says. “A carbon tax will not result in sufficient infrastructure turnover at the pace and scale necessary. We need to take a standards and investment approach to transform the economy.”
American households could have great things: solar on every roof, powering heat pumps in every building, and EVs in every garage, all communicating and coordinating, bringing stability to the grid. Homes could be more comfortable, cities could be quieter, the air could be cleaner, power could be more reliable, energy costs could be lower, and front-line communities could be free of the burden of living next to and suffering disproportionately from fossil fuel infrastructure.
The US could be a more prosperous, healthier, and pleasant place to live.
“For so long we’ve been sold the lie that we have to choose between a livable planet and a thriving, equitable economy,” says Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement. “The Rewiring America Plan puts that lie to rest once and for all. We can achieve a just transition to a better world out of the wreckage of this economic crisis.”
That’s the story that needs to be told about tackling climate change. Not a story of privation or giving things up. Not a story of economic decline or inexorable ecological doom. A story about a better electrified future that is already on the way.
We can muster the effort and investment over the next 10 to 15 years to accelerate it, to reach it in time to avert the worst of climate change. We can have clean air, clean energy, a prosperous economy, and a stable climate, all the things we want, if we’re just willing to do the work.
Excerpt from David Roberts, July 2020
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. (And electricity can transition fastest, since existing buildings are around for a long time and vehicles have a lifespan of 15-20 years)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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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.“STANDARDS, INVESTMENT, AND JUSTICE ARE THE FUTURE OF FEDERAL CLIMATE POLICY”
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.
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.
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 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.
A beginner’s guide to the debate over nuclear power and climate change
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.
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