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A Bipartisan Climate Playbook is Emerging
This is a good thing
Addressing climate change over decades will not be possible without bipartisan cooperation. Democrats and Republicans have sometimes been prevented from cooperating with each other on climate by opposite political vices: Democratic politicians and advocacy groups sometimes propose policies that are seen by voters as radical, that are laced with language connected to their progressive wing’s unpopular positions on social and cultural issues, or that seem insensitive to current inflation and global energy supply shortages. Republicans sometimes get stuck in a similarly unpopular ‘do-nothing’ approach, ignoring a growing majority of Republican voters who (along with most Democrats) believe Congress should be doing more to address climate change.
Recently, though, bipartisan climate policies have been gaining traction at all levels of government. From these successes, we can see an emerging bipartisan climate playbook wherein both parties tame their political vices.
In April, we published a study analyzing over 400 state-level bills passed between 2015 and 2020 that aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly a third of these bills were passed by Republican-controlled governments, and a third were passed with bipartisan co-sponsors. Bipartisan bills disproportionately expanded consumer and business choices (e.g., by creating renewable-energy opportunities) instead of restricting them (e.g., with emissions standards), used financial incentives (e.g., subsidies), and framed objectives related to inequality in material terms (e.g., supporting low-income communities) rather than in terms of race and gender, or in terms of academic social-justice terminology (e.g., words like “equity” or “justice”). Arkansas’ Solar Access Act of 2019 (S.B. 145) and South Carolina’s Energy Freedom Act of 2019 (H. 3659) are two examples.
These bipartisan policy characteristics—expanding choice, financial incentives, and class-based efforts to combat inequality—are also found in the recent federal bipartisan Covid-19 and infrastructure bills, and the CHIPS and Science Act, which include tens of billions of dollars in climate-related spending. The infrastructure bill funds modernizing public transit, building electric vehicle infrastructure, addressing legacy pollution, and electrifying power infrastructure. The CHIPS and Science Act funds clean energy and zero-carbon technologies.
Even the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which Democrats passed alone, has the three typically bipartisan characteristics, in part to secure the vote of moderate Senator Joe Manchin. The IRA reduces emissions via financial incentives that expand consumer and business choice, such as renewable energy, electric-vehicle, and energy-efficiency tax credits. Its initiatives related to inequality primarily target individuals and communities based on income and other material needs. It takes inflation and the need to maintain an all-of-the-above energy supply in the short term into account. Congressional Republicans did not support this law, partly because tax increases and other non-climate policy objectives were included.
The American Conservation Coalition—an influential conservative climate advocacy group—recently published a policy platform called “The Climate Commitment,” which also includes the three bipartisanship characteristics. For example, they call for research and development and infrastructure spending, “energy choice and competition,” renewable energy tax credits, resilience research, and supporting agricultural communities. They call for an “all-hands-on-deck approach,” that coordinates individual, community, and government action—a call echoed by many progressive groups.
It is encouraging to see the two major parties starting to come together on climate change, though more still needs to be done. Both parties have clear incentives to come to the table. For Democrats, sacrificing action for purity and posturing is inconsistent with their stance that climate change is an emergency. For Republicans, their voters are increasingly demanding action, and renewable energy also presents economic opportunities for their constituents. In fact, nine of the 10 congressional districts with the most planned and operational renewable energy capacity have Republican representatives. The district with the second-most renewable energy is represented by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Research suggests that groups working towards a shared goal can reduce conflict and animosity between them. At a time when political polarization and climate change are both pressing challenges, maybe bipartisan climate solutions can bring us together more broadly, too.
Matt Burgess is an assistant professor of environmental studies and the director of the Center for Social and Environmental Futures at the University of Colorado Boulder. Renae Marshall is a Ph.D. student in environmental science and management at the University of California Santa Barbara. She was recognized as the University of Colorado Boulder's 2021 Outstanding Graduate for her research described in this article.