As the Senate shifts this week to a 50-50 split, with the tie-breaking vote to come from VP-elect Kamala Harris, climate advocates are looking to pass ambitious climate policies. With Democratic control of the Senate, House of Representatives, and the White House, advocates see an opportunity to force policy change. However, analysts and policy entrepreneurs are trying to uncover just how ambitious Democrats can be with a closely divided House and the narrowest of margins in the Senate. Any passable policy will have to earn the support of the moderate Joe Manchin (D-WV) and the climate hawks throughout the Democratic caucus, precluding transformative legislation. 

The recent history of the Affordable Care Act and the 2017 tax reform, where partisan coalitions used budget reconciliation to sidestep the filibuster, is not a reliable guide to how major legislative reforms have worked in the past. Research by political scientists James Curry and Frances Lee found that since 1985, “majority parties only achieved ten clear agenda successes without support from members of the minority party and its top leaders. That represents just 4 percent of the 245 policy priorities” identified by Curry and Lee. 

To make policy in the mold of what Lee and Curry found works, Democrats will need to seek compromise with Republicans and win at least a baker’s dozen, if not more, of their votes in the Senate. The energy provisions in last month’s omnibus spending package (which passed the Senate 92-6) show it is possible. That bill provided billions of dollars for clean energy research, extended renewable energy tax credits, and included a provision to greatly reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbons, powerful greenhouse gases used in applications including refrigeration, over the next 15 years. The last of these is potentially the largest single climate policy achievement for the United States in over a decade. These measures will not reduce emissions fast enough to meet climate targets, but they provide a foundation for the next Congress to build upon.

The question is if more ambitious climate policy can actually be passed with significant support from Republican members of Congress?  As the GOP reckons with the excesses of the Trump age and builds confidence working on climate, developing better climate policy is an opportunity to build better politics for the future of the GOP.  

Rejecting the reality of climate change and empowering climate skeptics have been critical to accelerating the distrust of experts and the rejection of science that we have witnessed over the last four years. Climate denial draws on the same mental framework as conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2016 presidential election, and the falsehoods being spread about the 2020 presidential election. For Republicans, charting a way back to responsible governance can begin with distancing themselves from conspiracy, and an acceptance of climate science is a good place to start. It provides a space to deal meaningfully with empirical reality and craft better policies for our country. 

That will be important because Republicans can make policy with Democrats on climate and counterbalance the more extreme demands of the left. There are areas where Republicans have had a realistic approach to mitigating climate change. For example, support for nuclear energy, which is currently the largest provider of zero-carbon electricity in the U.S., was traditionally championed by Republicans. Similarly, Republican leadership has been critical to supporting carbon capture and storage technology, despite efforts from some on the progressive left to label this technology as a  “false climate solution.” These technologies are critical to ensure the transition to a low-carbon economy is cost-effective. They represent areas where Republicans have had a sensible approach to climate mitigation efforts. 

A call to realism is not a call for lowering expectations. The reality of climate change demands a robust societal response. But if Republicans can bring themselves to embrace climate ambitions that will lead to a low-carbon economy by midcentury, and temper the plans of Democrats with solutions that will work, then the U.S. can be off to the races. Supporting market-based initiatives such as a carbon price, as opposed to onerous regulations or trillion-dollar spending initiatives, to incentivize the deployment of low-carbon technologies and drive emission reductions would be an excellent way to signal ambition to combat climate change, while tempering some of the more extreme demands on the left. There are very real and complex tradeoffs to consider when debating the merits of different approaches to comprehensive climate legislation, but informed discussions require acceptance of empirical reality. 

There are real gains to be made by Republican lawmakers who embrace climate action. A recent poll conducted by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation finds that roughly half of Americans believe climate action is urgently needed within the next decade if we are to avert the worst effects of climate change. Pew Research conducted a separate poll that found a majority of younger Republicans think the government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change. Embracing climate action is a strategic political move for Republicans that offers real gains for their constituents. 

Climate action can jolt economies forward, especially in traditionally red states. A recent Princeton University study finds that the transition to a net-zero economy would increase net energy-related employment by 500,000 to one million jobs in the next decade, with energy employment in states such as Arkansas, Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska, and Montana quadrupling by 2050. Farmers who now grow corn for ethanol could double their revenues by growing biomass for low-carbon hydrogen, and the southeast U.S. could become the world’s carbon-storage capital. Republicans who support ambitious climate action will not only protect their constituents who are disproportionately more vulnerable to climate change, but can help revitalize manufacturing, employment, and growth in the parts of the country they represent. 

It is no understatement to say we are at a truly unprecedented time in U.S. history. A raging pandemic, an economy in turmoil, and a physical assault on our democracy are just a few of the challenges that we as a country are facing. In these trying times, it is critical that our political leaders work together to restore confidence that our governing bodies can, in fact, lead courageously, and there would be no better indication of that than to break the ceiling on climate action.

Photo by Samuel Schroth on Unsplash