Opinion

Congress: Do Your Job on Climate. Leave the Green New Deal to Presidential Candidates

The Green New Deal resolution came up for a vote in the Senate yesterday. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called it with no intention of winning. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and most of his fellow Democrats dodged the issue by voting “present.” Neither party’s approach is good enough.

The massive vacuum in climate policy left by the executive branch should compel legislators into action. Congress and its leaders should leave the grandstanding to the 2020 presidential candidates and instead advance the most ambitious measures that can win bipartisan support.

There is no question that the Green New Deal has performed the salutary function of moving climate change up the political agenda. Prospective Democratic caucus attendees in Iowa recently rated it as the second-most important issue for the contenders to address.

Not coincidentally, many leading Congressional Republicans have responded to the issue’s rising salience by acknowledging that climate change is real and endorsing federal action to try to head it off. President Donald Trump is increasingly isolated in his denial.

This is progress, but it is not meaningful progress unless policy is enacted and implemented. And that’s where the Green New Deal falls short.

It’s a vision statement, not an action plan, as its framers freely admit. It calls for a massive, rapid transformation of American energy, industry and agriculture, while curing broader social ills like racial and economic inequality along the way.

These are wonderful goals, and the urgency with which they are expressed is entirely understandable, given the dire consequences of continuing our decades-long stalemate. But we need to walk before we can run.

The problem is not merely that the Green New Deal cannot be enacted, much less implemented, nor that it mistakenly assumes that solutions that work in the United States will solve this global problem. By pushing for so much so quickly, it seems to be polarizing the two parties around a revised set of talking points on climate policy, slamming shut a promising window of opportunity.

Instead of fruitlessly seeking an abstract consensus, Congress should seize the opportunity created by the elevation of this critical issue to public prominence by pursuing pragmatic and effective solutions. Significantly expanding and diversifying federal spending on energy research, development and demonstration is an obvious place to start.

The world does not yet have all the technologies that it needs to make clean energy cheaper than dirty energy, which is the only way all the nations of the world will fully eliminate carbon emissions. Republicans and Democrats agree that no country is more essential to or better at advancing science and technology than the United States.

Unleashing the brainpower of our great labs, universities, entrepreneurs and companies would be good, but not enough. Bipartisan agreement ought to be possible on tax and regulatory policies that would spur speedier deployment as well as more rapid innovation in low-carbon technologies. Federal investment in urban and rural energy infrastructure could do the same and turbocharge the tremendous bipartisan momentum for climate progress that has been building up at the state and local levels.

Many rank-and-file members of Congress are ready to do their jobs, if only their leaders would let them. Perhaps with six senators (and still counting) running for the Democratic nomination, it is inevitable that presidential politics will creep into the legislative debate. But McConnell’s cynical maneuvering and Schumer’s acquiescent response are making the Senate into an echo chamber for the candidates.

If they continue to take this approach, it will be impossible for their colleagues to begin the real work that desperately must be done.

 

David M. Hart is a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and professor of public policy and director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

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