Democrats Are Trying to Save Climate Policy From the Senate
The party’s senators have a new plan to face down the world’s greatest obstacle to dealing with climate change.
Why has the United States done so little politically to combat climate change?
Blame the Senate. For the past quarter century, the world’s greatest deliberative body has killed virtually any bill that would ensure the continued habitability of the world. Through its slow process, excessive use of the filibuster, and scheme of allotting votes without regard to a state’s population, the Senate has smothered even the meekest climate policies that arrive on its floor.
Among its victims are the expired climate goals of Democratic presidents since Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton’s energy bill, in 1993, and Barack Obama’s major climate bill, in 2009, passed the House of Representatives before perishing in the Senate. Even the Paris Agreement, a global treaty for a global audience, was written with the Senate’s whims in mind: American negotiators had to postpone its adoption in 2015 when they discovered an errant “shall” that was supposed to be a “should,” a single word that would have required the Senate to approve the whole document.
Yet the upper chamber can’t be avoided. The most powerful way to tackle climate change in the U.S. is to pass new legislation, which means piecing together a bill that can earn 60—or maybe 51—votes in the upper chamber.
Today, Senate Democrats unveiled their plan to get there. In a 255-page report, the caucus says that it will pursue a broad approach to fighting climate change, imposing new standards and spending billions of dollars to reduce U.S. carbon pollution to net-zero by 2050. The document, which emerged from a year of hearings and private meetings with Democratic allies, is not a draft bill, but a menu of potential policies that have wide support in the party and that could be combined in future legislation.
“What we have now is the distinct possibility of a coalition that represents almost everybody except the Koch brothers trying to get this done,” Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, who led the committee that wrote the plan, told me.
The plan puts the Democratic Party much closer to having a unified climate agenda. Similar to other plans advanced by the Joe Biden campaign and the House Democrats, the Senate plan does not center on a carbon tax or other market-based approach. These techniques have long been favored—a carbon tax is supported by most mainstream economists, and the 2009 climate bill used a carbon market to regulate emissions—but they have proved unpopular, difficult to pass, and even harder to maintain. (Australia passed a carbon tax in 2011, then repealed it three years later.) The Senate plan does not reject a carbon tax or carbon market, and Schatz said he personally supports a carbon tax, but such policies are not seen as doing the spadework of decarbonization. Instead, the Senate plan—as well as the House and Biden proposals—focuses on implementing a combination of new goals, legal standards, and federal investment. This approach fits the profile of “industrial policy,” an idea that was out of fashion until recently, because it seeks to strategically develop certain sectors of the economy, in certain places, in order to attain a goal of national importance.
The Senate plan also reflects the past decade of thinking among climate advocates: that fossil-fuel companies have wielded their power to block climate policy. So it proposes a number of policies that aim to weaken the political power of the fossil-fuel industry, mostly by curtailing the role of “dark money” in politics. The plan also calls for the targeted use of federal authority over the financial sector to force banks to disclose their fossil-fuel holdings and protect against a crisis driven by future losses in the fossil-fuel industry.
“When the transition to a clean economy appears inevitable, some portion of existing fossil fuel reserves will become noncompetitive,” the report says. “A sudden and significant decrease in the value of fossil fuel–related assets presents a significant risk to asset managers of mutual funds, pension funds, and insurance firms.” Only action by the government’s nine financial regulatory agencies and the Federal Reserve can ease the risk of a crisis.
But to the frustration of some activists, the Senate proposal does not go as far as the House or Biden plans in restraining the supply of fossil fuels available to drillers. It does not call for a ban on oil drilling on public lands, for instance, and it suggests expanding a subsidy for capturing carbon before it enters the atmosphere, a policy that could benefit oil and gas firms.
The report’s focus on industrial policy reflects new thinking among climate advocates. American industrial policy has a long and successful history: It is part of why the movie industry, the software industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and the fossil-fuel industry prospered in the U.S. Although the federal government once used industrial policy to grow the economy, the idea has fallen out of favor in the past few decades, giving way to more laissez-faire approaches. Yet industrial policy built the 19th-century railroads, the 20th-century suburbs and interstate highways, and the 21st-century internet. Germany, South Korea, and the U.K. have all used policy to develop green sectors of their economy; China has also used policy to boost renewables manufacturing and electric vehicles.
The Senate plan calls back to earlier American efforts to plan the economy. “In the 1930s, the U.S. government massively increased home ownership by creating institutions that made affordable mortgages possible,” the authors write. “Federal action can and should do the same for solar panels, energy retrofits, electric vehicles, and clean technology—and this time around, do so in a way that ensures all Americans benefit.”
The plan will matter only if Democrats take the Senate next year, which would require winning races in Arizona, North Carolina, Maine, or a few other states. Speaking to reporters today, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said that climate policy will be a “top priority if I become majority leader.” But Democrats will have a brief window—perhaps two years long, judging by recent history—to make good on that promise. This plan allows them to get right down to drafting a bill, Schatz said. It is their playbook, and it gives them lots of options depending on the circumstances.
“My judgment, watching what other states have done, is what matters the most is scale and ambition. And you could get there with a carbon tax. You could get there with a massive investment program. You could get there with regulation,” Schatz said. “But, you know, I don’t have pride of authorship here. If somebody has got a plan that enables us to solve this planetary crisis, I don’t care if it’s a brand-new plan, or a 20-year-old plan, or my plan.”
What matters above all is that it’s a plan that can pass the Senate. You can’t have a world’s greatest deliberative body without, well, the world.