After months of discussion and debate, Democrats are at an impasse on a raft of infrastructure legislation that could make or break President Joe Biden’s effort to fight climate change. The rift, as it’s framed in countless news stories, is between progressives who want an ambitious social and climate spending bill and moderates who have protested the price tag.
But there’s a problem with portraying these disagreements as a conflict between moderates and progressives. This picture leaves out the unarguable scientific reality that pollution is warming the planet at an unsustainable and dangerous rate. There is nothing moderate or debatable about the catastrophic changes that global emissions are wreaking on the climate. In August, a panel of United Nations climate scientists called it “unequivocal” that humans have warmed Earth’s skies, waters, and lands.
“It is possible to find middle ground in many areas of politics; I know, because I have done it,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), an advocate of swift climate action, said in a recent press conference. “But we cannot compromise on science. There isn’t a middle ground between a livable and unlivable world.”
A narrative that pits progressives against moderates runs the risk of spotlighting climate deniers and centering fossil fuel interests. It arguably distracts from the substance of climate policies that a broad swath of Americans already support.
To take ambitious climate action, Senate Democrats need every single member of their party (plus two independents) to vote for a version of the Build Back Better agenda, a proposed budget that would, among other things, boost clean energy and reduce US emissions. That has put two holdouts, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, front and center in the negotiations, and gives them disproportionate power over the future of the country’s climate policy.
Policy battles like this show that Americans need a new way to talk about the politics of climate change, as a range of strategists, pollsters, and lawmakers told Vox. Instead of focusing on “centrist” or “moderate” politicians, they said, political observers should distinguish between the many Democrats who support addressing the crisis at hand and the few who support an unacceptable status quo.
“People don’t know what ‘moderate’ even means, particularly around climate change,” Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist, told Vox. “I mean, you’re flooded two feet instead of four?”
A traditional left-right spectrum doesn’t capture widespread consensus about climate change
Let’s consider what “middle ground” climate action might mean in practice. The planet faces rampant warming unless the entire world takes aggressive action this decade. Only if countries make big and rapid investments to help clean energy replace fossil fuels will it be possible to limit warming to less disastrous levels.
Splitting the difference between doing nothing and doing everything in our power, in other words, does not halt the crisis. This “moderate” path leads us somewhere between devastating warming and catastrophic warming.
Supporters of modest climate action are ignoring the magnitude of the problem, argued Ryan Fitzpatrick, director of the Climate and Energy Program at Third Way, a group that says it promotes center-left policies. “If you don’t publicly acknowledge the severity of the impact of climate change, then why would we expect any of your policy conditions or solutions to be based in rationality?” Fitzpatrick asked.
If you accept the findings of climate scientists, he added, “you understand the level of ambition that’s needed to solve the problem.”
Research suggests that the so-called moderates in Congress don’t represent the median US opinion about climate change. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Communication, has spent his career using polling to find out what the public actually thinks about climate. When he’s looked at the political differences between self-identifying conservative, moderate, and liberal voters, he finds there’s more agreement than you might hear in the halls of Congress.
“The pattern that really jumps out to you is that there’s one group that’s really not like the others,” Leiserowitz said, “and that’s conservative Republicans.” This group made up less than a quarter of those sampled. Most of the US voters who are doubtful or dismissive of climate change are politically conservative, and most are Republicans, his research has shown.
When he ropes off the conservative Republicans as outliers, Leiserowitz finds a surprising amount of agreement on some core principles, such as support for clean energy. In Yale’s December 2020 national sample of 1,036 Americans, a large majority of Democrats and moderate Republicans supported generating renewable energy on public land. The supporters included 94 percent of the liberal Democrats in the survey, 76 percent of the liberal and moderate Republicans, and 59 percent of conservative Democrats.
There’s also surprising agreement about the importance of transitioning off fossil fuels. The survey estimated that more than 8 in 10 Democrats across the spectrum support a transition to clean energy, and so did 59 percent of self-identified moderate and liberal Republicans.
“These are relatively minor differences,” Leiserowitz told Vox. In fact, he said, there’s more agreement than disagreement on many policies related to climate change, with the specific exception of conservative Republicans.
Climate downplayers and deniers, however, have an elevated role in politics and arguably skew the public understanding of the consensus position. While some Republicans are gradually coming around to the idea of climate action, the top GOP senator, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, led a Republican Senate majority that ignored the issue for nearly a decade. “We can debate this forever,” he said in 2014, ignoring the scientific consensus. And when Biden reentered the Paris climate agreement this year, a group of Republican senators attempted to override his order.
This helps explain how the future of US climate policy has landed in the hands of Sen. Manchin, a longtime coal businessman who continues to receive campaign funding from the fossil fuel industry and advocate for fossil fuel interests. Before he was labeled a moderate, the press called Manchin a conservative Democrat; he has very different goals than Sinema, the other senator widely called a moderate in the news these days. Sinema hails from one of the leading states in the solar industry and has publicly argued for robust climate spending in the infrastructure bill. (She has disputed reports that she wants to see $100 billion in climate funds cut from the spending bill.)
As Ezra Klein wrote about the myth of the middle in a 2015 Vox story, “The idea of the moderate middle is bullshit: it’s a rhetorical device meant to marginalize some policy positions at the expense of others.” This is what’s happening to climate policy, too.
What should replace the myth of the climate moderate?
The time to take a moderate approach to climate has passed, argued Dana Johnson, who leads federal policy office of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a climate advocacy group. “If we would have done this 20, 40, 60 years ago, perhaps we could take a moderate approach,” Johnson said. “The moment right now called for us to go big, and to be bold, if we’re going to achieve any kind of meaningful change.”
She’s not the only one. “Perhaps the most politically difficult aspect of climate change is that, after decades of denial and delay, there is no longer any coherent ‘moderate’ position to be had,” energy writer David Roberts wrote in his newsletter.
At the New Republic, Kate Aronoff has argued that lawmakers who undermine climate legislation are actually extremists: “No one should call them moderates, or even centrists. They’re extremists. If they have their way, they’re going to get a lot of people killed.”
Instead, it’s time to judge politicians on the level of their ambition, and the extent to which they prioritize the planet’s climate. Leaders who aren’t ready to accelerate a transition to clean energy, and publicly recognize that fossil fuels cannot be the dominant fuel of the future, effectively support a dangerous status quo. Politicians who block climate action are more or less on the same side as fossil fuels.
Some climate policies genuinely divide Democrats, such as investments in nuclear power and carbon-capture technology. Many progressive environmentalists are skeptical of both.
A new framing for the politics of climate change would not ignore these policy debates. It’s possible to agree about the reality and urgency of climate change while disagreeing about the best strategies to stop it.
Climate change may still become an important electoral issue, as younger voters who care more about these policies start to vote in greater numbers. “Turnout is going to impact a lot of what happens in the midterms,” said Lake, the Democratic strategist. “And in the 2024 election, the younger voters are going to be bigger than the baby boomers for the first time.”
Republicans may be reacting to these electoral pressures. “You have a lot of Republicans who have embraced a tax credit that promotes emissions reductions and clean energy sources,” Carlos Curbelo, a Republican former Congress member who introduced climate legislation in the House, told Vox. “It’s a departure from the Republican Party of just a few years ago, where the most common element … was apathy.”
When it comes to climate change, Republicans and Democrats can be judged by the same standard. “It comes down to whether or not you acknowledge the well-established fact that climate change is going to cause severe damage, particularly if we don’t meet these emissions goals,” said Fitzpatrick of Third Way. “Whether you call yourself a progressive or a moderate, if you’re serious about climate, we all have to be aiming to accomplish the same thing. And getting that means getting to net-zero emissions by 2050.”
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