To Make Headway on Climate Change, Let’s Change the Subject
DENVER — The morning two years ago that Jared Polis announced his run for governor of Colorado, he went to a coffee roaster operating on solar power and promised more renewable energy for the state. Campaigning on that alongside education and health care reform, Mr. Polis, a Democrat, blew away his Republican opponent last fall by 11 percentage points.
This week, the clean-energy voters who helped put him into office will get their first reward. Mr. Polis is expected to sign a remarkable package of 13 environmental and energy bills that will propel Colorado to the top rank of states tackling the climate crisis.
Colorado stands out, but it does not stand alone. A wave of fresh ambition to confront climate change is sweeping through state governments as lawmakers point to the benefits: green jobs, lower electric rates and new tax revenues.
Six states have adopted policies that will effectively require the elimination of carbon dioxide emissions from their electric grids by midcentury, most of them in the past year. So many other states are considering it that the number could double in the next year or two.
This is happening mostly in states like Colorado where Democrats have taken full control of state government, and I think the trend holds important lessons for the Democratic Party. At the national level, the Democrats need to start running hard on climate and energy, instead of paying the issue lip service.
Signs abound that the American public is ready for a serious discussion about our energy options. But how to discuss the subject? For that we should look not just to states like Colorado but, interestingly enough, also to a state under complete Republican control: South Carolina.
This received little national attention, but the South Carolina legislature just adopted a bold policy meant to open the state to more solar power. Utilities like Duke Energy may yet torpedo the plan, but if they are beaten back, South Carolina in a few years could match North Carolina in getting 5 percent of its electrical power from the sun, compared with less than 1 percent last year.
The solar bill is part of the ongoing recuperation in South Carolina from an attempt to build a new nuclear power plant. That turned into a debacle, with repeated cost overruns and construction problems finally leading to the cancellation of the plant. South Carolinians will be paying for their $9 billion hole in the ground for many years to come.
In the aftermath of that mess, the solar industry swooped in and offered to put a lot of clean power onto the grid. The industry was careful with words, though. Tyler Norris, who helped craft the bill on behalf of South Carolina’s solar industry association, told me that the focus was on the direct benefits to the people of the state.
“I don’t know that the terms ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ were ever uttered in the entire year and a half of advocacy and debate around this,” Mr. Norris said.
The final vote in the South Carolina Senate was 46-0, and in the House, 103-0. You read that right.
The champion of the Energy Freedom Act, a Republican state senator named Tom Davis, explained his thinking last week, writing in an op-ed that the bill was a step toward “real competition that will provide downward pressure on the cost of producing energy.”
He is right: We are entering an era when clean electricity is going to be the cheapest electricity. That means monopolies like Duke Energy are about to get stuck with a bunch of dirty, coal-burning power plants that are becoming uneconomical.
Some utilities, it must be said, are turning into clean-energy champions. The leading one in the country is Xcel Energy, which happens to supply much of urban Colorado with power and operates in seven other states. The company has been ramping up its clean-energy commitments for years; after Mr. Polis was elected but before he took office, it committed to going 100 percent clean by 2050.
Mr. Polis, working with a legislature controlled by Democrats, wrote into law a mandatory 80 percent reduction in emissions for Xcel by 2030, along with a broader target of reducing emissions from the entire Colorado economy 90 percent by 2050. The legislative package includes a big push for electric cars, as well as measures to ensure fair treatment for workers laid off from dirty power plants.
“Colorado prides itself on being an innovative, forward-looking state,” Mr. Polis told me. “We want to lead as a state to make sure Colorado is well positioned for the renewable-energy future.”
The clean-energy picture has evolved so rapidly in the past few years that I think the situation calls for a strategic shift on the part of the Democrats. Wagging fingers in the Republicans’ faces about their climate denial has not worked. Demanding that they pass punitive fuel taxes has not worked. What seems to be working is to emphasize the local and statewide benefits of clean energy.
Senator Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, likes wind energy because it is good for the farmers who get paid to host turbines. School boards in Kansas and Oklahoma love it because the taxes on wind parks are filling their coffers. In the South, people are figuring out that solar panels can put out cheap power just about the time they are cranking up their air-conditioners.
As the economic case for renewables grows more compelling, the issue becomes how much faster we can go in cleaning up the grid. The tactical goal for Democrats is not to get Republicans to admit they have been wrong about climate science; the only thing that matters is to pass measures to speed the energy transition.
Understanding all this, Democrats can still run hard on climate change in party primaries. But in general elections and upon taking office, they need to make the subtle shift from talking about the climate crisis to talking about the benefits of clean energy — something that Mr. Polis, for one, is skilled at doing.
The polls have told us, over and over, that right below the surface in this country lurks a powerful consensus to go all out on the energy transition. The falling costs offer a fresh opportunity to talk about competition and freedom of choice in the market for electricity, a language that many Republicans understand.
That unanimous measure in South Carolina tells you that for the right policies advocated in the right language, the votes are there.
Justin Gillis (@JustinHGillis), a former Times editor and environmental reporter, has been a contributor to the Opinion section since January 2018. He is working on a book about energy policy.
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