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“Coalitions” can’t excuse sloppy thinking
On climate or anything else, you need to think clearly
Climate change is always quite well covered by the media, I think in part because it has a news story structure that many other progressive causes lack.
The climate keeps, well, changing, and natural disasters are inherently interesting, so there’s a steady stream of content. Other issues like the instability of Americans’ health insurance or the stingy nature of our safety net for children are constants rather than narratives. Climate has also become one of the top causes for donors in the progressive space, and people like to talk about things that donors are interested in.
Most voters, though, do not find the climate change topic to be particularly compelling — they are more interested in topics that relate to their narrow short-term self-interest.
But you often see quirky efforts to deny that this is the case. For example, an ABC News report about Kamala Harris’ role in the Biden reelection operation mentions this offhand:
At a young voters’ summit in Washington, D.C., last month, most young voters told ABC News that climate change was their top issue in the election and that they felt the Biden administration was not doing enough to combat it.
That sort of sounds like they are saying that most young voters wish Joe Biden were more left-wing on climate. But who actually comes to a “young voters’ summit” and what is that anyway? Because we know from YouGov polling that if you average their July surveys of voters under 30, climate comes in fourth place behind inflation/prices, jobs/economy, and health care. The gaps aren’t large and it is true that young voters care more about climate than older voters do. But we’re talking about something like 12% of the youth cohort saying climate is their top issue. And even among young voters, people are saying that if there’s a tradeoff between climate and inflation or jobs, politicians should focus on inflation or jobs.
That’s actually why amidst the various back-and-forths between “supply-side progressives” and American Prospect writers, I do think TAP’s David Dayen is right to draw attention to the importance of coalition politics. If elected officials actually went about tackling climate change in a highly aggressive, single-minded way, voters would kick most of them out of office. At the same time, I think the TAP gang is so invested in a certain style of left-wing coalition politics that they may be missing the forest for the trees. If you take a climate program and then compromise its effectiveness by attaching a bunch of unrelated progressive policy goals, you may end up even worse off than ever. Environmentalists themselves need to compromise on other goals, like habitat preservation, and rein in their generalized skepticism of economic growth in order to craft a focused climate agenda that’s compatible with other progressive goals.
Coalitions of the willing
Deciding to take a coalitional approach to politics doesn’t actually tell you who, exactly, should be part of the coalition or what specific compromises each member should be asked to make.
For example, you might appeal to labor by saddling the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s mass transit and intercity rail titles with onerous, union-supported Buy American provisions, which would compromise the bill’s environmental goals. It’s not a win-win (we’re talking about a fixed pool of money here), and if you do Buy American, that extra money for union workers means fewer transit projects will get done. Of course, the mere fact that this involves a compromise doesn’t mean it’s bad — compromising is good.
So now labor is part of your coalition. Then let’s say that out of deference to environmental justice activists, you decide to do everything in your administrative power to stymie the carbon capture and storage and direct air capture provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act. Another compromise, a bigger coalition.
Then as your big win for decarbonization, you block the construction of some new pipeline. That’s powerful coalitional politics — it’s about climate, yes, but it’s also about labor and it’s also about environmental justice.
It’s also not the only way to assemble a climate-focused coalition.
Not blocking the pipeline would make some labor constituencies happy. Labor also likes carbon capture, so you could not block that either. Then after giving labor two wins on carbon capture and pipelines, you could insist on maximizing the cost-effectiveness of the mass transit investments. In this world, you’re pursuing decarbonization (transit and carbon capture) in a labor-friendly way (carbon capture and the pipeline), and communities of color get cheaper energy and better mass transit rather than whatever comes of the push against CCS and new pipelines.
Slow Boring readers know that I obviously like this latter coalition better than I like the former. But that’s an argument for another day. The point is that these are both coalition concepts. “Spend money on stuff that environmentalists like, but then compromise the effectiveness of that spending by routing it all in the maximally labor-friendly way” is not the only way to think about keeping labor interests in mind when making environmental policy. You could also just sometimes tell environmentalists you’re not going to do what they want when the thing they want is bad for labor.
The EV dilemma
A version of this is playing out right now as the United Auto Workers bargain with the car industry over labor conditions in battery factories that are organized as joint ventures between car companies and battery companies. The nature of the broken American collective bargaining paradigm is that switching from relying on factories that make engine parts to relying on factories that make batteries gives the companies an opportunity to slip out of the old deals and pay workers less. The UAW obviously doesn’t want that, so they’re now very nervous about the White House’s push for electric cars.
That’s a bitter pill for the Biden administration, which has gone out of its way to make the EV push as union-friendly as possible.
Early in his term, for example, Biden was often touting America’s prowess at electric cars without mentioning Tesla, which is by far America’s leading electric car company.And yet despite Biden’s best efforts to be friendly and coalitional, he can’t force the Big Three to make a super-generous contract settlement with the UAW.
What he can do is think about the EPA’s current plans — which exist in draft form but have not been finalized — to mandate that two-thirds of cars sold be electric vehicles by 2032. That is, to be clear, a regulatory mandate over and above what IIJA is spending on EV charging infrastructure and what IRA is spending on subsidizing the purchase of EVs. Their thinking is that these subsidies, plus other work the administration is doing on supply chain issues, plus ongoing improvements in the technology, will mean that electric cars are good enough and cheap enough a decade from now that people won’t mind having ICE cars severely constrained by regulators.
Will they? Maybe!
Yet the fact is, a regulatory push to accelerate the EV transition could backfire politically if it’s seen as bad for the UAW. The ideal outcome, from the standpoint of left coalitional politics, would be for Biden to find a way to lean on the automakers to be generous with the union, pointing out that his administration is showering them with subsidies and it’s not in anyone’s interest for this whole thing to blow up. But if they dramatically raise pay, that could impact the speed at which EVs will be sufficiently cost-competitive. To the extent that you have the hard hammer of EPA rules at your disposal, raising the production costs of EVs isn’t a loss for climate advocates. But that perfect coalition could be even worse in terms of macro-politics. After all, the whole reason we were seeking a coalitional approach in the first place is that most voters don’t care that much about climate change. So while you can ask them to transition to EVs, that’s a pretty tough ask if the EVs are a bad value.
It’s a hard problem. And it’s at least possible that the right answer is going to be to water down the regulations. The more promising coalitional approach, in other words, might be to just act more moderate and chill.
The intra-environmental compromise
These kinds of considerations are why, in my mind, the best coalitional approaches to climate change are the ones that ask environmentalists to give up on non-climate goals for the sake of pursuing decarbonization.
That means issuing the permits for Class VI carbon storage wells, reducing regulatory barriers to nuclear power, reducing regulatory barriers to building interregional electric lines, and reducing regulatory barriers to geothermal drilling. After I wrote about enhanced rock weatherization, somebody told me a bleak story about regulatory dysfunction: basically, grinding up rocks and turning them into fine green sand that you spread on the beach is held to a higher regulatory standard than spreading regular sand on the beach because the rocks have carbon capture benefits. If you want to put sand on a beach, that’s not a federal regulatory issue. But if you do it for carbon removal, you run into a bunch of regulatory barriers. We also have NEPA challenges to wind projects, NEPA challenges to solar projects, and all kinds of other problems.
This approach to climate change that emphasizes deregulating decarbonization is by no means the only way to pursue emissions reduction.
But I think it’s an attractive strategy because, from the standpoint of a typical voter, the upshot is that energy gets cheaper without additional fiscal outlay from the government, while from the standpoint of labor, it’s at least no worse than the status quo and probably better.
It’s a coalitional strategy not because you bolt lots of new requirements onto the stuff you’re hoping to build out, but because you avoid asking other stakeholders to compromise for the sake of climate goals. Instead, you ask environmentalists to compromise for the sake of climate goals. Because while most people don’t care that much about climate change, environmentalists do care a lot, so asking them to sacrifice their non-climate priorities makes for a more attractive package.
Deep vs. shallow political problems
More broadly, I would say advocates need to be clearer that this whole “most people don’t care that much” issue is a deep problem for decarbonization, not a shallow one.
Because on a shallow level, the climate groups get it. They know you’re supposed to talk about your energy transition vision as part of a jobs and growth message. They know you’re supposed to be coalitional and care about other stakeholders. And they recognize proximate problems in Congress.
But the approach they often land on is something like, “well, we don’t have the votes in Congress to make everyone buy electric vehicles, so we’ll just get the EPA to do it.”
Or the really hare-brained thought “we don’t have the votes in Congress to impose a broad carbon price, so we’ll just get the Fed to cut the fossil fuel industry off from general corporate support during the pandemic and liquidate the whole industry.”
Biden doesn’t have the votes in Congress to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour, but minimum wage increases are broadly popular, much more popular than Biden personally or the Democratic Party in general. So if it turned out he had some regulatory button that would raise the minimum wage, then “push the button” would be a viable path forward. But the issue on the climate stuff isn’t just the vote count; it’s that no politician in America wants to say to voters “I’m sorry that bad thing happened in your life, but that’s just the price we pay to address climate change.” You have to take that seriously. And that means that if aggressive EV plans rely, stealthily, on cost-savings that come from screwing over the UAW, you need to rethink the whole strategy. Not just because screwing the auto workers probably isn’t politically viable, but because paying them off in a way that raises car prices for everyone isn’t going to be viable either.
It’s not that there’s nothing you can do. You can — as in the IRA — tax the rich and use that to subsidize clean stuff. But we just did that. The next big step forward has to involve being a good coalition partner. That shouldn’t mean larding up IRA spending initiatives with measures that reduce their efficacy, but compromises internal to environmentalism that prioritize cost-effective emissions reduction.
That clearly annoyed Elon Musk, and it struck me at the time as a political error that could end with a wealthy electric car entrepreneur becoming politically aligned with the party that’s fighting to stop the EV transition.