US Republicans want to have their climate cake and eat it

The Conservative Climate Caucus peddles the fantasy of quick-fix solutions to the energy trilemma

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US Republicans have launched a Congressional caucus in a bid to seize the initiative on energy and climate policy. The group’s clarion call for painless emission reductions speaks to genuine concerns about an expensive energy transition hurting rural working class families. But it also peddles the fantasy of easy climate fixes. It remains to be seen whether staunchly anti-China, anti-regulation Senators can galvanise around ‘net zero’ or any credible pathway to achieve it.

Dissecting the Conservative Climate Caucus, which launched on Wednesday, is not a straightforward exercise.

The caucus brings together a group of more than 50 Republican members of US Congress, and is already said to be the third largest in the House of Representatives. It was also embraced by a range of conservative civil society groups and lobby groups.

Yet this initial enthusiasm could become a high water-mark. Coalescing around idealistic rhetorical values is much easier than brokering unpopular solutions to complex problems.

The caucus’ statement of beliefs is an uneasy muddle of hardline economic libertarianism, anti-China Cold War rhetoric and commonsense energy and climate realpolitik.

It is founded on the notion that reducing carbon emissions and reversing anthropogenic climate change can be quick, simple and painless; that the profound disruption inherent in any net-zero pathway is somehow unnecessary and avoidable.

“Americans and the rest of the world want access to cheaper, reliable, and cleaner energy,” they assert. So true. The founding signatories didn’t trouble themselves to explain which magical energy source fits that bill – nor, when push comes to shove, which part of that trilemma takes precedence.

There are clear indications that members will herald natural gas with carbon capture as their silver bullet. “With innovative technologies, fossil fuels can and should be a major part of the global solution,” the group says.

Complex problems, easy solutions

The group’s statement of beliefs is riddled with contradictions. Climate change “is a global issue”, so it should follow that global solutions must be brokered with world leaders, right?

Wrong. “China is the greatest immediate obstacle to reducing world emissions,” they say. The message seems to be that fighting climate change goes hand in hand with fighting Beijing.

It is hard to tell whether the group is motivated more by hawkish ‘America first’ ideology than solving the climate conundrum. They embrace “the free market” and “innovation” as sources of “practical and exportable answers” – a phrase that evokes former president Donald Trump’s discredited ‘American energy dominance’ agenda.

Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative fiscal lobby group, welcomed the caucus with the assertion that “Communist China now emits more greenhouse gases than the entire developed world combined”:

“Democrat policies that ban fossil fuels, raise taxes on energy consumers and force taxpayers to heavily subsidize politically preferred industries only increase energy costs while shipping American jobs to China where they become more carbon-intensive.”

There is an element of truth to this. Witness the unfolding political drama around the use of cheap coal-fired electricity and forced labour in Xinjiang to produce polysilicon for solar PV panels. The ATR wants the caucus to fix this by promoting “conservative policies that ... allow the market to meet the demand for affordable clean energy”.

This overlooks the inconvenient fact that unregulated free markets systematically reward cheap labour. Only now that the federal government is cracking down on imports from Xinjiang might policymakers, investors and industry engage meaningfully with the problem.

You can judge a person by the company they keep. Aside from right-wing think tanks, the caucus was welcomed by the notoriously hawkish American Petroleum Institute and other oil and gas lobby groups.

Many of these same organisations cheered on the Trump administration’s rampant climate scepticism, withdrawal from the Paris agreement, and ideological crusade against even the most modest Obama-era regulations, such as those requiring monitoring of methane emissions.

It is telling, also, to examine what was not said. The phrase ‘net zero’ is nowhere to be seen, let alone a tentative date or pathway to achieve it.

There is no meaningful engagement with the depth and breadth of disruption required to achieve climate neutrality, the wholesale revamp of energy infrastructure and industry, nor the many trillions of dollars that this entails – and the scope for enormous value destruction along the way.

Rallying Republican lawmakers around concrete, credible solutions to hit net-zero by mid-decade will be the ultimate litmus test for this caucus. Judging by the GOP’s recent track record in opposition, guaranteeing “serious compromises” in Biden’s flagship infrastructure bill, the smart money is on obstructionism, not bipartisanism.

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The radical middle ground

In the increasingly polarised US energy transition debate, common sense and balanced rhetoric are precious commodities. Occupying the middle ground is becoming a politically radical act — but the Grand Old Party is still some way off centre.

It is significant that climate-sceptic Republicans are finally acknowledging the role of industrial activity in driving climate-heating emissions. If Trump-era denialism is your baseline, the caucus represents genuine (albeit incremental) progress.

It is also refreshing to see lawmakers favouring solutions that “reduce global emissions” over “feel good policies” that merely export emissions. Climate change is a worldwide challenge that requires holistic system-level solutions.

The Conservative Climate Caucus could be read as a Republican bid to seize the middle ground vacated by the Democratic party, which has been pulled by an activist fringe element towards some climate policy positions that are divorced from reality.

The trouble is, GOP values are also at odds with real-world solutions. “Reducing emissions is the goal, not reducing energy choices,” the caucus says. What if some of those choices result in higher emissions that can’t be reduced or mitigated?

At some point, both parties will have to reconcile the urgency of the climate situation with the fact that there are no free lunches. Dramatic interventions are necessary and somebody will have to pay for those. Whether from the political left or right, ideological grand-standing won’t cut it.

Seb Kennedy | Energy Flux | 24th June 2021

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