American Crossroads

Climate and Pandemic

By David Popp

Support for green innovation is already weak, and the current economic crisis isn’t likely to improve that.

Special Series: American Crossroads
Eight faculty experts bring context and historical perspective to this year’s election.

While we are starting to see impacts of climate change, such as more intense storms, measures to reduce emissions and prevent future impacts will take time to work. Because people won’t see these benefits immediately, it is difficult for climate policies to win broad political support, even in the best of times. And these are not the best of times.

As I write, the response to a global pandemic dominates the news. Among the issues to be addressed is how to both maintain the economy during a national lockdown and how to restart the economy when the time is right. Infrastructure investment is likely to be part of any stimulus to get people back to work. Some propose investment in green infrastructure, using the coronavirus downturn as an opportunity to invest in programs that pivot away from a fossil-fuels-based energy frame, create green jobs, and use public dollars to build a more sustainable and resilient infrastructure.

But such proposals lack bipartisan support, and anything that slows a divided Congress should be put on hold. The first priority is getting money into the economy quickly.

R&D investments can help reshape the economy, but they are unlikely to help restart the economy.

As someone who studies energy and climate policy, I focus specifically on policies that promote the development of new clean energy technologies. Clean energy research is one area of energy policy that maintains bipartisan support. Congress rejected the Trump administration’s plans to cut the Department of Energy’s research and development budgets in both 2018 and 2019. Instead, DOE R&D increased by 14 percent in 2018 and 5 percent in 2019. While this investment is important, R&D investment alone will not move new technologies to market. These investments can help reshape the economy, but they are unlikely to help restart the economy.

The main goal of climate policy is to find ways to reduce carbon emissions by switching to cleaner forms of energy. Achieving that goal means putting in place taxes and/or regulations. Support for these measures generally falls along party lines. Environmental taxes and regulations are less popular with Republicans. President Trump has a history of climate change skepticism. He has rolled back numerous environmental protections, supporting policies more favorable to fossil fuels. On the other side, the Democratic Party has placed more emphasis on protecting the environment. In the past year, we’ve seen the introduction of the Green New Deal resolution in Congress and robust discussion of climate change during the Democratic primary debates.

Moving forward, the need for government investments to re-build the economy will likely extend past the election. Once the re-start begins, continued investments will help shape the new world to come. Green investments can play a role in longer-term investment, but they will only be feasible with strong political support.

While environmental policy will not be a top priority for most voters this fall, what type of world we create as we emerge from this is one more thing to consider on November 3.

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