To get more clean energy in America anytime soon, our country needs an energy market that’s fair. Consumers will choose solar power on price alone if we take away subsidies that make fossil fuels artificially cheap.
And that means making fossil fuel companies pay for the greenhouse gas pollution that coal, oil and natural gas put out, just as they already pay for to emit and clean up other pollutants, from coal ash to particulates to such chemicals as sulphur dioxide.
So, America needs a price on carbon and we need the federal government to implement it. And that’s going to require bipartisan action by Congress that’s independent from the Trump White House that’s so hostile to climate action and so friendly to dirty energy.
Good luck on that! you might say.
If so, let me recommend a powerful new book offers a path to get there.
Solar Power Needs a Price on Carbon and that Needs Congress
Yes, to get more solar power installed on rooftops across America, we will need something more than the patchwork of federal and state clean energy incentives we’ve had for the last few decades. Those have been better than nothing, but they’ve still only helped solar power grow to about one percent of America’s total energy use.
To help solar grow into America’s #1 energy source, we need something much bigger. Call it a carbon tax if you’re brave. Otherwise, follow the example of Citizens Climate Lobby and call it carbon-fee-and-dividend. Or, just call it a carbon dividend, as the conservative Climate Leadership Council does, emphasizing the money that most families will get back rather than the money we’ll all pay out to use fossil fuels.
Whatever you call it, experts agree that putting a price on carbon will quickly reduce demand for fossil fuels and increase demand for clean energy, especially solar power.
Those experts say a carbon price must come from government. And you can start on the state level but it would be most effective for the carbon price to apply nationwide. That means it would have to come from Washington and specifically, from Congress.
And what are the chances of that happening anytime soon? Even if Americans overwhelmingly want climate solutions and if those who know about carbon dividends support the idea with big margins, who’s to say that Congress, mired in partisan bickering, can get together across the aisle as in the old days, to solve one of America’s biggest problems?
Written by two former Congressmen and a journalist, The Partisan Divide: Congress in Crisis clearly understands the problem. Though the book came out in 2014 before the election of President Trump and today’s Republican-led Congress, authors Tom Davis (former Republican Congressman from Virginia), Martin Frost, (former Democratic Congressman from Texas) and journalist Richard Cohen describe the problem with Congress as if they were writing yesterday.
The Problem with Congress
In 2014, the authors write that only 7% of the public approved of the job performance of Congress as a whole. A Gallup poll taken in March 2018 had some good news for Congress — the approval rating had doubled to 14%. But that’s still near historic lows and far below the high of recent decades, when in 2002 84% of Americans approved of the job that Congress was doing.
The authors think that there’s a good reason for the public to hold Congress in contempt. And that reason is that Congress is failing to do its job as an independent branch of government and instead is just serving as the partisan defender of the president. The authors wrote while Obama was president, but the point seems to be even truer today under Trump:
The president’s party in Congress has become simply an appendage of the executive branch, rarely exercising its constitutional checks and balances on its president. The “out” party responds by reflexively opposing presidential initiatives.
It hasn’t always been this way, as the authors remind us that in the past, both parties worked together in Congress to pass important legislation on civil rights, the economy and especially the environment, such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.
A couple of decades ago, the congressional wing of the “out” party would act like a minority partner and have a voice in shaping, molding, and sometimes tamping down presidential initiatives. Today’s climate, barring strong public opinion to the contrary, turns the “out” party into straight-out opposition.
Davis, Frost and Cohen argue that Congress would do better to get back to bipartisanship. I agree, since that’s what it’s going to take to pass a carbon dividend or any meaningful solutions for clean energy and climate.
How to Fix Congress
To get back to bipartisanship, Congress will have to regain its independence from the White House. And to do that, the authors offer four prescriptions:
- Really reform campaign finance — unfortunately McCain-Feingold and other campaign finance reforms of recent years actually made things worse, by taking money out of control of political parties themselves and giving it to third-party issue groups. Those groups are less accountable to the public (it’s easier for big donors to remain anonymous) and also more ideological. Extreme groups on both left and right can use their new huge war chests to punish politicians who compromise and work with the other side, and promote only extreme candidates who will aggressively push the platform of the base of their party.
- End Gerrymandering — allowing parties to pick their own voters leads to more ideological districts that favor extreme candidates over those of a more moderate bent. Like campaign finance, Gerrymandering makes it harder for moderates and pragmatists to get elected, and thus, reduces the opportunities for bipartisan compromise.
- Fix party primaries — if you held them all on one single day nationwide, then more voters would know about primaries and would show up to the polls. A larger electorate would be less ideological and extreme than the small base of party stalwarts who show up to most primary elections today.
- Control federal budget deficits — the public loses respect for Congress when it can’t balance the budget and when it kicks the can down the road for somebody in the future to deal with.
These are promising ideas but don’t solve all the problems that the authors identify behind partisanship in Congress. In particular, partisanship in Congress isn’t just a technical problem to be fixed with technical solutions like better voting districts or primary elections.
Partisanship has grown across society in the last couple decades as Americans have sorted themselves ideologically by geography and by media choices. Thus, Texas today has fewer liberals who watch CNN than it used to. Likewise, California has fewer conservatives who watch Fox. If current trends continue, states will become either all-red or all-blue, decreasing or eliminating the chances for moderates to get elected from anywhere.
But to reverse the dangerous trend towards angry partisanship, you have to start somewhere. The authors make a good case for starting with Congress itself, drawing on their personal experience in Congress as both partisan campaigners and bipartisan deal makers.
The Partisan Divide is a worthwhile and inspiring read for anyone who worries about partisanship in American politics today.
I think this explicitly bipartisan book is especially relevant for anyone who wants to solicit both Democrats and Republicans to pass the carbon dividend America needs to kickstart a real clean energy revolution.
— Erik Curren, The Solar Patriot