A growing and troubling movement among the progressive left argues that bipartisanship is incompatible with meaningful climate action. For instance, one recent headline read “The myth of the climate moderate: There isn’t a middle ground between a livable and unlivable world.” Another says that “Bipartisanship is dead, and centrists killed it.”
Proponents of this movement claim that centrist climate solutions are not effective, and lawmakers should reject compromise and turn to rapid and radical policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This view is not only antithetical to American policymaking, but it also threatens to alienate people from engaging in the climate and energy space, stalling meaningful progress in the future. Alternatively, lawmakers and the American people should work across the political spectrum to enact policies and actions that bolster human flourishing and the health of the planet.
Dismissing collaboration as a vital part of the solution discovery process is a dangerous step towards technocracy. Opposing all bipartisan actions and electing instead to exclusively support radical, hyper-partisan solutions demonstrates a gross misunderstanding of public policy and tradeoffs. Tradeoffs are central to policymaking, including climate policy. A fully renewable electric grid, for instance, would theoretically emit zero carbon emissions, but the impact on consumers and businesses, who would be subject to less reliable power, would be significant. Moreover, it’s unrealistic to suggest that renewable energy alone will be able to meet the world’s growing energy demands.
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Climate change has the potential to cause great harm and create new risks. Climate policy responses also have the potential to cause great harm, for instance, by restricting access to affordable, reliable energy or by trapping people in poverty. One study by researchers from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that “In terms of reduced global agricultural production, the impacts of mitigation policies are larger than the negative impacts due to climate change effects in 2050.” Bipartisan negotiations are necessary for recognizing these tradeoffs and preventing cures that are worse than the disease.
Radical policymaking also runs counter to the will of the American people. A 2023 Pew Research poll found “Nearly seven-in-ten Americans (69%) favor the U.S. taking steps to become carbon neutral by 2050.” However, of that majority, 67% favor a moderate policy approach and are against the complete removal of oil, coal, and natural gas. Polls have consistently shown that most American households are not willing to pay much to combat climate change, demonstrating the need to find policies that improve economic well-being while mitigating emissions. These findings also highlight the bipartisan commitment to finding solutions but they do not point towards a general alarmism or desire for costly radical change with low political support.
The claim that climate action cannot be a bipartisan issue also insinuates that climate concerns and solutions to mitigate risk belong to a certain worldview. Not only is this viewpoint elitist, but it has also been proven incorrect by the growing consortium of conservative groups and lawmakers who are actively engaging in the climate space. The Conservative Climate Caucus, for instance, founded by Representative John Curtis (R-UT) has grown to over 80 members in 2023 and is now one of the largest caucuses in Congress. And, of the 55 climate and environmental bills passed within the last 5 years, nearly 60% were introduced by Republicans.
Additionally, some of the most consequential climate and energy policies that have been recently enacted enjoyed broad bipartisan support. The Energy Act of 2020 authorized several research and development programs at the Department of Energy to advance next-generation energy technologies such as advanced nuclear power. Meanwhile, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provided funding not only to energy R&D programs like Regional Hydrogen Hubs, but to adaptation and mitigation efforts too. Bipartisanship has, and will continue to be, an effective tool for accelerating innovation and bolstering our environment and economy.
Good legislation must be the product of debate, cooperation, and consideration of opposing perspectives. The dismissal of nearly one-half of Americans in the name of correcting their ignorance is a gross misstep and is detrimental to healthy lawmaking. It is a time-honored tenet of American governance that the proposing party must work to prove that the bill is worthy of the American people and can have long-lasting approval and execution.
Our founders argued that compromise – what we could call bipartisanship today – was essential to self-governance. In the Federalist 67, Alexander Hamilton writes that without compromise “society would soon become a general scene of anarchy, and the world a desert.”
It is a dangerous precedent to allow alarmism to justify the exclusion of decision-makers based on worldview or political stance. Alarmism is not the way to incentivize change. Neither is denial. Change happens somewhere in the middle. Exaggeration and dramatization hurt the scientific credibility of climate research, further alienating deniers and making concerned citizens feel used. Hope is the better motivator. Practical solutions will speak to reasonable people and have bipartisan support. Cross-aisle cooperation is the path toward long-lasting acceptance of environmental stewardship and climate responsibility that is consistent with human flourishing and upward mobility.