Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Clean Energy Is Suddenly Less Polarizing Than You Think

My whole adult life, the work of fighting climate change was understood as the job of the blue team in America. The red team, we knew, just wasn’t going to play ball.

President George W. Bush abandoned the Kyoto Protocol, former Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma “disproved” warming by bringing a snowball onto the Senate floor, and President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris accords at a Rose Garden ceremony that began with “Summertime” playing in the background. Periodic stories about red-state mayors pushing rooftop solar by invoking libertarian values and Bayou fishermen lamenting the loss of their land while studiously avoiding mention of sea-level rise were two varieties of the same climate joke. Survey after survey showed the partisan divide on climate was among the largest of any polled political issue. In the aftermath of the signing of the historic Inflation Reduction Act last August, when I asked Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington whether the bill might be changing that partisan dynamic, he replied, “Absolutely not.”

I don’t want to be naïve, or to echo the predictions of previous climate Pollyannas to say that Republican cooperation is right around the corner. At the highest level, it obviously isn’t, and the work of decarbonization remains overwhelmingly a Democratic effort. But the partisan landscape may be finally changing, indeed somewhat significantly.

Before the Biden presidency, the last time a Democratic president advanced a major chunk of the liberal legislative agenda with no Republican votes, you may remember, it was Obamacare, and Republicans spent the better part of a decade screaming about it. This time, the Senate squeaked the I.R.A. past the finish line barely three months before the midterms, and yet it was almost invisible on the campaign trail in the weeks that followed. The biggest piece of climate legislation in American history produced no discernible backlash, and there was practically no fear-mongering talk of a Green New Deal or climate socialism to come, no mention of the end of airline travel or burger bans, and not even any meaningful grandstanding about environmentalism run amok beyond some griping over gas prices. In the new Congress, some Republicans have been talking about targeting a few pieces of the I.R.A., and the House Energy and Commerce Committee has requested a kind of regular I.R.A. audit from the Department of Energy. But with Obamacare, remember, they voted to repeal it in full more than 50 times.

One big reason for that is the design of the bill itself, which was both smaller in size and more targeted in scope than many of the original Green New Deal proposals. In fact, it was designed in part to blunt backlash. That was done by making the bill almost all carrots and almost no sticks, by sticking to a “technology neutral” framework that frustrated climate hawks and pleased energy centrists like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and by whittling it down to a core set of tax incentives rather than dressing it up with objectionable giveaways.

But another even more obvious reason is money. The Inflation Reduction Act is a spigot of spending designed to produce a decarbonization boom — indeed, while it is often described as a $370 billion piece of legislation, that analysis seems likely to significantly underestimate the ultimate size of its tax incentives, which could stretch much closer to $1 trillion with rapid renewable development. A hugely disproportionate share of that money is going to places we think of as politically and culturally “red” but which, thanks to their abundance of land and wind and sun, we may want to start thinking of also as “green.”

How disproportionate? Between the signing of the I.R.A. and Jan. 31, announcements of the largest clean-energy investments have been in Georgia and Idaho, followed by Tennessee, then Michigan, then South Carolina and Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, Kansas, Nevada and Arizona. Between now and 2027, Texas is expected to add almost twice as much solar capacity as California. In expected development, Ohio, Nevada, Indiana and Florida rank third, fourth, fifth and sixth.

A changing climate, a changing world

Climate change around the world: In “Postcards From a World on Fire,” 193 stories from individual countries show how climate change is reshaping reality everywhere, from dying coral reefs in Fiji to disappearing oases in Morocco and far, far beyond.

The role of our leaders: Writing at the end of 2020, Al Gore, the 45th vice president of the United States, found reasons for optimism in the Biden presidency, a feeling perhaps borne out by the passing of major climate legislation. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been criticisms. For example, Charles Harvey and Kurt House argue that subsidies for climate capture technology will ultimately be a waste.

The worst climate risks, mapped: In this feature, select a country, and we’ll break down the climate hazards it faces. In the case of America, our maps, developed with experts, show where extreme heat is causing the most deaths.

What people can do: Justin Gillis and Hal Harvey describe the types of local activism that might be needed, while Saul Griffith points to how Australia shows the way on rooftop solar. Meanwhile, small changes at the office might be one good way to cut significant emissions, writes Carlos Gamarra.

All told, according to an analysis by the Rocky Mountain Institute, the Inflation Reduction Act could deliver, on average, nearly twice as much subsidy per capita to Republican states as Democratic ones. (This from a bill, remember, that got precisely zero Republican votes.) The three biggest per capita recipients would be Wyoming, North Dakota and Mr. Manchin’s West Virginia. Texas could receive $132 billion in subsidies, the most of any state. Florida could receive $62 billion. New York would get only $36 billion. “The I.R.A. has transformed the landscape in a staggering way,” Aaron Brickman of the Rocky Mountain Institute told The Guardian’s Oliver Milman, in a report from Georgia headlined “Republicans in the U.S. ‘battery belt’ embrace Biden’s climate spending.”

The story is bigger than the “battery belt.” “5 years ago the general mood in Houston toward decarbonization bordered on open hostility,” the Texas venture capitalist John Arnold recently tweeted. “Today, I’m more likely to overhear a conversation at the coffee shop about an energy transition deal than one in oil and gas.”

This is not just the doing of the I.R.A. To a degree hardly anyone but wonks really appreciates, green energy in the United States was a heavily red-state phenomenon before the legislation even hit Mr. Biden’s desk in August. Already, Texas produces more renewable energy than anywhere else in the country — in fact, almost twice as much as California, the second biggest producer. In third, fourth and fifth place are Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas. Judged by percentage of overall power use, the most prolific source of renewables is Iowa, followed by South Dakota. Then, after Vermont, come Kansas, Oklahoma, Maine and New Mexico.

When it comes to non-hydro renewable power, Texas is today producing more than the entire Midwest. It doubled its solar capacity from 2019 to 2020 and almost did so again from 2020 to 2021. You may think of Texas as hostile to green energy, given not just its oil industry but also its recent grid problems and widespread blackouts and the grandstanding of its fossil-friendly, climate-skeptic governor. But on the ground, the state is probably the biggest green-energy success story in the country.

Zoom in even closer than the state level and the partisan picture is even more striking: According to an analysis by American Clean Power, there has been a huge wave of major new utility-scale wind, solar and battery projects announced between the passage of the I.R.A. and the end of the year. Of those far enough along to have already have confirmed locations, more than 80 percent were in congressional districts held by Republicans. Eighty percent!

There is more to decarbonization than renewables, of course, and conservative cultural hostility may prove trickier to navigate when it comes to other priorities: grid improvements, E.V. charging stations, regulations on new construction and retrofitting homes, for instance; the gas industry lobbying against electrification; and more broadly the need to ultimately retire fossil fuel use rather than just supplement it with renewable power. But if six months ago liberals worried that federal progress would be stonewalled by activist Republican state treasurers and attorneys general, who scrambled to “blacklist” banks and investors pushing the green transition, there are already clear signs that effort has backfired in even the reddest of states. Just since the fall, such policies were beaten back by state legislatures in North Dakota, Indiana, Mississippi and Kentucky. In North Dakota, the vote was 90-3.

These stories are probably not disconnected: When the government is pouring money into your backyard, it’s hard to play the NIMBY for long. Which is why even if 90-3 votes aren’t coming to D.C. anytime soon, the disengagement of the Republican Party seems to me less like a result of grass roots pressure and inescapable culture-war conflict on decarbonization and more like a sign that federal elites are simply lagging behind their states. Perhaps their voters, too.

Things to Read

In Britain, where coal demand has fallen to its lowest level since 1757, according to Carbon Brief, more than 200 gigawatts of renewable capacity are awaiting connection to the grid, according to BloombergNEF, several times the country’s current operating capacity.

A study in Nature Climate Change finds that entirely independent of fossil-fuel use, food production alone could add 1 degree Celsius of global warming by 2100.

A new global review suggests that just one-thousandth of 1 percent of the world’s population is breathing air with levels of PM 2.5 pollution that the World Health Organization considers “safe.”

Mayor Eric Adams of New York suggests that in an effort to stymie crime, shopkeepers should actually require customers to remove masks upon entering their stores.

The United States is far behind its peer countries in returning to the office.

A Twitter thread on the emerging aesthetic of A.I. tools like DALL-E: a bit of Magritte, with extra emphasis on uncanny illumination from within, since “digital images are images of light, displayed individually on mobile screens. The more they radiate and draw you in, the more successful they are.”

Since I started this newsletter last May, I’ve spent as much time exploring the Covid pandemic and its aftermath as I have on climate. More recently, I’ve published several pieces on the lessons we’ve learned, and failed to learn, from this pandemic for the next one. So I want to alert readers who’ve appreciated that coverage to a new limited-run newsletter from my colleague Alexandra Sifferlin on precisely that question — please sign up!

David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells), a writer for Opinion and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth.”

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