By Jasmin Melvin
Heavy-handed approaches targeting a fast-tracked path to deep decarbonization continue to be a tough sale in rural America. But power sector observers said they are increasingly seeing conservatives embrace clean energy and even climate-friendly policies as droughts, floods and extreme weather take their toll on rural communities.
"Rural America sees climate as a problem," though they are more likely to refer to it as disturbing weather patterns than climate change, former Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota said at a recent event held by the think tank Third Way. "Because they don't see this as a crisis — they see this as a challenge and a problem — their solutions are not as bold" and they are not willing to entertain actions they believe would be disruptive to the economy or raise energy prices, she said.
Calls for all-out bans on fracking or other fossil fuel development, for instance, are not going to get buy-in from rural communities and will make those areas ground zero for pushback, said Heitkamp, founder of the nonprofit One Country, which aims to help Democrats engage with rural voters. "But with that said, you get them [onboard] by showing them the economic development benefit … of making this change."
One example already seen has been the growing popularity of wind turbines among farmers and ranchers who have been able to tap into an additional revenue source.
Providing a sense of economic security will be key to gaining support in rural America, Heitkamp said. "And if we can do that, I think we can bring the entire country along on a very aggressive climate policy that will get us to net zero."
If former Vice President Joe Biden were to win the White House, the former Senator said climate change would likely take a front seat in economic renewal plans and climate policy would become a more prominent aspect of dialogue on Capitol Hill. "Republicans aren't completely stupid," she said. "They're looking at the polling and they're realizing if they're going to survive into the next generation of voters, they have to have a plan and they have to be cooperative."
'Go big on climate'
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said earlier in the month that Congress would "go big on climate" with a comprehensive bill if Democrats are able to secure a majority in the Senate and the House remains under Democratic control following the November elections. Whitehouse lamented failing to push a 2009 House-passed cap-and-trade climate bill through when Democrats held the White House and Senate, and he promised "that will never happen again."
Whitehouse added that Democrats would strive to find a bipartisan path forward for advancing climate legislation. "If Republican participation becomes an excuse to slow walk things … [and] put sand in the gears …, then we're going to have to jettison Republican participation," he said. "It would be unfortunate, but it'll be much less unfortunate than failing to act at all. So bipartisan if we can, partisan if we must."
But without a trifecta of Democratic leadership in the White House, Senate and House, any climate legislation faces an uphill battle.
For instance, if Democrats take the Senate but President Donald Trump is elected to a second term, "you may see some power sector-focused bills … in 2021," but whether Trump would "support or object to those packages, I think, is an open question," Sasha Mackler, energy project director at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said in an interview.
"I'm optimistic that a second Trump term could support some targeted climate initiatives," Mackler said, pointing to Trump's announcement in January that the U.S. would join the World Economic Forum’s One Trillion Trees initiative.
That initiative aims to grow and conserve 1 trillion trees worldwide by 2030. Trump signed an executive order on Oct. 13 directing the formation of the U.S. One Trillion Trees Interagency Council to further the federal government's contribution to the global effort.
Mackler added that infrastructure and innovation were areas of common ground between the Trump administration and those on the left looking to support an energy transition, and a bill structured to highlight those aspects could gain traction with both parties.
Merrill Matthews, resident scholar at the Institute for Policy Innovation, offered that carbon sequestration and small modular nuclear reactors also presented an avenue for Republicans to embrace clean energy.
Trump himself, from a business perspective, could tout those "innovative ways to reduce or minimize carbon emissions without necessarily giving a nod to environmentalists who have supported solar and wind," Matthews said in an interview.
"If you're trying to find a way to distinguish yourself from your opponent and there's an issue that you know people are embracing, then you embrace the issue but you do it from a different approach," Matthews said. "That way, you're not giving them any credit for what they're doing. In fact, you can criticize them for what they're doing because even though the goal is the same, you're taking what you argue to be a better, more efficient way of doing it."