ZEUS: What's missing in the Democrats' 547-page climate plan

Target dates, lack of votes or bi-partisan backing, lack of progressive backing, ensure at least another year of inaction. And that's only if they win.

(David Callaway is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Callaway Climate Insights. He is the former president of the World Editors Forum, Editor-in-Chief of USA Today and MarketWatch, and CEO of TheStreet Inc.)

SAN FRANCISCO (Callaway Climate Insights) — As an election year rallying cry, the Democrats’ massive climate action plan, released with typical Washington fanfare this week, stakes out the sustainable ground just as most Americans are calling for legislators to do more to address the global warming crisis.

As an actual plan, it satisfies nobody.

Republicans blast it as an expensive collection of historical Democratic grievances. Progressives say it doesn’t go far enough, lacking the ambition of Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez’s Green New Deal last year, particularly in not addressing fossil fuel production such as fracking. Half the states are already implementing more advanced plans anyway, and international climate experts wonder why there is no mention of coordinated cooperation for what is, after all, a global problem.

My main issue is the target dates. All building emissions to be carbon net zero by 2030. All vehicles sold to be electric by 2035. Total electricity industry to be net zero by 2040. Total net zero carbon emissions by 2050. These are fine ambitions, but like every corporate pledge we’ve seen recently, they require almost no immediate change.

Obviously, you can’t just turn everything off at once. But the absence of any immediate measures, any bi-partisan discussions or even attempts to talk, simply assigns the plan to the great and growing pile of Congressional ambitions that are more press conference than conference committee.

The emphasis on protecting low-income communities is understandable and applaudable given the timing, and could actually be a separate bill in and of itself. But the lack of detail on carbon pricing, carbon markets, or anything that might help fossil fuel companies make the transition hurts its chance as well.

The extension of tax credits on clean-air technologies like solar and wind is very welcome, but again, still no more than just a proposal.

At best, this is a document to wave during the election and bang the president over the head with time and time again. It dares him to set out his own plan, though leaves a fairly low bar for him to do so. If Sen. Joe Biden does indeed win in November, it will be a nice blueprint for future legislation, but even that might be difficult unless the Republicans are driven completely from Capitol Hill in an election stampede.

Everybody realizes it can go nowhere as long as Donald Trump is president. But it is still important to have something out there to point to. Governments in Europe, which are today enacting green recovery legislation, and in Asia, where the progress is decidedly behind, need the U.S. to take a leadership role on climate again. But the plan was particularly weak on how the U.S. would do that, at least with respect to some of the global institutions run from Washington.

There is a nod to helping pay for climate refugees, but nowhere near the amount we can expect to need over the next decade. The immediate problems of poorer countries, who suffer the brunt of climate change just like poorer communities do, is the one that could most use U.S. attention, especially when it comes to financial resources.

It’s a political document. In an election year. It serves that purpose well. In a country ravaged by Covid-19, a population turning on each other, it will not be a priority come Election Day. But it is something to build off and long overdue from a global perspective. The climate change story, as I’ve said before, is an immigration story.

Action is needed now, but we won’t get it from this plan.

The year 2050 is as far from today as 1990. Think of how different the world was back then. Indeed, most of the climate damage we’ve done to the world has occurred since then. The date, used by most countries now, conveniently puts the year of expected net zero carbon beyond the career reach of most of us in the workforce today.

We can do better than that. We need plans that reward and incentivize innovators and entrepreneurs now. Plans that create tax credits and extend financing to the group that sees this as an immediate problem. Because it doesn’t take a press conference to look around us and realize to nobody’s surprise that it is.

Above, fireworks in Washington, D.C. Photo: Tim Kelley/flickr.