Two interesting political subplots to the climate change debate: first, former vice president Joe Biden is showing that he’s serious about winning the presidency, which means steering a middle ground on the climate issue.
Second, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is showing that she is not serious about making the case for her green agenda, which means embracing her own marginalization.
Biden’s seriousness became evident when we learned that he is interested in carbon capture as a solution to climate change. As Reuters scooped on May 10, policy advisors in Biden’s circle, including former energy secretary Ernest Moniz, have argued that carbon capture—which this author wrote about for TAC two years ago—will prove to be an essential part of any economically plausible climate strategy. Which is to say, if Biden wants to recapture Trump states and thereby recapture the White House, he must run on a plausible platform.
And yet AOC, as she has become known, disagrees with Biden’s attempt at moderation. At a green rally on May 13, she declared, “I will be damned if the same politicians who refused to act are going to try to come back today and say we need a middle of the road approach to save our lives!”
In a typical election, victory is found in the middle. Yet, of course, AOC’s New York City district is not typical—the center there is on the left fringe of the country—and so it’s no wonder she feels no need to compromise. After all, her name won’t be on the national ballot in 2020. Why, one might even imagine that she doesn’t particularly want someone such as Biden to win in 2020, lest her brand of leftist provocation be smothered by a centrist Democrat in the White House.
And speaking of provocation, it’s hard to top this. On May 12, AOC tweeted a general attack on Republicans who have been sniping at her Green New Deal for months: “This is a technique of the GOP, to take dry humor + sarcasm literally and ‘fact check’ it. Like the ‘world ending in 12 years’ thing, you’d have to have the social intelligence of a sea sponge to think it’s literal.”
Oh. So now we’re told that AOC was just using “dry humor”—humor that those sodden Republicans couldn’t possibly fathom—when she said the end was nigh.
Yet in the interest of keeping the record straight—and for the benefit of those not hip to the latest lulz—we might recall her actual remarks on January 22. She certainly looked serious when she said, “The world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change.”
Indeed, as the Daily Caller pointed out, at least five Democratic presidential hopefuls seemed to take AOC’s words at least somewhat to heart.
Of course, it can be argued that anyone seeking national office ought to verify, as opposed to trust, what AOC has to say about climate. After all, her February rollout of the Green New Deal was a monumental fiasco, complete with misbegotten language about “farting cows” and welfare for those “unwilling to work.” Amidst public mirth and Democratic angst, AOC’s plan was soon withdrawn, and yet her flip explanation of what happened—“I definitely had a staffer who had a very bad day at work”—does not exactly fill one with confidence about her sense of quality control, to say nothing of her leadership.
So even as AOC continues to tweet that she is very serious about her Green New Deal, let’s turn to Biden, who has a real chance of being the Democratic nominee—and also the next president.
For the moment, Biden is getting hammered by the Left for not embracing the emerging Democratic orthodoxy that a true green will seek the total elimination of fossil fuels sometime soon, if not necessarily by 2030. Sample headline in The Washington Post: “Joe Biden’s baffling misread on climate change.” Yet even that Post article conceded that Biden is calculating that he can win the nomination without winning over every last leftist: “Biden’s aiming for the general election.”
Yes, that’s exactly what Biden is doing—he’s trying to win. And to that end, he and his advisors have recognized that activist social media is well to the left of the bulk of Democrats who actually vote.
In the meantime, there’s an emerging consensus that the only realistic way to deal with the issue of atmospheric carbon dioxide is to keep burning fossil fuels while also figuring out a way to keep the resulting CO2 out of the atmosphere. As we have seen, Biden appears to be onboard with that idea. And on the Republican side, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator John Barrasso, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, have argued for technological fixes for the carbon problem, including direct air capture. And as for the Trump administration, Rick Perry worked on carbon capture when he was governor of Texas, and continues to do so now that he is energy secretary.
Yes, there are still plenty of unresolved questions about climate change, such as the odd fact that the entire solar system is warming, not just the earth. And yet for now, in the practical world of split-the-difference politics, leaders are groping toward some sort of cautious incrementalism, in which removing CO2 is regarded as a challenge for scientists and engineers to solve, as opposed to an occasion for green crusaders to seek our collective salvation.
Indeed, shrewd Republicans have figured out that a massive carbon capture plan would not only save red state energy sources from being crimped, or even shut down, but also create a whole industry of carbon capture, with much of that, inevitably, in red rural areas. And if rich Democrats want to pay for that, Republicans should let them.
In fact, if the issue of climate change is simplified into a technical question, lots of intriguing solutions will present themselves. Recently, this author observed that low-tech trees are, in and of themselves, “carbon sinks.” Yes, our leafy friends eventually die, thus potentially releasing the carbon (a tree is about one sixth carbon), yet if the wood is preserved—in, say, building material—then the carbon sink continues. And more trees can be planted, more carbon captured.
The idea that Mother Nature could be a carbon sinking solution takes on additional dimensions as new kinds of innovation come to the fore. And sometimes, such innovation is happily serendipitous. For example, a company called Necternal, based in Idaho Falls, has long been working on what’s seemed like completely separate issues: the challenges of increasing crop yields and protecting adjoining waterways from the pollution of chemical runoff. Necternal concluded that traditional nitrogen/phosphorous/potassium fertilizers were part of the problem, because they “salted” the soil, making it harder and less porous. Such hardening not only worsened runoff, it also inhibited plants’ root growth.
As Necternal advisor Steve Milloy explained in an interview, a good answer is better fertilizer—made by guess-who—which keeps the soil softer and more water absorbent. In addition to increasing farm yields, Necternal believes it can show that its products enlarge root growth. And since the roots of a plant are often larger than the above-ground plant itself, that’s a lot of possible carbon sinking.
Milloy notes that in 2018, the United States emitted 5.2 gigatons of CO2. He calculates that more abundant growth in farms and forests, above and below ground, could sequester about 40 percent of that annual CO2 emission.
To be sure, that’s not the entirety of the carbon problem. Fortunately, science is increasingly focusing on solutions. Last month, Nature published a plan for turning air conditioners into carbon capture machines. How cool is that, pun intended?
The animal spirits of entrepreneurship, too, have been loosed: The New York Times recently wrote about a carbon capture conference in San Francisco, and if you missed that, there’s another one coming up in Houston.
Given the ruthlessness of scientific competition and the randomness of economic fortune, there’s no assurance that any of these ideas, or their investments, will pan out. Yet human history tells us that when there’s a problem, we’ll find a way to solve it. And we won’t need to abandon prosperity to find that solution.
In fact, by the time we get done building up new problem-solving industries, we’ll most likely find that we have even more prosperity.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.