Let’s say you’re a Republican who believes that climate change is a real problem, and that human activity is contributing to it. But you also believe the Democrats’ Green New Deal is a wildly unrealistic and politically untenable way to deal with the problem. What do you do?
Perhaps you do what Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander has done. You take advantage of the moment to propose a different strategy—still ambitious but more in the political mainstream, and with at least some hope of attracting bipartisan support.
To show he’s plenty serious about the magnitude of the problem, Mr. Alexander calls his strategy “A New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy,” after the crash program to develop a nuclear bomb during World War II, and proposes spending the next five years meeting 10 big challenges.
The Alexander initiative is noteworthy for a lot of reasons, not least because it illustrates the broader impact the Green New Deal has had on the climate-change debate. Some find the Green New Deal inspiring, others horrifying; either way it has served to ramp up the national debate.
Mr. Alexander readily acknowledges this ripple effect: “It created an irresistible opportunity for Republicans and moderate Democrats to come up with a better solution,” he says in an interview.
As even a casual observer knows by now, the Green New Deal is a stunningly ambitious proposal, put forward by Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York, to wean the U.S. off carbon fuels and the greenhouse gases they produce within a decade, while also guaranteeing millions of new jobs.
It’s actually more an aspiration than a specific plan. Among other things, it calls for using massive public investment to achieve 100% renewable energy. It also sets a goal of upgrading every building in America to “maximum energy efficiency.”
The costs would run into the hundreds of billions of dollars. President Trump enjoys mocking it, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put it up for a Senate vote specifically so Republicans could vote against it—and so Senate Democrats would have to go on the record either supporting it (opening them up to criticism from moderates back home) or opposing it (opening them up to criticism from their own party’s progressives). Most Democrats declined the honor and voted “present.”
Mr. Alexander’s alternative will be controversial as well, though for different reasons. His strategy essentially calls for using government research dollars and incentives to ramp up use of a whole range of alternative energy sources. In the Alexander vision, government does less of the doing and more of the igniting change.
The controversy comes because of the strategy’s reliance on nuclear energy as a key alternative to fossil fuels and the greenhouse gases they produce. Mr. Alexander calls for building at least one new advanced nuclear reactor in the next five years. He also calls for developing nuclear-fusion technology, which makes energy by combining rather than splitting atoms.
Beyond that, the strategy calls for expanded use of natural gas and development of carbon-capture technologies to trap and then reuse carbon-dioxide emissions. The other elements of the strategy are better batteries, greener buildings and cheaper solar energy.
A dramatic increase in government research funding is the key to the plan. The first step to make these clean-energy dreams come true, Mr. Alexander argues, is increased funding of advanced computing, which he calls the “first tool” of new technologies. The second is to double research funding for the Energy Department’s Office of Science and its national laboratories.
The strategy is designed to have a political effect almost the opposite of the Green New Deal’s. While the Green New Deal has proven politically divisive, the Alexander aim is to give lawmakers a path to bring them to the considerable common ground that he thinks actually exists now.
“If you get past arguing about whether climate change is real and ask, ‘Should we be significantly increasing funding for clean energy research?’ you probably will get 80% support in the Senate,” Mr. Alexander says.
And he thinks there is a growing prejudice toward action in both parties: “Some are not as willing to say so, but there are a number of Republicans who say climate change is real and we have to do something about it,” he says. “And there are a significant number of Democrats who have changed their position on nuclear power. It’s a significant shift.”
One inescapable problem for Republicans who want to act is that President Trump, the leader of their party, belittles climate change and the need to counter it. Still, Mr. Alexander argues that, overall, climate-change activism is a political winner: “I think certainly in a general election most voters expect you to have a reasonable response to climate change.”