Cracking a Frozen Debate: Where’s the Political Consensus on Clean Energy Policy?

Thursday, April 27, 2017 - 1:30 PM to 3:00 PM
G-11 Dirksen Senate Office Building
First Street NE
Washington, DC 20510

New research from George Mason and Yale shows that Americans understand very well that our energy system needs to get cleaner and less carbon-intensive—and they agree in even greater numbers that there are smart ways to make that happen. ITIF hosted an event to discuss this new research and practical steps the United States can take to foster clean-energy innovation.

Ed Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication (Mason 4C) at George Mason University, kicked off the event by discussing new research from Mason 4C and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

The research consists of a nationally representative survey conductedjust after the 2016 presidential election. The survey data shows that Americans broadly support a transition to a cleaner and less carbon-intensive energy system. According to Maibach, Americans across the political spectrum strongly support modernizing America’s energy infrastructure and making investments to scale up renewable energies. When asked to rank these actions against other infrastructure priorities, Americans ranked energy infrastructure modernization and scaling-up renewable energies third and fourth below the rehabilitation of roads and bridges and improving water systems.

Americans also agree that the United Should be using more clean energy. In fact, Maibach pointed out that this finding is true across the political spectrum: 74 percent of conservative Republicans and 88 percent of liberal Democrats agree. However, when asked whether the United States should be using less fossil fuels, Maibach observed that Republicans skewed slightly toward disagreement. Maibach also found high levels of support across the political spectrum for more specific policy proposals, including utilizing public lands to produce renewable energy, funding clean-energy research and development, and tax rebates for efficient and electric vehicles.

Maibach then turned to areas of disagreement. A minority of Republicans, and only 14 percent of conservative Republicans, think that climate change should be a high priority for Congress, whereas a large majority of Democrats across all ideological categories express support. Conservative Republicans part company with moderate Republicans and Democrats on the question of whether a transition to renewable energy would be good for the U.S. economy. According to Maibach, a majority of conservative Republicans feel that the transition would be harmful to the economy. A majority of liberal and moderate Republicans, along with Democrats, agree that such a transition would be beneficial to the economy.

Finally, Maibach summarized polls commissioned by ClearPath, a nonprofit focused on conservative clean energy solutions. The research found that voters believe that clean energy will lead to healthier and cleaner air, stimulate innovation, and break America’s dependence on foreign sources of energy. Furthermore, a hypothetical candidate who articulated these three benefits received stronger support than a competing candidate with a mainstream liberal clean-energy platform.

Rich Powell, executive director at ClearPath, emphasized the strong public support for clean energy that exists across the political spectrum. Powell argued that, due to its popularity, lawmakers should engage in more prominent and frequent discussions about clean energy. Powell also urged lawmakers to embrace both basic and applied research and initiatives that support the deployment of clean-energy innovations or as Powell put it: getting innovations “off the shelf and out of the lab.”

ITIF Senior Fellow David Hart agreed, noting that, while closer-to-market innovations should garner less public sector support as a share of each project’s budget compared to basic research. Public-private partnerships are needed to help technologies overcome scaling challenges and reach the market.

Robert Cowin, director of government affairs for the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, asserted that the United States must innovate its way out of climate change. It is political unfeasible to leverage regulatory pathways and clean-energy mandates. Cowin noted that the research shows that Americans understand that clean-energy innovation spurs new technologies and new industries and, in turn, economic growth. Even today, clean energy is a major, rapidly growing industry, and other countries, including China, stand to dominate unless the United States acts quickly in a technologically agnostic way.

However, Cowin noted that the discussion of clean-energy innovation is increasingly ideological. He argued that clean-energy advocates must refrain from politicizing certain clean-energy technologies and narrowing the U.S. energy options. Expanding on Cowin’s remarks, Hart emphasized that many things can go wrong between initial deployment and large-scale adoption, so a diverse portfolio of technology options are needed to manage risk. Furthermore, Hart observed that Americans want clean, cheap, and reliable energy, but how the United States meets those objectives is not important. Maibach agreed, noting that his research demonstrates that even Americans who disagree with the proposition of climate change embrace the health benefits of clean energy.

Americans support renewable energy and recognize the benefits of cleaner, healthier air, increased innovation, and greater energy independence. The bipartisan panel convened by ITIF is a microcosm of the broad support for renewable energy found across the United States. It’s clear from the panel that the United States must focus on facilitating a transition to cleaner and less carbon-intensive energy sources by supporting research, development, and deployment of new technologies. It is also important for stakeholders to abandon ideological opposition toward specific technologies and support expanding America’s portfolio of energy options. Plenty of practical ideas and widespread public support makes this as good a time as any to foster clean-energy innovation in the United States. 

04/27/2017 13:3004/27/2017 15:00America/New_YorkCracking a Frozen Debate: Where’s the Political Consensus on Clean Energy Policy?MM/DD/YYYY
Robert Cowin
Director of Government Affairs, Climate & Energy Program
Union of Concerned Scientists
David M. Hart
Senior Fellow
Information Technology and Innovation Foundation
Edward Maibach
Professor, Director; Center for Climate Change Communication
George Mason University
Rich Powell
Executive Director
Cracking a Frozen Debate: Where’s the Political Consensus on Clean Energy Policy?