Video: How cheap renewables and rising activism are shifting climate politics

The plummeting costs of renewables, the growing strength of the clean energy sector, and the rising influence of activists have begun to shift the politics of climate action in the US, panelists argued during MIT Technology Review’s annual EmTech conference last week.

Those forces allowed President Joe Biden to put climate change at the center of his campaign and helped build momentum behind the portfolio of clean energy policies and funding measures in the infrastructure and reconciliation packages under debate in the US Congress, said Bill McKibben, the climate author and founder of the environmental activist group 350.org, during the September 30 session.

You can view the full video of the session below:

The measures will mark the first major climate laws in the nation if they pass in something close to their current form. Most notably, they include the Clean Electricity Performance Program, which uses payments and penalties to encourage utilities to boost their share of electricity from carbon-free sources (read our earlier explainer here).

Other speakers on the panel, titled Cleaning Up the Power Sector, advised on the creation of that program. They included Leah Stokes, an associate professor focused on energy and climate policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara; and Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor and energy systems researcher at Princeton University.

“A writer, a political scientist, and an energy modeler walk into an MIT panel …”

Julian Brave Noisecat

They argued during the session that the legislation, designed to ensure that 80% of the nation’s electricity comes from clean sources by 2030, is more effective and politically feasible than competing approaches, including the carbon taxes favored by many economists.

“When … we say to people, ‘We’re going to make it more expensive for you to use an essential good, which is energy,’ that isn’t very popular,” Stokes said. “That theory of political change has run up against the reality of income inequality in this country.”

“The different paradigm is to say, ‘Rather than making it more expensive to use fossil fuels, let’s help make it cheaper to use the clean stuff,’” she added.

But it remains to be seen whether the clean electricity measure and the other climate provisions will pass, and in what form. Even some Democratic senators in the narrowly divided Congress have pushed back on what they portray as excessive spending in the bills.

For all the progress on climate issues, well-funded and politically influential utility and fossil-fuel interests continue to impede efforts to overhaul energy systems at the speed and scale required, stressed Julian Brave Noisecat, vice president of policy and strategy at Data for Progress, who moderated the session.

“These interests are remarkably entrenched and remain so despite significant grassroots opposition,” he said.

If legislators defang the key climate provisions, it will slow the shift to clean energy in the US and undermine the negotiating power of Biden’s climate czar, John Kerry, in the UN climate conference early next month. Should the US fail to enact aggressive new climate measures, “rest assured that will limit everybody else’s ambition, too,” McKibben said.