"Drill, baby, drill?"
Really? Still? A dozen years after former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin popularized that pro-fossil fuel chant during the 2008 campaign, it continues to effectively summarize the GOP's position toward energy and climate change.
President Trump made that clear at Thursday night's presidential debate when he pounced on Joe Biden's pledge to "transition from the oil industry" to address climate change. "That's a big statement," Trump said. "Because basically what he's saying is [that] he is going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that Texas? Will you remember that Pennsylvania, Oklahoma?" The post-debate reaction of the Trump campaign made clear that it felt the former vice president had made a major gaffe.
Biden later clarified that he only wants to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies rather than ban the fuels themselves through government edict. His $2 trillion climate plan calls for the U.S. to have "a 100 percent clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050" and a carbon-free power sector by 2035. Key to his proposal is a big investment — "twice the investment of the Apollo program" — including clean energy technology such as advanced nuclear and carbon capture.
But why spend those trillions if you think global warming isn't really a problem? The president apparently doesn't, as he has challenged the science of climate change in much the same way he has attacked the recommendations of epidemiologists during this catastrophic pandemic.
The big divide on climate isn't just among Washington politicians. A Pew Research Center survey from last June found that 72 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners thought humans contribute "a great deal" to climate change, while only 22 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners thought the same. In other words, an issue that should be broadly bipartisan and technocratic is treated by the American political process as a deeply partisan wedge issue for culture warriors, much like abortion, internet censorship, and, to America's great and everlasting shame, wearing a mask during a pandemic.
It doesn't have to be this way. One could imagine an Earth-2 version of Trump — okay, maybe Earth-3 or Earth-17 — making an entirely different argument. When his Democratic debate opponent in that reality talked about a future decarbonized economy, alt-Trump might have asked, "Why aren't we there already, Joe? Why isn't the U.S. economy already powered by clean, beautiful nuclear power, Joe? Well, I'll tell you why: It's the fault of your friends in the environmental movement who hate nuclear power. Always have, always will. Like AOC. Like little Greta Thunberg. But I will make a nuclear-powered future of cheap, abundant energy a reality! I won't let China get there first!"
This isn't NeverTrumper fanfiction. It's pretty much the argument that's long been made by Trump's friend and outside adviser Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire. In a 2015 New York Times op-ed, for instance, Thiel wrote about the need for a "new atomic age" if America was going to get serious about fighting climate change. Actually, he added, it should already be here. "[W]e already had a practical plan back in the 1960s to become fully carbon-free without any need of wind or solar: nuclear power," he wrote. "But after years of cost overruns, technical challenges and the bizarre coincidence of an accident at Three Mile Island and the 1979 release of the Hollywood horror movie ‘The China Syndrome,' about a hundred proposed reactors were canceled. If we had kept building, our power grid could have been carbon-free years ago."
But while the Trump administration is pro-nuclear — just this month, the Energy Department approved a $1.4 billion grant to help offset the costs of tests for utilities that might buy advanced reactors — the GOP is hardly lined up behind a bold, expansive vision for nuclear power. This is partly because of its rejection of climate change as a real crisis. But it's also because of Trump playing to a GOP base that would rather own the libs on Facebook than support serious policymaking in Washington. Trump himself really has no second-term agenda, as was plainly evident in the debate. And why would the president talk about future jobs in clean energy — or the future at all, really — when he sold himself to working-class voters via an economic and cultural nostalgia for the America of the 1950s and 1960s?
Of course America needs to transition to a post-fossil fuel future. But rather than finding its own policy approach to the issue — pro-economic growth, pro-technology — the GOP continues to cede it to Democrats. It's time to move beyond "drill, baby, drill."
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