Climate and Energy Policy and the 2020 Election for Congress

Climate and Energy Policy and the 2020 Election for Congress

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This memo offers Third Way’s assessment of the potential political benefits and risks to candidates in 2020 of adopting specific climate policies. We have organized the policy options most commonly championed by climate activists into two categories:

Green Light

Go ahead, as these policies should help generate base voter excitement and help with persuadable voters. From setting an ambitious 10-year goal for climate action to increasing the kind of popular energy innovation funding needed to meet these targets, candidates can support many additional climate policies that have the support of more left-leaning voters and can attract, or at the very least not alienate, their constituents.

Yellow Light

Use extreme caution, as these proposals could backfire if addressed incorrectly. Neither a renewables-only energy transition nor a ban on new pipeline construction, for example, will bolster support in districts whose workforces rely on traditional energy production or that still depend on oil and gas for power and heat. Nor will these policies build the kind of local coalition needed to win in November.

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Accelerate Unionization in the Energy Sector 

Unions have a heavy presence in the oil, gas, coal, and auto industries, along with steel, chemicals, and other manufacturing sectors, particularly in the Midwest. It's critical to show working families that they will have access to good, well-paying, safe jobs in any move to address climate change.

Issue It Solves: Helps mobilize constituents in union-heavy areas that are often wary of climate actions they perceive as hurting their sectors.

Plan: It’s crucial for unions to see themselves integrated into the development of our clean energy future. Funding for union-led apprenticeships, training, and certificate programs in clean energy will support good-paying jobs that equally value labor and the environment.1

Increased Innovation Funding with Clear Goals

Innovation funding provides a clear indication of a candidate’s commitment to using every solution to address climate change and getting money directly to the states and communities.2

Issue It Solves: Energy innovation funding has broad support: Eighty-six percent of voters (and 96% of Democrats) support funding more research into renewable energy,3 and 71% of US adults think it’s likely that technological advances can reduce most of the negative effects of climate change.4 This funding remains a top priority among both House and Senate Democrats, including New Democrats, who recognize the importance of supporting clean energy developers through the deployment process in order to recapture the global market for low-carbon technologies.5

Plan: Where possible, put dollar figures on proposals the candidate already supports and on additional policies she or he adopts. Emphasize that such clean energy spending can create jobs for all workers, including new and existing union members.6

Create a Climate, Conservation, and Resilience Corps

The goal of the original Civilian Conservation Corps was to put Americans to work in a time of widespread unemployment. Today’s voters face a similarly bleak job market, so consider proposing a new body focused on climate, conservation, and resilience. This could galvanize younger voters in particular. The idea for a revived corps program resurged in several 2020 presidential campaigns: Warren and Sanders both proposed a reinstated, modern Civilian Conservation Corps;7 Inslee called for a Climate Conservation Corps.8

Issue It Solves: As districts across America hemorrhage jobs, a corps would offer good-paying opportunities for young Americans and the unemployed in revitalizing our landscapes and building the infrastructure of the future. The candidate could discuss the types of local jobs and redevelopment a Corps would support in a given community (e.g. nearby brownfield redevelopment, coastal or wetland restoration, home lead removal, tree planting, retrofitting buildings, and constructing resilient roads and bridges).

Plan: Support a federal program that would employ thousands of unemployed Americans seeking work and pay for their housing and living expenses as they protect American landscapes and build resilient infrastructure for future generations. The program should focus on hiring in communities in or near the jobs the corps supports and should ensure that people of color benefit from this initiative.

Reduction in Non-GHG Pollutants

Before the pandemic struck, tens of thousands of Americans were already dying annually from air pollution.9 The pandemic has laid bare exactly how pollution can drive up vulnerabilities, particularly in communities of color. Focusing on reducing non-greenhouse gas air pollutants is a win-win among younger voters, suburban women, and voters of color.

Issue It Solves: Communities of color have long been under-represented on climate and environmental issues. The severity of the pandemic and economic crisis will exacerbate these failings of government ahead of the election.

Plan: This is an issue that Democrats have long led on, championing clean air laws for decades and introducing legislation that would help students in schools located in heavily polluted areas or require states to develop plans for asthma control, for instance.10

Environmental Justice

As the New Democrats have made clear, climate change only adds to the social and political problems we face.11 While most campaigns now make at least some mention of environmental justice, there’s risk involved if this reference does not include much detail on EJ issues. This is even more critical amid the pandemic.

Issue It Solves:  Talking candidly about the need to combat environmental injustice is an opportunity to shore up support with communities of color and poorer communities, who have historically borne the brunt of air, water, and land pollution. Groups like the Sunrise Movement have also emphasized the importance on environmental justice.12

Plan: New Democrats already prioritize the health of frontline communities as we shift toward clean energy.13 Campaigns should consider holding virtual environmental justice events, with a star list of speakers and participants. And they should support funding for EJ projects and pledge other changes, such as mandating by law that the EPA’s EJ office is not housed under the administrator’s office.

Set an Ambitious 10-Year Goal

Addressing the climate crisis is a real opportunity to create many new jobs and businesses and improve our quality of life. Making our economy more resilient against the impacts of climate change will require us to train workers in new careers and make investments in all clean energy technologies, so that our energy transition protects our most vulnerable citizens.

Issue It Solves:  This is a way to address environmentalists’ position that there is “no ‘middle of the road’ approach to a crisis” and that we need to make up for lost time, so adopting this goal would earn goodwill with those who want strong, immediate, sustained action.14

Plan: New Democrats recognize that the most effective climate policies endure political cycles, span all economic sectors, and have clear goals;15 candidates can develop an ambitious set of goals based on New Democrat proposals. A 10-year target can lay out reachable stretch goals for emissions reductions and technological advancements across the power, transportation, industrial, building, and agricultural sectors, along with policy plans for how to realize those goals.

Power Sector

Clean Electricity Standard

As electricity meets an increasing proportion of our energy needs, our consumption could increase from between 60% to 110% by 2050.16 That new power should come from clean energy sources, and Clean Electricity Standards can support the development and continued operation of these technologies.  

Issue It Solves: Third Way polling has found that a clean energy transition is more popular among Democrats than a renewable-only transition.17 It’s also grounded in facts – a renewables-only transition is nearly impossible – and it won’t alienate voters rely on oil, gas, or heavy industry. At least 30 states have a mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standard, some of which are inclusive of non-renewable clean energy technologies.18

Plan: We need to make sure that new power comes from clean energy. 0x50 provides sufficient flexibility in how we would reduce emissions. New Democrats have endorsed New Mexico Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Lujan’s Clean Energy Standard Act, which would create a federal Clean Energy Standard.19


Buyback or Trade-In of Gas-Powered Vehicles

Auto workers and dealerships are struggling to make ends meet amid a pandemic that has decimated car sales. A buyback policy would promote both new auto sales and the American workers who can manufacture the clean vehicles to be traded.

Issue It Solves:  This policy would help ensure that people in rural areas, where fleet electrification and public transit are more scarce, feel included in a transitioning transportation sector.20

Plan: Schumer’s Clean Cars for America proposal would provide a cash voucher to Americans to trade in their gas-powered cars for clean vehicles.21

Domestic Manufacturing of EVs

The UAW knows it’s well-positioned to keep active in an electrified transportation sector but recognizes we need “strong, forward-looking industrial policy” to do so.22 That starts by ensuring the EV auto market stays at home, not in China or Europe.

Issue It Solves: Broadens support in auto union households and builds on UAW’s endorsement. This is particularly critical in Michigan where, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 181,000 people worked in motor vehicle manufacturing and on bodies, trailers and parts last year.23

Plan: Trump excluded the UAW from his “economic reopening” advisory group.24 In contrast, Democrats would help re-tool existing factories and build new ones to make the United States a clean vehicle hub of the future.25

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The Green New Deal

Republicans want to turn the climate debate fully into part of the culture war by portraying it as a decision between traditional values and an out-of-touch, “socialist” Green New Deal agenda that would further destroy the economy and upend people’s way of life. Unfortunately, the fact that the Green New Deal remains a vaguely defined set of principles has made it easy to be cherry-picked and distorted into something that is politically toxic. Even supporting the platform solely in principle is politically fraught. Candidates should instead define aggressive climate action for themselves, in line with the best available science and expert guidance.  Below is an examination of the Green New Deal elements that campaigns should be most wary of including.

10-12 Years to Full Transition (Net-Zero by 2030)

Scientists in the IPCC have not minced words: We need to reach net-zero climate pollution by 2050 at the latest if we are to contain global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.26 That’s the timeline New Democrats have endorsed and that candidates should stick with to avoid feeding right-wing attacks.27 We can support fast, concerted, lasting climate action up to and beyond 2050, developing all the technologies we still need along the way and making sure we protect jobs throughout the transition. By contrast, committing to net-zero by 2030 would mean (and be portrayed as) getting rid of every gasoline-powered car, truck, and SUV, and forcing enormous costs on every business, manufacturer, and farm to replace anything that runs on fossil fuels or emits a greenhouse gas. While this would raise alarms in the industrial-heavy Midwest, it would also be used to scare suburban and rural voters who rely on their (predominately gas-powered) SUVs, trucks, and cars for everyday life and particularly now do not want to be forced to buy a new vehicle or pay more for anything.

Politics: Candidates should be aspirational but based firmly in science and recommendations of experts, arguing that we must zero-out our emissions by 2050 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, but stipulating that hitting even that target will require ambitious action that doesn’t leave workers and jobs hanging in the balance. Telling voters that they can magically wean the US from emissions by 2030 is just selling a dangerous pipedream.


The IPCC has made clear that we need every clean energy technology to bring our emissions down to net-zero, including carbon capture and storage and nuclear energy. Moreover, nuclear is critical not only to meeting our clean energy goals but to our national security.

Politics: Seventy-four percent of Democrats are more likely to support a candidate with a climate plan that includes nuclear and carbon capture alongside renewables; only 14% would be less likely to do so.28 Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who is a climate champion to environmental voters, is “supportive of” ongoing nuclear research, though he wants to see improvements to the technology – improvements that are being worked out right now.29 Candidates can credibly state that those who oppose nuclear are “not serious” about fighting climate change. Labor unions, whose members help build, operate, and maintain reactors, support a strong nuclear industry. Nuclear plants are currently operating in 29 states, providing carbon-free power to every American on the grid. American fossil fuel workers see carbon capture as a technology that supports a viable future for their industry.

The End of Fossil Fuels

We clearly need to accelerate the reduction of our reliance on fossil fuels, as evidenced by the growing economic devastation to oil-dependent regions caused by the decline of oil prices. But rather than promising to magically end the use of oil and gas, candidates should focus instead on creating new opportunities for the workers and communities impacted by oil and gas price changes.

Politics: Fossil fuel production, refining, and use remains a critical part of virtually every part of the economy. It is more heavily unionized than many other sectors. While we need to move away from our over-reliance on fossil fuels, doing it abruptly through a ban or explicit effort to end their use – especially during the economic crisis and collapse in oil prices that have contributed to the loss of thousands of drilling and refining jobs – would send panic through communities and unions that currently do not see any alternative way to keep employment and industries alive. This was a challenge before the COVID-19-induced economic crisis and is even more problematic with so many people out of work. There is an opportunity to deepen goodwill with environmentalists on this issue: Greenpeace, for example, has proposed “a national Worker and Community Protection Fund to support fossil fuel workers, their families, and impacted communities in the current oil industry contraction and long-term energy transition.”30


New Pipeline Construction Ban

There’s an environmentalist perception that new pipeline construction automatically trap us into decades of increased emissions. But pipelines that could carry clean fuels, like hydrogen or ammonia, are a key part of our clean energy future. Pipeline construction directly supports a wide range of jobs – including many union jobs, depending on the project developer and location. Pipeline projects also support jobs in manufacturing, engineering, surveying, and service work.31 By one estimate, every mile of natural gas transmission pipeline built creates 57.9 domestic jobs across the economy.32 Several top unions are supportive of pipeline projects.33

Politics: Pipeline projects offer good-paying jobs. That’s true for both traditional pipelines and pipelines of the future that transport clean fuels or captured carbon. Candidates can pledge to reverse or fight the Trump administration’s NEPA rollbacks and require a review of the climate impact of proposed infrastructure projects, as well as the concerns of impacted communities and vulnerable groups. But candidates should avoid pledging to stop all new pipeline construction.

  • Politics of Climate104


  1. “Solidarity for Climate Action.” BlueGreen Alliance, 24 June 2019, Accessed 12 May 2020.

  2. Ricketts, Sam, et al. “Evergreen Action Plan.” Medium, 15 Apr. 2020, Accessed 12 May 2020.

  3. “Politics & Global Warming,” Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, 29 Mar.-8 Apr. 2019, p. 16 Accessed 12 May 2020.

  4. The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation. 9 July-5 Aug. 2019. Accessed 12 May 2020.

  5. “Principles for U.S. Climate Policy.” New Democrat Coalition, 7 Aug. 2019, Accessed 18 May 2020.

  6. Hunnicutt, Trevor. “Biden wins support of large electrical workers union.” Reuters, 5 Feb. 2020, Accessed 12 May 2020.

  7. “Tackling the Climate Crisis Head On: Green Jobs.” Warren Democrats, Accessed 12 May 2020; “The Green New Deal.” Friends of Bernie Sanders, Accessed 12 May 2020.

  8. Inslee, Jay. “A Call to Action for a Climate Conservation Corps.” Data for Progress, 9 May 2019, Accessed 12 May 2020.

  9. Zhang, Yuqiang, et al. “Long-term trends in the ambient PM2:5- and O3-related mortality burdens in the United States under emission reductions from 1990 to 2010.” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, vol. 18, no. 20, 2018, pp. 15003–15016, Accessed 12 May 2020.

  10. United States, Congress, Senate. Clean Air Sharp Minds Act. Congres gov, 116th Congress, 2nd Session, S. 3364; United States, Congress, House of Representatives. Elijah E. Cummings Family Asthma Act., 116th Congress, 1st Session, H.R. 5230.

  11. “Principles for U.S. Climate Policy.” New Democrat Coalition, 7 Aug. 2019, Accessed 18 May 2020.

  12. “Sunrise 2020 Presidential Candidate Scorecard.” The Sunrise Movement, Accessed 12 May 2020.

  13. “Principles for U.S. Climate Policy.” New Democrat Coalition, 7 Aug. 2019, Accessed 18 May 2020.

  14. Greenpeace USA. “It's now time for @JoeBiden to step up. There is no ‘middle of the road’ approach to a crisis. Thanks to pressure from people like you, Biden has improved his climate plan a lot. Now he should pick up where Sanders left off and say no to fossil fuels and yes to a #GreenNewDeal.” Twitter, 8 Apr. 2020. Accessed 12 May 2020; Calma, Justine. “Joe Biden still has to fight for the climate vote.” The Verge, 15 Apr. 2020, Accessed 12 May 2020.

  15. “Principles for U.S. Climate Policy.” New Democrat Coalition, 7 Aug. 2019, Accessed 18 May 2020; “Principles for U.S. Climate Policy.” New Democrat Coalition, 7 Aug. 2019, Accessed 18 May 2020.

  16. Jenkins, Jesse D., et al. “Getting to Zero Carbon Emissions in the Electric Power Sector.” Joule, vol. 2, no. 12, 2018, pp. 2498-2510. Accessed 12 May 2020.

  17. Freed, Josh. “The New Climate Consensus.” Third Way, 12 June 2019, Accessed 12 May 2020.

  18. “State Renewable Portfolio Standards and Goals.” National Conference of State Legislatures, 17 Apr. 2020, Accessed 18 May 2020.

  19. “New Democrat Coalition Endorsed Legislation for U.S. Climate Policy.” New Democrat Coalition, 18 Sept. 2019, Accessed 18 May 2020.

  20. Meyer, Robinson. “Jay Inslee’s Climate Plan Is Keeping It 100.” The Atlantic, 3 May 2019. Accessed 12 May 2020.

  21. “Leader Schumer Unveils New Clean Cars for America Climate Proposal, a Transformative Plan to Reduce Number of Carbon-Emitting Cars on the Road, Create Jobs, and Accelerate Transition Net-Zero Carbon Emissions.” Press Release, Senate Democrats, 25 Oct. 2019, Accessed 12 May 2020.

  22. UAW Research Department. “Taking the High Road: Strategies for a Fair EV Future.” United Auto Workers, January 2020, Accessed 12 May 2020.

  23. “State and Metro Area Employment, Hours, & Earnings.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Accessed 18 May 2020; “Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Accessed 18 May 2020.

  24. Shepardson, David. “United Auto Workers union endorses Biden for president.” Reuters, 21 Apr. 2020, Accessed 12 May 2020.

  25. “Leader Schumer Unveils New Clean Cars for America Climate Proposal, a Transformative Plan to Reduce Number of Carbon-Emitting Cars on the Road, Create Jobs, and Accelerate Transition Net-Zero Carbon Emissions.” Press Release, Senate Democrats, 25 Oct. 2019, Accessed 12 May 2020.

  26. “Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C approved by governments.” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 8 Oct. 2018. Accessed 12 May 2020.

  27. Goldberg, Jonah. “Democrats Take a Nonsensical Approach to Climate Change.” National Review, 29 Mar. 2019. Accessed 12 May 2020; “Principles for U.S. Climate Policy.” New Democrat Coalition, 7 Aug. 2019, Accessed 18 May 2020.

  28. Freed, Josh. “The New Climate Consensus.” Third Way, 12 June 2019, Accessed 12 May 2020.

  29. Showstack, Randy. “Jay Inslee Campaigns for Presidency on Climate Change Issue.” Eos, 22 Mar. 2019, Accessed 12 May 2020.

  30. Jiang, Charlie. “Policy Briefing: Protecting Energy Workers and Communities in a Just COVID-19 Recovery.” Greenpeace, 28 Apr. 2020, Accessed 12 ay 2020.

  31. Wald, Ellen R. “Pipe Dreams: How Many Jobs Will Be Created By Keystone XL?” Forbes, 10 May 2013, Accessed 12 May 2020.

  32. IHS Economics. “The Economic Benefits of Natural Gas Pipeline Development on the Manufacturing Sector.”Prepared for the National Association of Manufacturers, 4 May 2016, Accessed 12 May 2020.

  33. Stoner, Rebecca. “Why Are Unions Joining Conservative Groups to Protect Pipelines?” Pacific Standard, 31 May 2019, Accessed 12 May 2020.