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Politics

Biden’s Long Game on Climate

The president isn’t trying to cut emissions as fast possible. He’s doing something else.

President Biden playing chess.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Here’s the problem with President Joe Biden’s climate policy: From a certain point of view, it makes no sense.

Take his electricity policy. At the top level, Biden has committed to eliminating greenhouse-gas pollution from the power sector by 2035. He wants to accomplish this largely by making clean energy cheaper — that’s the goal of the Inflation Reduction Act, of course — and he has also changed federal rules so it’s slightly easier to build power lines and large-scale renewable projects. He has also added teeth to that goal in the form of new Environmental Protection Agency rules cracking down on coal and natural gas.

Yet at the same time, Biden has seemingly also made it more difficult to decarbonize. Last week, he raised tariffs on cheap solar panels and grid-scale batteries made in China. And he ended the two-year “solar bridge,” a tariff exemption for some Chinese-based solar manufacturers that operated in other countries. That means that as soon as next month, some eye-watering tariffs — possibly as high as 254% — could apply to many U.S. solar imports.

Then there’s Biden’s policy on electric cars. The president wants 50% of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. to be EVs or plug-in hybrids by 2030, and he has overseen billions of dollars of spending aimed at building a national charging network. His climate law discounts the price of many EVs by $7,500 and directly subsidizes virtually every battery and vehicle made in America. Yet he recently put 100% tariffs on EV imports from China, the country that makes some of the world’s cheapest and best electric cars.

This combination is, frankly, a little confusing. And it has confounded critics around the world: It can sometimes seem like the president is cutting the cost of clean energy with one hand while raising it with another. “The Biden effect will be to raise the U.S. domestic price of EVs, solar panels and other green inputs and delay America’s energy transition,” writes Edward Luce of the Financial Times. The Economist, in high dudgeon, lectured Biden for forgetting his David Ricardo.

There is certainly much to criticize about Biden’s climate policy, but reading coverage of it, I’m often struck by how little the commentator seems to understand what the policy is trying to do. There is, as Noah Smith and Matt Yglesias have written, a strong national-security component to the tariffs announced last week. But there’s more to these policies than national security alone. Although the president’s actions can sometimes seem contradictory, there is in fact a logic to what Biden is trying to do on climate change. And without defending the policy, I think it is important to describe it accurately.

Let’s back up. For the past 30 years, climate advocates tried to raise the cost of fossil fuels in America by imposing a carbon price. Taxing carbon pollution is the most elegant and economically efficient way to solve climate change, and — at least in theory — it doesn’t require the kind of fine-tuned economic tampering that the Biden administration is engaged in. Or at least that’s what the economists say — I remain skeptical that a carbon tax alone would have succeeded in decarbonizing the economy without additional policy.

And in any case, the point is moot: Climate advocates never succeeded in passing such a price. Voters were understandably resistant to raising the cost of energy, especially gasoline, and no coalition emerged to persuade politicians that the political costs of a carbon tax would be worth bearing. During many of those years, too, the American economy was so understimulated that passing a revenue-raising tax made little political sense: There was effectively no public constituency for deficit reduction.

By 2020, Democrats had largely given up on this approach. Although many still believe that a carbon tax could be an effective decarbonization tool, they instead adopted a new political economic philosophy. Simplified somewhat, it goes something like:

1. The biggest obstacle to passing American climate policy is the lack of a domestic coalition that supports the deep and continued decarbonization of the domestic economy.

2. Passing climate policy has been so hard historically because a powerful and geographically diverse set of companies, unions, state, and local officials, and political donors — largely but not entirely in the fossil fuel industry — don’t want to see the U.S. move away from oil and natural gas. They’re backed up by status-quo-favoring consumers.

3. The central aim of near-term climate policy, then, should be to create an enduring coalition to support the continued decarbonization of the U.S. economy.

This is the guiding logic of Biden’s climate policy: that American politics must have a powerful, durable, and flexible pro-decarbonization coalition if the U.S. is to succeed in reaching net zero. Achieving this coalition is the underlying aim of the IRA, the EPA rules, and — yes — the recent tariffs.

This is what I wish critics understood about the president’s climate strategy: Biden’s strategy won’t have succeeded if the U.S. makes some headway on emissions but imports all of its decarbonization tech from China. The U.S. actually has to develop its own supply chain and manufacturing base to build the kind of deep economic coalition that can sustain long-term decarbonization. This is why trade restrictions have become so central to the administration’s world view.

I should add that for all that the administration emphasizes “good-paying union jobs” in its messaging around climate policy, jobs alone aren’t necessarily the goal of this strategy. Critics of American industrial policy sometimes point out that, even in China, the labor share of manufacturing is falling; indeed, one of China’s great manufacturing advantages is the extent to which it has automated its assembly lines. But that may not necessarily matter to coalition politics: As the political scientist Nina Kelsey has shown in her research on the Montreal Protocol, companies tend to support environmental policy when doing so will help their large-scale, fixed investments — essentially, their factories — not their labor force.

There are big risks to Biden’s strategy. The next administration — which in this moment looks likely to be helmed by Donald Trump — could repeal the production and installation subsidies for renewables but leave the tariffs in place. That would devastate the finances of domestic solar manufacturers and significantly slow down the decarbonization of America’s grid, and it would mean that Americans who want to import cheap solar panels wouldn’t be able to. That would essentially freeze America’s decarbonization effort while the rest of the world races ahead.

Even if Biden wins, the kind of economic management that he’s trying to do may simply not be possible in the federal system — or, for that matter, with the existing Democratic coalition. There may be too many interest groups to placate or too many obstacles to building. California offers a warning about how well-intentioned liberal policy can prevent enough new infrastructure from getting built.

Still a third risk is that the American solar manufacturing industry meets domestic demand but doesn’t become very competitive, so it doesn’t reduce costs aggressively. A relatively small number of firms actually make solar panels in the United States, and they have to compete for engineering talent with more established industries like software. What has brought down the cost of solar in China isn’t subsidies per se, but an intensely competitive and very large domestic market. It isn’t clear that the American market for solar power will attain such scale or efficiency.

These would, obviously, be lasting setbacks for American decarbonization. But even in critiquing this set of policies, I hope the world notes what a different problem America faces when taking on climate change as compared to the rest of the world. Most countries import more oil than they produce, meaning their fossil-fuel addiction shackles their currencies and economies to a volatile global commodity. They are only too happy to move away from fossil fuels, and especially oil, provided that a cheap and acceptable alternative is available. In the United Kingdom, for instance, cross-partisan support for decarbonization policy has existed since the era of Margaret Thatcher.

In the United States, with our oil-drenched politics, the task is different. Only a sufficiently powerful pro-climate coalition will be able to unseat the fossil fuels enthroned atop our economy. Forging this coalition — even if it slows down decarbonization for a few years — is Biden’s true goal. Whether that’s worth it is another story.

Green
Robinson Meyer profile image

Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology.

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