Chuck Schumer’s Electric Car Plan and the Politics of Climate Change
The auto industry is betting that the era of the internal combustion engine will gradually end and be replaced by electric vehicles. The technology of battery storage is developing rapidly and before long the electric car will be price competitive with gasoline-powered cars. Electric cars are more advanced technologically with less need for service and have already proven to out-perform many of today’s vehicles. The problem is that with millions of us invested in gasoline-powered cars, the pace of transition will be slow. Senator Chuck Schumer is proposing a way to accelerate the adoption process by subsidizing both the vehicles and American manufacturing. As Coral Davenport of the New York Times reported last week:
“Mr. Schumer’s new plan…is specific and is aimed at rapidly replacing 63 million of the 270 million cars on American roads with zero-emissions or near-zero-emissions vehicles. If enacted, it would take a significant slice out of carbon dioxide pollution from automobiles, America’s largest producer of planet-warming emissions…A trade-in program would give consumers $392 billion in vouchers to exchange their traditional gasoline-powered vehicles for zero-carbon emissions vehicles, like electric cars. It includes a requirement that the new cars be assembled in the United States. The bill would also include $45 billion to help cities and states install electric vehicle charging stations, and $17 billion to help automakers build or retool factories to manufacture hybrid, electric and hydrogen vehicles.”
While I’d also like to see a program of increased federal support for mass transit, America’s relatively low-density pattern of land use requires personal transportation and for many people, cars are a necessity. In order to accelerate the decarbonization of America’s transport system, we need to put in place both renewable sources of electricity and electric vehicles. The specific details of Schumer’s proposal are less important than its practicality and the fact that the Democratic leader in the Senate is making the proposal.
Schumer’s approach is a stark contrast to the climate-denial policies of the Trump administration which are aimed at producing more fossil fuels and rolling back auto mileage regulations. The administration’s willful resistance to climate reality is a centerpiece of their policy platform and worldview. Climate change is one of several key issues that divide Trump supporters and opponents. If the democrats manage to retake the Senate and Schumer’s policy proposal actually reaches the agenda, I suspect that the mix of government subsidies and private incentives may shift. For example, there is no reason to believe that charging stations need to be built by local governments. All those convenience stores with gas pumps out front have every reason to want to put some charging stations on their property. Since (currently) it takes longer to recharge a vehicle than fill up a gas tank, we might see a new retail model with cafes and restaurants replacing convenience stores at charging stations, as people make recreational use of their time while their car charges. In high-density cities like New York, the logistics of electric vehicle recharging will not be the same as in sprawl cities like Houston or Los Angeles. In other words, we will need a flexible form of subsidy to accelerate the development of recharging infrastructure. One size will not fit all.
In an era of deep mistrust of large institutions and a still dominant anti-government ideology, addressing the issue of climate change presents difficult political challenges. Schumer’s program is in the spirit of the Green New Deal and is an effort to bring labor and environmentalists together. An interesting wrinkle is the program to subsidize the companies that will build the electric vehicles. Schumer’s successful effort to enlist corporate support is an important element of his proposal. A program that unites business, labor and environmentalists has the potential to generate significant and broad political support.
Since Schumer is a master political strategist, I must assume that the timing of this proposal is no accident. President Trump has been weakened politically by his Ukrainian misadventure, his abandonment of the Kurds in northern Syria, and the increased momentum of the impeachment inquiry. Lots of people have seen the first electric cars on the road, and the idea that they might get a good deal to buy one is attractive. Government-subsidized Chinese electric automakers have begun to move into a position of dominance in the world market. This helps justify a subsidy for American electric vehicle manufacturers. All of these factors help explain the timing of this proposal. Schumer is the personification of a moderate consensus-driven politician. The electric car initiative is an effort to move elements of the Green New Deal into the political center or Schumer would not be making it.
The issue of climate change presents political challenges not only to advocates of the Green New Deal but also to conservative politicians who are willing to accept the scientific reality of global warming. Clearly, market forces alone cannot be relied on to move quickly enough to decarbonize the economy. In the long run, the new technologies of renewable energy and electric vehicles will be better and less expensive than the older technologies. Given enough time, the market should work. But we don’t have the luxury of time. The seas are rising, the forest fires are spreading, and the storms are intensifying. Government intervention, always necessary during times of threats to national security and well-being, is needed here. The challenge will be to calibrate that intervention to ensure it does not mask inefficiency and ends when the market fully takes hold.
With luck, the political battle over climate change in the next decade will be over the shape of government intervention, rather than the need for it. As an alternative to direct subsidies and command-and-control regulation, conservatives will push for market-moving incentives in the tax system and direct payments to individuals rather than anything that creates large government bureaucracies. Schumer’s proposal has elements of these types of features. It is not difficult to see the possible outlines of a deal, but only if we somehow manage to relax the extreme dysfunction of our national politics. If the only aim of political competition is to destroy your opponent, areas of common interest are never explored.
The key element that will eventually come to influence American climate politics is that young people strongly support action on climate change. While only a bare majority of those over 65 support climate action, those numbers increase to 70 and 80 percent when polling those under 30. It’s true that older people vote more than young people so as the young climate cohort ages, the wide support for action on climate change will grow. Unfortunately, American leadership on climate change is necessary but not a sufficient condition for mitigation of climate change. Greenhouse gases come from every nation and the atmosphere we are warming covers the entire globe. Unlike problems like water pollution or toxic waste, local, state and national action cannot solve the problem. Getting the internal combustion engine off of American roads is a good start, but it is only a start.
The key to addressing global greenhouse gas reduction will not be in a treaty urging nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but in an agreement to ensure that the decarbonization technology sold in the developing world is transferred to the developed world. We must resist the temptation to ship all those old clunkers traded in for electric cars to the developing world. Those traded-in vehicles should be stripped down for parts and raw materials and remanufactured as electric vehicles. As other sustainability technologies develop, we need to ensure that they too are sold and subsidized throughout the world. If there is a climate treaty worth negotiating, it would be one focused on technology transfer.
That said, Senator Schumer’s electric vehicle proposal is a watershed moment in the development of U.S. climate policy. It is a creative and sound approach that would have a significant impact on America’s greenhouse gas emission crisis.