Climate change has vaulted toward the top of the national agenda in recent months as extreme weather events, protest movements, and a series of increasingly dire reports on its potential consequences have grabbed headlines. The Green New Deal, an idea linking climate and economic goals championed by some Democrats, has become a centerpiece of the Democratic climate agenda heading into the 2020 elections. Others have expressed skepticism at the proposal’s top-down strategy, instead advocating for more market-driven approaches.
To unpack the legislative agenda for energy and climate policy during this Congress, EPIC hosted a conversation with Congressman Sean Casten (D-Ill.), a freshman legislator representing Illinois’ 6th Congressional District. Axios Energy Reporter Amy Harder, EPIC’s inaugural journalism fellow, moderated the conversation to a packed auditorium in Saieh Hall on the University of Chicago campus.
The Illinois 6th is a swing district that had for the previous six terms been represented by a Republican. Nonetheless, Casten placed climate change firmly at the heart of his winning campaign. He brings unique credentials on the issue to his new job thanks to his experience as co-founder and CEO of a clean energy company and his training as a scientist.
“Our Founders contemplated a government of citizen legislators, the idea that we would be represented by people who have life experiences similar to our own,” said Casten, who has a master’s degree in biochemical engineering from Dartmouth College. “There are surprisingly few people in Congress who come from backgrounds in the sciences or backgrounds in energy.”
Even with several scientists elected to Congress in 2018, only about 20 members have a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) background, not including physicians.
Green New Deal
Many of those newly elected scientists emphasized climate change during their campaigns, so it is unsurprising that climate and energy proposals have featured prominently in the early months of this Congress. The best known of these is the Green New Deal, a sweeping proposal calling for rapid decarbonization of the U.S. economy wrapped up with a series of economic and social justice goals.
Even if passed, none of the Green New Deal’s provisions would be binding, but it has nonetheless gained adherents in both houses of Congress and on the Democratic presidential campaign trail. Casten said he applauds the “long overdue” urgency and grassroots energy resulting from the Green New Deal but said the resolution doesn’t adequately address the complexities of crafting good climate policy.
“There’s no silver bullet. Throughout my whole career I got very frustrated by the fact that we, as a country, were not moving quickly enough on climate change because we had so many legislators saying, ‘The energy system is too complicated, we can’t move too quickly,’” Casten said. “And we now have a wave of energy in the Congress that this problem is too urgent to worry about the complexity. Both of those approaches are problematic. We have to recognize that this is both urgent and complicated.”
Overall, Casten said the Green New Deal has politically done “way more good than bad” by bringing the issue to the forefront and forcing legislators to address climate change.
“God Bless everybody who is out there saying climate matters and we have to vote like climate matters,” Casten said.
What are you going to do about it?
Toward that end, Casten said his office is working on 50 bills related to climate change and introducing them as quickly as his legislative staff can produce them. Most recently, Casten co-introduced a bipartisan and bicameral bill with Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), the Promoting Grid Storage Act of 2019, which would provide $1.05 billion over five years for energy storage research and development.
Casten stressed the importance of improving battery technology to match the surging deployment of renewable energy, which provides intermittent energy. In regions such as the Midwest, renewables have been deployed so fast it risks an increase in natural gas generation to stabilize the grid, Casten said.
“[I]f we say our goal is to deploy renewables as quickly as possible, at some point we start increasing CO2 emissions because we’re not dealing with the larger holistic issues,” he said.
The Congressman also previewed legislation his office is working on, such as bills to address transportation sector emissions and an “output-based” permit trading system for electricity generators that would reward power plants for cutting emissions. These proposals track with Casten’s long-standing call to prioritize cutting carbon dioxide emissions rather than promoting or dissuading particular technologies or activities.
“There’s a fatal flaw that I think both the far left and far right have fallen into of framing what we have to do on climate as are you a moral person or are you an economic person,” he said. “And the reality is that you don’t have to choose because carbon is a unique pollutant in which lowering it means you’re going to burn less fossil fuels which means you’re going to save money.”
Unlike many in Washington, Casten is not especially concerned with gaining bipartisan support for his policies, calling bipartisanship “overrated.”
“What I care about is that policies that matter get a support from the majority of Congress,” Casten said. “What letter that hung after their name is a secondary question. Frankly, if it’s a few Democrats with a bunch of Republicans but it’s good policy, that’s fine, too. I’m just saying the metric of how many D’s and R’s sign on to this makes for a nice media story, but I don’t think it has much to do whether it’s good policy or not.”
Casten also framed tackling climate change as a potential boon to the American economy, repeatedly saying policymakers need to do a better job of framing the “gain” from climate action rather than the “pain” that would hypothetically come from mitigation efforts.
“We have got to get the carbon down as quickly as possible,” Casten said. “We have to recognize that we have this unbelievable opportunity because almost anything you do to generate low-carbon energy is something that you’re doing to generate cheap energy … Once you get these assets you run them and you lower the carbon.”