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Democrats and Republicans Support Clean and Renewable Energy, a New Survey Finds

There are important distinctions to make between the two when it comes to policy resolutions like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal, however.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) celebrates along with other members of Congress during the first session of the 116th Congress on January 3rd, 2019.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal is vague on whether it calls for only renewable energy sources, or allows for nuclear energy and carbon-capture technologies too.

Americans across the political spectrum support policies that promote renewable energy sources, according to a new report from the Yale Program for Climate Change Communication. The report surveyed nearly 1,000 registered voters in the United States, and found that 95 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of Republicans were in favor of policies requiring utilities to produce 100 percent of electricity from renewable or clean sources by 2050. About half of all respondents were even willing to pay more on their utility bills for it.

The survey found that most Americans believe that both "clean energy" and "renewable energy" are a good thing—though liberal Democrats were more likely to rate "clean" energy positively than they were "renewable" energy, and the opposite was true for Republicans. The survey question didn't define either phrase, leaving it up to participants' interpretation.

While many Americans may use the terms interchangeably, there are important distinctions between renewable energy and clean energy when it comes to policy. Renewable energy is more narrowly defined, encompassing energy produced from renewable sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal power. Clean energy can be interpreted more broadly to mean emissions-free energy, which includes renewable power sources but also nuclear or fossil fuels, in combination with carbon capture and sequestration technologies.

The broad support for both terms is a good sign for the Green New Deal, the climate resolution introduced this month by Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York). It also is favorable for the alternatives that have been proposed by progressive politicians and policy wonks, like Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) or business incubator Singularity University's Ramez Naam, who have also advocated for "emissions-free" energy and "zero-carbon" industry as soon as possible.

Even among those who agree that we need to rapidly decarbonize our energy sector—not to mention transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, and every other industry—there is some debate over how to get there. The society-wide transition is almost certainly going to involve the electrification of cars, trains, heating systems, and a whole slate of other products that currently rely on the combustion of fossil fuels to function— which ultimately will mean massive growth in demand for power from the electricity grid. The center of debate is whether renewable energy alone can meet the expected increase in demand, or whether we'll need to use clean sources of energy too. (Whether or not our electricity grid is currently capable of handling the necessary increase in capacity is an equally important question.)

So far, the Green New Deal hasn't taken a side on the clean or renewable issue, which could help the resolution appeal to a broader coalition. In its current form, the resolution doesn't explicitly prohibit carbon-capture technologies or nuclear power, instead calling for the U.S. to "meet 100 percent of our power demand through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources." That leaves space for nuclear fans, for example, to throw their support behind the deal, even if many of its most ardent supporters would like to see nuclear power plants prohibited.

Feinstein released a draft climate change resolution, which similarly embraces ambiguity, last week after clashing with youth climate activists over her refusal to support the Green New Deal. Her proposal calls for "completing the transition to zero-emission electricity sources," without getting into specific details or restrictions on how exactly to bring that transition about.

Many left-leaning environmental groups, by contrast, are pushing for 100 percent renewable energy sources. The Climate Justice Alliance, for example, wants nuclear energy, biofuels, energy from burning waste, and even dams to be excluded from the Green New Deal.

But not everyone agrees that we can phase out fossil fuels without embracing some forms of clean energy or carbon-capture technology. For one thing, as Francie Diep reported for Pacific Standard earlier this month, experts believe that, though technically possible, the transition away from fossil fuels will be significantly more expensive without nuclear power and carbon-capture technologies. Many on the clean-energy side of the debate say that reaching net zero carbon emissions is more important than achieving 100 percent renewable sources.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) is putting the Green New Deal up for a vote later this week, banking on the idea that the Democrats will be divided over what Republicans have portrayed as some of the more radical requirements of the resolution. Though many of the Democratic candidates for president have already endorsed the Green New Deal, plenty of high-ranking Democrats have yet to lend the resolution their full support.

If the bill fails, Americans, it seems, from both sides of the political divide, may be ready to embrace novel solutions: The Yale survey found that support for funding renewable-energy research has grown substantially over the last five years, driven mainly by a 30-point increase in approval from conservative Republicans, 80 percent of whom now back such research.