Design by Leilani Baylis-Washington. Buy this photo.

Over the past few decades, climate change has become a major national political issue, finding its place at the center of the Democratic agenda. Despite widespread support among Democrats and the country as a whole for solving the issue, very little comprehensive legislation has been signed. Instead, solutions have come in the form of grandiose proposals, unbinding pledges and local programs with little impact. These policies have accomplished too little and have ultimately led to greater partisan divides that will undoubtedly hamper support for future solutions. If Democrats truly hope to solve the climate crisis before it’s too late, they must immediately reevaluate their policy platforms and find more reasonable solutions that can quickly gain national support.

It’s impossible to discuss climate policy in the Democratic Party without considering the Green New Deal, the landmark legislation proposed by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., that would fundamentally alter our economy. Her plan calls for aggressively transitioning to net zero emissions by 2030, rapidly phasing out gas vehicles and weatherizing all buildings in the country to make them resistant to extreme weather. Beyond the climate proposals in the bill, Ocasio-Cortez advocates for guaranteed jobs for Americans, Medicare for All and a litany of other liberal wish list items. While the individual proposals of the bill are popular, the overall cost is estimated to be $16 trillion, a figure that would saddle future generations with insurmountable debt and likely cause severe long-term economic decline.

Though the Green New Deal carries an unreasonable price tag, more realistic solutions also face tremendous challenges. The idea of a carbon tax, popular among economists, would in theory account for the negative externalities that carbon emissions cause, but in practice would accomplish little more than hurting the U.S. economy relative to global competitors. Carbon taxes can be levied on both producers, through emissions taxes, and consumers, through taxes on carbon-intensive products. If levied on producers, we would need to implement a tax internationally in order to avoid directly harming American producers without affecting other nations. This seems unlikely to occur, and an American carbon tax might instead cause oil production to shift toward Russia and the Middle East, with overall global supply remaining unshaken.

If instead the tax was levied on consumers, it would likely have minimal effects, as consumer demand for gasoline is relatively inelastic and typically remains steady regardless of price. Further, as shown by the visceral responses that have accompanied recent price hikes at the pump, a carbon tax would be politically unpopular and quickly branded as a de facto tax against working Americans.

Among the existing solutions already implemented by states, some of the most prevalent include electric vehicle subsidies, solar credits and weatherization assistance. While nobody would argue that these programs present a comprehensive climate solution, evidence suggests that they may even do more harm than good for the environment. Because electric vehicles aren’t bound to the same energy efficiency standards as gas cars and most electricity is rooted in fossil fuels, the net social impact of government subsidies on electric vehicles has been found to be negative $742, showing that these subsidies have a net negative impact. While over the long-term we will eventually need to move toward electrification, we are not yet at a stage where electric products produce net emissions benefits. 

Solar credits, another good idea in theory, in actuality have an impact highly concentrated on wealthy families who could’ve already afforded to purchase solar to lower their energy costs. This diminishes the effects of solar credits that could instead go to poorer families less likely to invest in solar as a cost-saving measure. In addition, since solar credits aren’t correlated with the amount of energy ultimately generated from panels, subsidy spending in areas whose climate is unfit for year-round solar use negatively impacts the overall effectiveness of the program. Finally, weatherization assistance, which is targeted at low-income families, actually has a social benefit of 9.5% less than its social cost because of the small carbon footprint that low-income households produce.

With many proposed and existing solutions being either ineffective or unrealistic, we will have to look elsewhere for support in fighting climate change. While unpopular, perhaps the solution that best protects our economy while combating global warming would be to maintain the use of natural gas in the short run, while developing a network of nuclear plants to support long-term energy production. 

Natural gas has played a major role over the past several years in accelerating the shift away from coal and other fossil fuels, and concurrently reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Though an ideal solution to the climate crisis would see an immediate shift toward renewable energy sources, the infrastructure to support this transition is severely lacking, and thus any premature attempt to do so could cause energy shortages. While natural gas still does emit greenhouse gasses, it has a lower carbon footprints than other fossil fuels and remains a critical component of our short-term energy supply. Any attempt to restrict its use could cause energy price spikes that could have crippling economic impacts.

While natural gas may be our best bet in the short run, nuclear power is likely the most effective long-term solution. Compared to nuclear plants, wind farms require 360 times as much land area and solar facilities require 75 times the land area to produce the same amount of energy, making both unsustainable instruments for powering the country. Furthermore, wind and solar energy are both reliant on seasonal factors that would lead to an unreliable grid, whereas nuclear power can operate year-round. 

Most concerns around nuclear power center around the danger of a nuclear meltdown, but nuclear power is in fact one of the safest energy sources, with exceedingly low death rates from accidents compared to other power sources. The United States is already producing 19% of its electricity from just 97 reactors, so investing heavily in nuclear power would allow us to power the entire country with existing technology. 

Since the time frame we have to solve the climate crisis is so narrow, we don’t have the luxury of waiting for efficiency boosts in renewable power sources. Instead, we need to quickly invest in solutions that have a proven track record of success.

If the Democrats hope to pass meaningful climate legislation, they would be well served to redirect their energy from untenable plans that expend valuable political capital to more realistic solutions that transition to clean energy without risking energy shortages. With support for nuclear power and natural gas among conservatives, Democrats will have an easier time passing impactful legislation if they focus on those areas. While doing so would certainly not solve the entire crisis, it would finally be the tangible step in the right direction that we have been missing.

Nikhil Sharma is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at