By Hannah Hess
Marchers carried tiny wind model turbines to the White House on Saturday, along with banners supporting solar energy, carbon taxes and pipeline resistance.
Renewable energy mandates appeared to be the most popular policy option among environmental activists from across the country who traveled to Washington for the mass climate demonstration marking President Trump's 100th day in office.
Liberals rallied during the People's Climate March for a bill introduced by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to move the U.S. power mix to 100 percent renewable sources by midcentury.
Some carried "100x50" signs, representing S. 987, legislation that would impose a zero-emissions federal standard on vehicles, mandate major investments in energy storage and grid infrastructure, and stop the approval of major fossil fuel projects, among other provisions.
"If you want to be taken seriously as on the side of the climate, then you're for 100 percent renewable energy. Period. End of story from here on in," 350.org founder Bill McKibben said in an interview on the Capitol grounds before the more than 150,000-person march kicked off.
"No more, 'We're going to do some solar panels and we're going to do some frack wells.' From now on, if you're serious about climate, then you are for 100 percent renewable energy," McKibben said.
Critics chafed at the crowning of technological winners and losers. If groups behind the march really want to curtail greenhouse gas emissions or have a lasting impact on policy, the logic goes, they should broadly embrace solutions.
There was no love for nuclear power on display at the march, which filled over 20 blocks on Pennsylvania Avenue and stretched along the south side of the National Mall. Instead an entire section was dedicated to anti-corporate and anti-nuclear sentiment.
Other signs dissed natural gas and oil. One referred to clean coal, the technology backed by some of Trump's allies, as "an oxymoron."
But McKibben was adamant.
"Our problem is not figuring out how to negotiate with Republicans. Our problem is figuring out how to negotiate with physics," he said. "We've lost an ice cap already. We've only got two of them. So it's not what we want — it's what physics demands and that's 100 percent renewable energy now."
Many economists prefer putting a price on carbon to renewable energy mandates. They reason carbon pricing is more flexible for power companies, leaving it to the market to identify the best options. Marchers showed some support for the concept.
Phil Leavenworth, who traveled from Mount Horeb, Wis., for the march, gripped a wooden sign framed in duct tape that read "Tax carbon and Wall St. Trades." An active member of his local Citizens Climate Lobby chapter, Leavenworth said he thinks one problem facing the nonpartisan group's carbon fee and dividend model is that "it's more than a 30-second sound bite."
"The reason why I like taxing the Wall Street trades is that it's absolutely quantifiable," Leavenworth said. "Everybody knows what's going down on Wall Street, and if we took a couple of pennies off of every trade and used it to fund a renewable energy future instead of current fossil fuel system, things would change dramatically."
Third Way's Suzanne Hobbs Baker argued that nuclear, the country's largest source of carbon-free energy, should be viewed as part of the future electricity mix. In a Medium post on why she would not march for climate, Baker suggested organizers had fallen short of their goal of inclusiveness.
"At the very least they could refrain from attacking a growing community that fundamentally shares their aims to find socially just ways to stop climate change," she wrote.
Opponents of nuclear power point to concerns about safety, nuclear proliferation and the quagmire of long-term storage of nuclear waste.
José Bravo, executive director of the Just Transition Alliance, said Thursday during a rally with members of Congress that uranium mining threatens indigenous communities, exposing them to health risks associated with radioactive elements.
The march prominently featured native activists as part of its climate justice theme.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a nuclear proponent, responded that he thinks the overarching point of the march was to raise the profile of climate change as an issue and "communicate that we're sick and tired of having lies beat truth and having spin beat science."
On the eve of the march, the Trump administration removed most climate change information from U.S. EPA's website, saying in a release that language on the website is being updated to "reflect the approach of new leadership."
Whitehouse and other Democrats blasted the move in a rally Saturday before hitting the streets with activists.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member Tom Carper (D-Del.) called out the agency for making a change in the "dark of night."
"Twenty years of research — gone, like that," Carper said.
Both Whitehouse and Carper are co-sponsors of the bipartisan "Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act," legislation designed to streamline federal licensing for advanced reactors and usher in the next wave of nuclear technology. The bill passed out of committee last month (Greenwire, March 22).
"If that's an avenue that can bring Republicans on board, I'm all for it," Whitehouse told E&E News. He pointed out he's a proponent of the carbon fee for the same reason. "It's particularly good policy, because it's the policy that virtually every Republican who has thought the climate change problem through to a solution comes to."
'Crickets' for carbon tax
Experts put long odds on the prospect of passing a carbon tax with Trump's administration showing open skepticism of climate science. Even GOP members of Congress who acknowledge a need to mitigate greenhouse gases do not publicly advocate a carbon tax.
One popular approach for Republicans is "high-octane conservatism about no more subsidies," said Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina who founded the group RepublicEn to advocate for free-enterprise climate solutions.
Speaking the day before the climate march at an Environmental Law Institute seminar, Inglis said, "That usually gets our folks going, because they think, 'Yeah, no more Solyndras.'"
From there, Inglis advocates no more production tax credit for wind, no more investment tax credit for solar and no more electric car credits. "All of that gets hearty amens," he said.
His conservative audience is usually more tepid to "no more under-market leases on public land extraction of minerals." Then comes what Inglis called "the biggest subsidy of them all," the ability to emit greenhouse gases "without paying any tipping fee for the damages caused there."
"So far that's crickets from our group," he said.
Conservatives who are calling for action on climate change will launch a series of TV ads running in D.C. this week to highlight the threat posed by warming. Sponsored by the Partnership for Responsible Growth, the ads urge both parties in Congress to protect America from climate change and "remind our nation's leadership that time is not on our side," according to a media advisory.
Allies of the 100 percent renewable energy approach say they are also well-aware their proposal won't pass this Congress, so they hope to spur action at the state and local level.
Mayors recently allied with the Sierra Club for an initiative that aims to get more cities on board with ditching fossil fuel as a power source (Greenwire, April 26).
Merkley told attendees at the march that to hit their target by 2050 requires action "at a grass-roots level" and encouraged them to ask their city councils for clean energy resolutions and an "action plan."