Massachusetts has elected a Republican to the Senate seat once held by "Liberal Lion" Ted Kennedy.  And thus, the whole political world appears to have flipped upside down.

For the climate agenda, at least, Scott Brown's election to the Senate means it's time to consider a Plan B, according to a thoughtful post from Adam Werbach (pictured at right).

"[T]he question Democrats should be asking right now is about their national strategy for climate change," argues Werbach, the CEO and founder of Saatchi and Saatchi S, author of Strategy for Sustainability, and former president of the Sierra Club (among other things).

While Brown once voted in the Massachusetts state legislature to support the state's participation in the Northeast's cap and trade program, RGGI), as a candidate, Brown stuck with the Republican party line and hammered on cap and trade regulations as "a giant new tax on energy," as you can see in the two campaign videos below.





Much of the news media (and Republican political establishment) has characterized Brown's election as a referendum on health care reform. And while climate policy clearly played a secondary role in the campaign, yesterday's election has clear ramifications for the fate of cap and trade legislation that passed the House in June and is on deck in the Senate (or was, until yesterday).

As Werbach notes, "Clearly it wasn’t just Coakley’s support of cap and trade that doomed her campaign. A lackluster vision, a stubborn refusal to debate Brown, numerous gaffes and the momentum in the country all worked against her candidacy."

But Brown's election is just the latest in a fast-paced series of events, from the mangling of the Waxman-Markey bill through the chaos in Copenhagen that should give climate campaigners and Democratic operatives alike reason enough to pause and reevaluate options. Here's Werbach's proposal [full disclosure: I work at the Breakthrough Institute, which features prominently in Werbach's recommendations below]:
The question is not whether there should be a carbon cap, but what is the best sequence of legislative steps to respond to climate change. As I’ve advocated with my colleagues since co-founding the Apollo Alliance five years ago, innovation, investment and job creation remain the best framework for promoting a robust response to the climate change threat. As the Breakthrough Institute has convincingly argued, it’s more important to make clean energy cheap than to make fossil fuels expensive. In a period with a stagnant economy and high unemployment, it’s more effective to advocate for investment in job-creating energy infrastructure and R&D.

The carbon cap, while critically important, should not be the key element of the legislation that’s being proposed right now. The carbon cap is a necessary part of the “rules of the game”, but what’s essential is that the US and other countries invest now in lowering the cost of clean energy so that countries can scale up their energy production to meet rising demand. How should this change the Democrats’ strategy? Promote a large job-creating clean energy investment as part of the stimulus. Pass that now. Then move on to passing a carbon cap. With the momentum heading against any climate change bill, it’s critical that we kickstart the innovation required to build a clean energy economy now, even if it takes a little while to get the rules past that will guarantee success.

Here’s an excerpt of recommendations from the Breakthrough Institute’s policy paper “Pathway to a Clean and Prosperous American Energy Economy.”
Create a 21st Century Energy Technology Deployment Fund to invest $30 billion annually to accelerate the deployment of promising clean energy technologies, achieve economies of scale to drive down costs, and harness America’s vast renewable energy reserves. The primary focus of this strategy should be to drive down real production costs by providing increased and consistent demand for early-stage clean energy technologies that accelerates economies of scale, learning curves, and reductions in the real, unsubsidized costs of each technology. Targeted incentives can make clean energy technology profitable and catalyze American businesses and entrepreneurs.”
It’s not time to be despondent, nor is it time to jump off the cliff for one legislative climate change response. It’s time to react to events at hand and seize the clean energy victories we can. In the end it will be financing, infrastructure, and radical innovations in clean energy that will bring prices down. Making fossil fuels expensive through a complicated cap and trade system is one way of incenting change . Investing in clean energy directly is another way. And it’s the right path to pursue right now.
Let's be clear: there are certainly no easy routes ahead. The news media will continue to spin the story as "Democrats can't do anything right, are doomed to lose in 2010." Brown's election will having a chilling effect on Democrats from conservative and moderate districts. Sixty votes will still be required to pass almost anything through the non-representative U.S. Senate. And public opinion is increasingly turning into populist rage.

But if we are to pursue any route forward to secure urgently needed momentum towards a prosperous and low-carbon energy future, it must be the most robust route possible. And that means an agenda that connects solidly with public values, an American narrative and mythos, and probably above all, the incessant demand for jobs, jobs jobs.

Once again, it's the economy stupid. But hasn't it always been?

Investment, innovation, jobs. That remains the best route forward. It is long-past time to prioritize a proactive, clean energy economy agenda.