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Opinion Can Democrats finally run on climate? New ads test the premise.

Wind turbines in California. (Bing Guan/Bloomberg)

For years, Democrats and environmental groups have faced a profound challenge: The politics of climate change seemed brutal and unforgiving in a deep, structural sense. Global warming’s threat seemed to lurk in the distant future, while combating it required action right now. And that action seemed to require immediate sacrifice that was all too easy to understand, even as the eventual payoff was hard to define.

But the enactment of President Biden’s climate and health-care law offers a shot at shifting these paradigms: It could go some way toward solving both the present-future conundrum and the sacrifice-payoff one.

A new $10 million ad campaign from climate groups helps illustrate what this might look like. The ads seek to educate the public on what’s in the Inflation Reduction Act, which invests hundreds of billions of dollars in combating climate change.

The law’s climate provisions include tens of billions of dollars to incentivize the domestic manufacture and production of clean energy sources and their technologies. It also invests in manufacturing plants and tax incentives for building and purchasing electric vehicles, along with many other climate and environmental provisions.

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What do these provisions look like in ads? Here’s one spot that will run on national cable and streaming platforms and is targeted at younger voters:

And here’s another spot that’s similarly targeted:

Note that these ads emphasize production of clean energy in America — these investments will create U.S. manufacturing jobs. They link incentives for American families to shift to clean energy directly to energy savings — amplifying a supply-side message that says spending will create more energy, lowering its cost.

And the ads — which are from Climate Powerand the League of Conservation Voters— portray the threat as current and immediate, in a way many ordinary Americans have surely experienced themselves by now. As for the child drawing a “save the planet” sign, how many parents have witnessed their own children doing something like this for school, while worrying about their futures on this planet?

These ads reflect a number of things that have changed about this debate. The climate threat used to seem far off, but now all sorts of extreme events — fires, floods, heat waves, collapsing ice sheets — signal that the threat is very much upon us.

And as Princeton professor Jesse Jenkins points out, that dynamic is reinforced by another important one: The policy vehicle has changed. Before, climate proposals often sought to penalize fossil-fuel consumption. But the Inflation Reduction Act encourages the manufacture and production of alternative energy sources, creating jobs and making consumption of these sources easier.

“This focus on investment and innovation — industrial policy — isn’t framed around sacrifice,” Jenkins told me, adding that this allows the new law’s climate actions to be framed “as a win-win."

“We’re tackling an urgent threat,” Jenkins said, “and we’re also helping build a clean economy that can be associated with opportunity and jobs and cheap sustainable energy.”

This, of course, points to one of the problems with the law’s climate provisions: It nudges people and our economy toward clean energy but without placing serious constraints on future fossil-fuel activity. Yet this shift seemed necessary, and not just to win over Sen. Joe Manchin III, the holdout Democrat from the coal state of West Virginia.

The shift was a big one. As climate writer David Roberts usefully details, the climate movement, congressional Democrats and various other stakeholders coalesced behind the idea that carbon pricing had to be “dethroned and decentered.” As a policy, it demands sacrifice, it’s hard to explain, and it makes for a terrible headline, Roberts notes, making it “political poison.”

That helped make it possible to pass the most ambitious action on climate from Congress ever. But the change also sets up a new way to talk about what has passed and sell it to voters. You can see that in ads like the above: Rather than attempting to sell “carbon trading” or “carbon taxes,” they flash scenes of sleek new green energy manufacturing technologies.

It’s obviously too soon to say how well all of this will work. A big tell will be whether Democrats in tough Senate races feel comfortable selling the climate provisions as the manufacturing jobs of the future in states such as Ohio and Wisconsin.

Democrats in such places should try to do so. It could provide a way to seize the populist mantle from right-wing charlatans who talk a good game about rebuilding the U.S. manufacturing base but respond to proposals like these with nothing but hollow demagoguery.

Either way, one thing is clear: Running on climate now looks a lot more plausible than it did only a month ago.

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