Big Tent Ideas

We Can Make Rural America Great Again. Here’s How

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James P. Pinkerton Former Fox News Contributor
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The incoming Biden administration is talking a good game about outreach to rural areas. Those areas, which mostly voted Republican this year, have a right to be skeptical of such outreach, as the Democrats are increasingly the party of urban blue dots—with the policies and the values to match.

Even so, it’s possible to see the makings of a grand bargain, in which liberal blue dots subsidize conservative red regions—for the sake of combating climate change. Such a bargain could be a win-win for both sides: Rich Democrats alleviate their guilt over climate change, while hard-pressed Republicans provide the solution to the problem—and collect the money.

On Dec. 8, Rep. Cedric Richmond, who is resigning his New Orleans-based House seat to run “public engagement” for the White House, laid out the Biden approach: “We’re not elected just to help Democrats or urban cities or minorities. We were elected to help this entire country and that means reaching out to conservatives, that means reaching out to rural areas.”

In particular, Richmond mentioned the possibility of an “infrastructure bill to put people to work rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure making the country greener and cleaner.”

A few days earlier, Joe Biden himself brought up rural concerns, saying “I think they just feel forgotten,” and adding, of his fellow Democrats, “I think we forgot them.” So the Biden administration could make amends, he continued, by tackling such crucial rural issues as keeping small hospitals open as well as widening access to broadband. (RELATED: Grand New Party: Here’s What’s In Store For The GOP Without Trump At The Helm)

Yes, all that—infrastructure, hospitals, broadband—sounds good. The question is, where will the money come from?
A possible answer can be found in the Democrats’ climate-change agenda. Most rural folks are alarmed at the way the blue dots have talked about their environmental vision; after all, there’s not a lot of appetite in the boonies for trading away pickup trucks for mass transit.
Yet if the Democrats are willing to narrow the scope of their green goals to the issue of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—climate change being, after all, the principal green concern these days—then they might find, after a little deal-making creativity, that Republicans would be willing partners.

The key to this potential partnership is carbon capture. That is, pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere, even as we continue to burn carbon-based fuels for the sake of jobs and the economy. We should note that carbon capture is a much different approach to de-carbonization than, say, wind or solar.

The upside of carbon capture is that it would allow the continuation of the normal economy—everything from oil wells to automobiles—even as the carbon load in the atmosphere is reduced. And that’s why Biden, cautious fellow that he is, devoted a whole section of his campaign’s environmental plan to carbon capture. (Carbon capture can come in three main ways: first, redesigning industrial processes to recycle the carbon; second, applying direct air capture; and third, expanding organic carbon sinks, most obviously, trees.)

For his part, President Donald Trump has been mostly hostile to the green agenda, and yet even he has embraced arboreal carbon capture; in his State of the Union address earlier this year, he highlighted his “One Trillion Trees Initiative … to protect the environment.”

It’s true that orthodox greens are largely hostile to carbon capture, since it presupposes the continuing use of carbon fuels. And yet the familiar green ideas, such as renewable energy (but never nuclear) and draconian restrictions on energy use, have proven to be deeply unpopular. It’s one thing to say, grandly, that we will eliminate CO2 in the decades ahead; it’s quite another thing to say that we are going to raise taxes, and cripple lifestyles, in the here and now.
Indeed, it seems evident that fear of a “Green New Deal” was one reason why the GOP did as well as it did in 2020. And now, as the Democrats look ahead to the 2022 and 2024 elections, they must ask themselves: Do we want to run as green zealots, imposing blue-dot values on the red zones? The answer is, of course not. As Richmond and Biden have proven, they would much prefer to talk about rural development.

Yet rural development takes money, and that’s why there’s a grand bargain waiting to be reached. And here it is: The blue dots pay for carbon capture in red areas.

Admittedly, as of today, the economics of carbon capture don’t work; at present, it’s too expensive to capture carbon on a mass scale. That’s why, for instance, Exxon just announced that it is canceling a planned carbon-capture plant in Wyoming.

And yet if we think about the cost of carbon-capture compared to the perceived value of combating climate change, we start to see that it’s actually pretty cheap. At least it’s cheap in the eyes of blue-dotters enjoying the Dow at 30,000, and interest rates at zero; these days, there’s plenty of fiscal leeway to allow for new subsidy mechanisms.

You see, if greens are talking about spending tens of trillions—and even Biden wants to spend $5 trillion—to thwart climate change, then carbon capture looks like a deal by comparison. (RELATED: The Green New Deal Can’t Break The Laws Of Physics)

Of course, carbon-capture is likely to be a mostly rural enterprise, because that’s where we find the physical space to plant trees, and otherwise hold carbon. We should also note, however, that it’s also possible to see big buildings and big infrastructure made of carbon cement, supported by stronger-than-steel carbon nanotubes.

In addition, here’s where new breakthroughs can be a climate-saver: Just last month, a company called Innovature announced that specially gene-edited plants could capture almost half of world-wide carbon emissions. If such a technique could in fact work, we might see the path for America’s farmers, as well as the world’s farmers, to be the heroes of the climate-change war. And of course, in return for such heroism, farmers and foresters should be handsomely compensated.

So that’s the grand bargain: Liberals worry about climate change, and so they pay conservatives to make the worry go away. Rural areas don’t need to become Democratic to get the money, nor do they have to believe in the city slickers’ green agenda; instead, when carbon-opportunity knocks, they just need to be open-minded enough to open their wallets and take in the cash.

This is how to Make Rural America Great Again.

James P. Pinkerton, a former White House domestic policy aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, has been a Fox News contributor since 1996. 

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.