Saying the Quiet Part Out Loud

Quiet Climate Policy in a Post-COVID World

Historically, the US government has accelerated decarbonization through strategic investments in technology and infrastructure. Decarbonization of the American economy has depended upon the increasing affordability and scalability of lower-carbon alternatives to incumbent technologies: nuclear power plants, shale gas unlocked by the fracking revolution, solar photovoltaic and onshore wind plants, lithium-ion batteries, and biotechnology and other innovations that have improved the productivity of American agriculture. These were all enabled by decades of sustained, technology-specific research, development, demonstration, and deployment efforts made by the federal and state governments.

This is the essence of “quiet climate policy.” In this report as elsewhere, we have referred to climate policy as “quiet” if it swims with the tide of existing sociopolitical institutions and economic growth, if it uses technology and infrastructure as its main lever, and if it disrupts, rather than exploits, political partisanship. Quiet climate policy contrasts with the increasingly polarizing visions of climate action emphasized in dominant debates over US climate politics.

Like the popular, enduring policy regimes that have driven innovation in low-carbon technologies for decades, the policies and investments detailed in this report have the potential to drive real and disruptive technological transitions that build and lock in lower-carbon energy, transportation, and agricultural systems.

What makes this moment in American politics unique is the eagerness of the federal government to commit potentially unprecedented resources towards science, RD&D, and infrastructure. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, trillions of dollars may be available for relief, recovery, stimulus, and reinvestment in the American economy. These resources can and should be used to accelerate innovation, deployment, and infrastructural investment in low-carbon technologies and systems across all sectors of the American economy.

The policy recommendations in this report are the summation of the Breakthrough Institute’s COVID-19 recovery and stimulus proposals released over the course of 2020. In late December 2020, Congress passed, and President Trump signed, the $1.4 trillion fiscal 2021 appropriations bill — which earmarked substantial funding for clean energy R&D, advancing many of the goals, if not always the specifics, of Breakthrough’s recommendations. This bill’s passage during a moment of historic partisan conflict is a potent signal of the virtue of quiet climate policy — its potential to simultaneously reduce the political polarization of climate change and advance the most important means of addressing it. The recommendations in this report offer abundant opportunities for quiet climate policy in the coming years.

Read the full report here.


In responding to the economic and public health crises brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, policymakers have a unique opportunity to reset the US economy in a manner that ensures the US workforce is at the forefront of the global transition to a low-carbon economy. Despite the polarized political climate, there are many bipartisan proposals for robust and broad federal investment in energy and related infrastructure. Altogether, the energy policies and initiatives included here amount to $200 billion in federal spending and could help support as many as 9 million American jobs.

  • Energy Innovation: A $68 billion investment in energy innovation — in nuclear, geothermal, carbon removal, and energy storage — could create over 600,000 jobs.

  • Grid Modernization: The US electrical grid is a vital, expansive, and often overlooked piece of infrastructure. The current economic crisis presents an opportunity for the federal government to truly modernize the US grid, allowing it to support a larger share of renewable energy and enabling the electrification of other sectors. The creation of a “supergrid” would cost $80 billion and create 1.5 million jobs.

  • Clean Energy Subsidy Reform: Tax credits for wind and solar have been effective in growing these nascent industries and reducing costs. The sunsetting of the wind and solar tax credits should be delayed to the end of calendar year 2022. After that, however, new tax credits for clean energy should be introduced for technologies that are at an earlier stage of development, such as geothermal, advanced nuclear, and offshore wind


Transportation and transportation-related industries employ over 13.3 million people, accounting for 9.1% of the American workforce, and represents one of the largest sources of emissions in the US. The federal government should make robust investments in transportation infrastructure, including electric vehicle (EV) charging stations and America’s ports and airports.

  • EV Charging Infrastructure: Despite the economic impact of the pandemic, EVs are expected to continue growing their share of the consumer vehicle market, but this growth is threatened by a lack of charging infrastructure. In the US, there is an anticipated need for 9.6 million EV chargers by 2030, with only 84,000 available as of July 2020. A federal investment of $5 billion in EV charging stations — for highways, workplaces, and urban and suburban streets — would support approximately 65,000 jobs in the near-term, while realizing valuable environmental and public health benefits, particularly in historically disadvantaged communities.

  • Support for Ports and Airports: The ongoing COVID-19 crisis is also hurting the US air travel and marine shipping sectors, which are already threatened by climate change and insufficient funding for needed infrastructure. Federal support for these sectors as part of economic recovery efforts offers synergistic opportunities to promote near-term economic activity and environmental improvements while modernizing America’s international gateways for the challenges of the future. Total federal spending on ports and airport infrastructure of $20.62 billion could generate 133,000 direct and indirect jobs.


Rural areas are especially vulnerable to the COVID-19-induced economic crisis and will likely have the hardest time bouncing back. The federal government should consider significant investments in agricultural innovation, the struggling US dairy sector, and agricultural conservation and efficiency programs — all of which offer valuable climate co-benefits.

  • Agricultural Innovation: American agricultural innovation, which generates tens of thousands of jobs, is threatened by the economic downturn and longstanding public underinvestment in research and development. But research labs and companies developing novel crop varieties, fertilizers, livestock feeds, alternative proteins, and other technologies are also essential to mitigating climate change and ensuring American leadership in emerging industries. Government support for basic and applied research efforts and early-stage startups at risk of failure would accelerate innovation, protect existing jobs, and lead to new job growth.
    • $300 million for ongoing publicly funded R&D to cover COVID-related costs: 3,600+ jobs
    • $11.5 billion to cover the agricultural R&D facility maintenance backlog: 178,100+ jobs
    • $190 million for new interagency research initiatives: 3,700+ jobs
    • $400 million for mission-driven research at AGARDA: 4,900 jobs
    • $74 million to incentivize private sector R&D through FFAR and SBIR: 650+ jobs
    • $13.3 million for Federal loan guarantees to emerging agricultural industries: 2,200+ jobs

  • Support for US Dairy: The US dairy industry is another crucial candidate for Green stimulus. It has struggled with falling demand and low and volatile prices for decades, and in 2019, the US lost around 9% of its dairy farms. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the sector’s economic hardships. To make US dairy farms economically and environmentally sustainable over the long term, the federal government should incentivize exports, create a supply management program, facilitate dairy farm diversification, and increase adoption of financially and environmentally beneficial manure management technology and practices.

  • Agricultural Conservation Programs: Investment in agriculture conservation and efficiency programs is another opportunity to immediately relieve economic hardship while making US farmers more productive, environmentally efficient, and internationally competitive. The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) support producers and provide critical resources to address agricultural pollution and environmental impacts. But funding has fallen since 2018, leaving enough money for only about a quarter of applications. Doubling EQIP and maintaining CSP funding through 2023 — and creating a one-time farm machinery rebate system — would cost $6.35 billion and create nearly 100,000 jobs, while reducing the environmental and climate impacts of agriculture.

Read the full report here.