A Christmas present for the climate from Congress

The surprisingly speedily passed FY16 omnibus appropriations bill contained a well-hidden but significant Christmas present for the climate and those on the front lines of climate change in the developing world: a clear path to deliver the first installment of Obama’s promised $3 billion in climate aid to developing nations.

This present was not exactly gift-wrapped and tied with a bow – it was actually the lack of blocking language that clears the administration to move its originally requested $500 million to the program, called the Green Climate Fund, from other discretionary budget streams. And in this Congress, especially on something like climate, that’s called a major victory.

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Advocates have been walking a thin line for the past six months, ever since President Obama announced the $3 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund. While supporting champions like Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyOvernight Energy: Dems take on Trump's chemical safety pick Dem senator slams Trump for dedicating golf trophy to hurricane victims Dem senator compares Trump to Marie Antoinette MORE (D-Ore.), and reaching out to Republican supporters like Sen. Kirk (R-Ill.) and Collins (R-Maine), we were advised to keep a low profile – and not to attract the ire of someone like Sen. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who might just paint a bull’s eye on the funding.

Faith-based organizations like Interfaith Power & Light were leaders in the campaign. Together we collected thousands of signatures and letters, and held vigils and district meetings to deliver the message that supporting our most vulnerable neighbors around the world as they struggle to build sustainable economies and adapt to climate change was a moral cause. In fact, the U.S. has a long bipartisan history of support for clean energy investments and projects to build climate resilience in vulnerable nations. President George W. Bush allocated $2 billion for the effort.

Does this bipartisan agreement – or at least lack of antagonistic opposition – on climate funding bode a new era in cooperation?

It’s a small harbinger, but there may be some other reasons to believe we are getting past the hard partisan divide on climate. Here are a few signs:

1)  The Republican presidential debates have hardly mentioned climate change as a bogeyman compared to other issues. Instead the candidates have tried to distinguish themselves from Democrats by their determination to repeal Obamacare, loosen gun laws, and engage in a much more aggressive military response to terrorism. On the Democratic side, all the major candidates have actively touted their commitment to clean energy and addressing climate change, in spite of the debate moderators’ shocking neglect of the issue.

2)  The EPA promulgated new standards to curb carbon pollution from power plants, and despite Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGun proposal picks up GOP support Children’s health-care bill faces new obstacles Dems see Trump as potential ally on gun reform MORE’s (R-Ky.) much ballyhooed “war on coal” message, partisan outrage failed to gain much traction outside Congress and polls show nearly two-thirds of Americans support the standards, and 61 percent in states suing to stop it. Congressional legislation to block their implementation was swiftly and quietly vetoed.

3)  The damaging and distressing impacts of climate change are being felt in every corner of the nation – from the drought in the West to flooding in the East -- and Americans are increasingly concerned.

4)  Pope Francis issued an encyclical calling on all “people of good will” to join together to save “our common home,” effectively recasting the issue as a moral one. And his message has proved compelling far beyond the Catholic base: Evangelical community acceptance of global warming increased by 16 points this year to 65 percent.

It’s a lot to hope for, but perhaps this Christmas will mark a turning point when Republicans and Democrats come together with the urgency and common purpose that is desperately needed to protect Creation and ensure a livable planet for our children. Republicans campaigning for president could distinguish themselves and garner favor with a majority of voters by demonstrating that they take the issue seriously. Renewable energy, fuel efficiency, and clean technologies are all climate solutions that remain wildly popular with voters of all stripes. In the 21st century, no one wants coal in their stockings.

Well, ‘tis the season, and this year I’ll be praying for that Christmas miracle.

Stephenson is executive director of Interfaith Power & Light, a national organization with 40 state affiliates working with 18,000 congregations of all faiths to use energy efficiently and address climate change as a moral issue.