Climate debate comes full circle

Climate debate comes full circle
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The scene: Scientists issuing dire warnings about impacts of climate change. A Republican president intent on rolling back environmental and public health regulations put into place by his predecessor.  A Congress unified under Republican control actively supporting this anti-regulatory agenda, either through formal action or tacit inaction.  Federal courts, now led by Republican-appointed judges, affirming the strategy from the district court level all the way up to the Supreme Court.  States, frustrated with deregulation and congressional inaction, stepping in to lead the way through legislative activity or seeking relief through the courts.

Welcome to the early 2000s.

While it often seems like the actions of the Trump administration are unprecedented, we can learn from the substantial similarities to the Bush administration’s moves to roll back environmental policies. Before President TrumpDonald John TrumpUS reimposes UN sanctions on Iran amid increasing tensions Jeff Flake: Republicans 'should hold the same position' on SCOTUS vacancy as 2016 Trump supporters chant 'Fill that seat' at North Carolina rally MORE abandoned the Paris Agreement 2017, President George W. Bush ditched the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. Before the United Nations’ IPCC released a climate report announcing the need for unprecedented global policy changes to avoid catastrophe, and the U.S. issued the alarming Fourth National Climate Assessment, in 2005, the UN Environment Program warned us about 50 million “climate refugees” by 2010.  And in both cases, state officials, dissatisfied with federal actions, took the reins on climate and environmental policies.


In 2005, nine northeast states established a cap-and-trade system, and the following year, California passed a state bill to combat global warming — two major initiatives that later influenced federal policymaking under Democratic leadership in the 110th Congress. Today we’re seeing states again step up in the face of federal inaction or downright hostility to environmental protection. 

Perhaps the most concrete evidence that state-level initiatives are the front lines for climate legislation: companies spent tens of millions of dollars in the 2018 elections to defeat state ballot measures that would have restricted fracking and implemented a carbon tax, among other initiatives.

Despite midterm setbacks for climate advocates, progress is happening in some state capitals. In September, California passed SB 100, requiring the state to have a zero-carbon electricity supply by 2045. The state’s new regulations have emerged as a potential bellwether for national policy following the U.N.’s demand for immediate climate action. And while Congress is likely not to adopt such a progressive structure, we will likely witness Democratic efforts to promote parts of California’s strategy, both in other states and within their 2020 agenda.

Next year, with Democrats in control of the House, major legislative action remains unlikely. However, as Capitol Hill anticipates one of the most contentious and important presidential elections of our lifetimes, Democrats will have the opportunity to block Trump administration policy priorities through the appropriations process — continuing the pattern of bruising funding fights. Preventing the federal preemption of state initiatives for environmental protection and shielding positive court rulings could become significant achievements for Democrats to tout in the 2020 elections. 

During the Bush Administration, the environmental protection community rightly focused on making gains in the states and fighting deregulation in the federal courts. But without any levers of federal power in a unified Republican Washington DC (save for brief interludes of Democratic control in the 107th Congress) Democrats in Congress struggled to prevent Bush policies from taking root until the 7th year of his presidency.

We may be about to witness this phenomenon again in 2019, with environmental policy fights elevated back to the federal level, and as U.S. and U.N. climate scientists warn, the stakes are higher than ever.

Brian McKeon is a senior policy advisor at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. He previously served as Legislative Director for Senator Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenSenate Democrats introduce bill to sanction Russians over Taliban bounties Trump-backed candidate wins NH GOP Senate primary to take on Shaheen Democratic senator urges Trump to respond to Russian aggression MORE (D-NH) and as Senior Counsel for Senator Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Harris launch Trump offensive in first joint appearance Bottom line Polls show big bounce to Biden ahead of Super Tuesday MORE (D-CA).