Democrats need a worthy climate plan

Democrats need a worthy climate plan
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Naming the climate crisis the “existential threat of our time,” Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump knocks Democrats on 'Open Borders' The Hill's Morning Report - Democratic debates: Miami nice or spice? Democrats already jockeying for House leadership posts MORE (D-Calif.) challenged her House colleagues to step up and act in her opening address to Congress.

Democrats’ immediate pathway on climate change will include oversight of the Trump administration’s regulatory rollbacks and misuse of science, a push to make green and clean investment a centerpiece of infrastructure legislation, and climate hearings across multiple House committees, including a newly created Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

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It’s a good start, but it won’t turn the tide on the climate crisis.

Democrats need to find common ground around an uncommonly bold plan to fight climate change. Democrats must push harder, take more risks and go further than poll-tested comfort zones in order to prepare the way for a turbo-charged plan of action should they take the White House in 2020.

The climate crisis can’t be reversed by an act of Congress. But America needs a strong plan of action to do our part to limit the damage and put our economy and planet on healthier paths. Given the state of denial in the White House and among most GOP members of Congress, it is up to Democrats to write it.

Going further on climate change has far more upside for Democrats in Congress than ever before.

For starters, Democrats are not nearly as comfortable with the politics of climate solutions as Trump is comfortable with the politics of climate denial. Their nominee is not going to show up battle-ready in 2020 without Democrats first getting messy and wading much more seriously into the arena of solution-oriented proposals.

Further, Democrats will have answers when climate disasters — the new wild card in American politics — strike. Climate disasters are plundering the nation at will, taking life and property like marauding armies of raiders from the middle ages. Few congressional districts have been left unscarred by climate disasters, including wildfires, intense storms, flooding and droughts.

At least two members of Congress (Republicans Dana Rohrabacher and John Culberson) lost their long-held seats in 2018 in part because they were trapped by a record of climate denial as wildfires and hurricanes hit their districts hard.

Finally, Democrats have much to gain from the newly muscular ballot box appeal of environmentalism. In 2018, more than 550 winning state and local candidates committed to move toward 100 percent clean energy, including nine successful governors-elect, as part of the League of Conservation Voters’ “CleanEnergy for All” campaign. 

Heading into the elections, 63 percent of likely voters identified the environment as "very important" to their vote, according to Pew Research Center. This is an increase of 11 percent from 2016, and the highest ever recorded by Pew since they started asking the question in 2004.

Fox News’ 2018 election exit polling and voter analysis shows an even more impressive impact of the green vote on election day: an unmatched intensity among millions of voters who now identify the environment as the single most important issue motivating their vote, ahead of the economy, jobs, health care, immigration, abortion, guns, terrorism, foreign policy and taxes. These super-motivated green voters accounted for seven percent of the electorate in 2018 and increasingly are forming the core of the Democrats’ door-knocking armies of volunteers.

Democrats’ climate plan must combine great policy with great politics. On policy, it must be worthy of the urgency and scale of the climate crisis, including specific and clear objectives and timelines to rapidly boost clean energy and put America on the path to be free of the pollution that is making the climate crisis worse.

Politically, the Democrats’ plan has to be something voters want and will support. It needs to pass muster with people like Iowa BBG legend “Big Mo” Cason, who recently told NBC’s Chuck Todd, “I don't care how good the idea is, I always feel that in the end someone or some organization is going to benefit financially from it. And the person that is getting it — hit at the end are the people that didn't even craft it.”

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Proposals and examples abound on how to make climate policy less like making your kids eat spinach and more like giving Popeye a can of spinach: carbon dividends to put money in the pocket of every American, green new deal investments in jobs and infrastructure, tax relief paired with carbon pollution taxes and more.

Polling put forth by various interest groups suggest the public will support many of these approaches.

It’s time for Democrats in Congress to put them to the test.

Jeremy Symons is a consultant at Symons Public Affairs and writer on climate change, energy policy and politics. He previously worked at Environmental Defense Fund and for Democrats in the United States Senate.

The piece has been updated.