Juan Williams: A rising tide for Dems on green issues

Juan Williams: A rising tide for Dems on green issues
© Getty Images

If you think the most politically powerful decision out of the Supreme Court in recent weeks was on gay marriage or ObamaCare, think again.

It was the 5-4 win for conservatives when the court rejected Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules limiting pollution from power plants.


An intense fight over the environment is now certain to be a dominant feature of the 2016 presidential race. The fight will be fueled by President Obama’s willingness in his last months in office – during the campaign – to defy the court and risk new EPA restrictions on emission of greenhouse gases to stop global warming.

Big business, backed by small government Republicans, is putting money behind candidates willing to make the case that Obama is putting American companies at a global economic disadvantage while driving up costs for consumers with new pollution restrictions. “The Supreme Court has finally said ‘enough is enough,” said a celebratory Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Meanwhile, environmentalists are lining up as major financial supporters for Democrats in 2016. They want a stronger champion in the White House. Obama’s recent approval of oil drilling in the Arctic has led to questions about his commitment to the environment. Some critics feel he dawdled away his first six years while corporations trashed the planet, opening the door to melting icecaps and extreme weather.

During Obama’s two terms, environmentalists have ceased to be a niche political group. A recent Pew poll showed “71 percent of Democrats and independents who lean to the Democratic Party say the earth is warming due to human activity, compared with 27 percent among their Republican counterparts (a difference of 44 percentage points).”

That is a massive difference. It is a Grand Canyon of a political divide, bigger than the split over gay rights, and it is firing up both parties.

Look at the political map: The only moderate-to-conservative Democrats left in the Senate come from states that produce oil, coal and gas from fracking. The very short list includes Montana’s Sen. Jon Tester; North Dakota’s Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin. These Democrats rarely point out the downside of the energy industry because those businesses employ their constituents and are central to economic growth in their states.

Big business punished Democrats in 2014 Senate races even when they kept their mouths shut about the pollution associated with drilling and fracking. Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.) were defeated with advertising that identified them as too close to the liberal crowd in full panic over global warming.

Their defeat has backfired on the energy industry. Strong pro-environment voices among Democrats, such as Sens. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), now have less opposition inside their caucus. That’s a big deal. Recall that in 2009 the Democrats in control of the House passed major “cap and trade” rules to limit greenhouse gas pollution but opposition from Senate Democrats killed the bill.

The political cost of added regulation also looks minimal after Obama vetoed a Keystone Pipeline bill without any major political backfire.

The Democrats’ base among women, minorities and young people in big cities is gung-ho for new EPA regulations. For example, last year a poll from the University of Texas at Austin found that 68 percent of voters under 35 are more likely to vote for a candidate promising to reduce carbon emissions.

The newly released Pew poll finds: “Seniors (31 percent) are less likely than those under age 30 (60 percent) to say the earth is warming due to human activity, and are less inclined to favor stricter power plant emission limits in order to address climate change. Older adults also express more support for offshore oil drilling, and they are more likely to prioritize fossil fuel development over alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power.”

Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of State who is now the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, is already using the environment to stir voters. In the first big speech of her campaign, she derided Republicans’ refusal to acknowledge climate change: “They’ll say ‘I am not a scientist,’” she said. “Well, then, why don’t they start listening to those who are?”

The Pope will add to this political fire with his visit to Capitol Hill this fall. He issued an encyclical last month asking Catholics, of whom there 69 million in the U.S., not to allow “the excuse of realism and pragmatism” to lessen their concern for the environment.

President Obama embraced the Pope’s words as evidence of the need for the U.S. to acknowledge a “profound responsibility to protect our children, and our children’s children, from the damaging impacts of climate change.”

Republicans running for president rejected the Pope’s view. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said he does not “get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my Pope.” Former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) said he prefers “leaving science to the scientists.”

“When we [Catholics] get involved with political and controversial scientific theories, then I think the church is probably not as forceful and credible,” he said.

That’s a winning position in a GOP primary. But with the Pope against you and nearly half the voters saying global warming is a “serious issue,” it is a suicidal stand for a general election candidate.

Good luck with that, GOP.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.