Energy & Environment

Dems damp down hopes for climate change agenda

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Democrats are unlikely to pursue major climate change legislation if they win the House majority, despite a growing body of evidence suggesting time is running out to address the issue. 

This represents a shift in strategy from when House Democrats last controlled the chamber. In 2009, they passed cap-and-trade legislation, which subsequently died in the Democratic-controlled Senate. The game plan for next year, House Democrats say, is more incremental steps and hearings.

{mosads}With President Trump in the White House and Republicans favored to keep the Senate next year, climate legislation would face stiff headwinds, and pushing it could spark backlash from the right — both now and after the Nov. 6 midterm elections.

Considering those “constraints,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Democrats should “focus on the practical and the opportunistic” to make short-term progress while fighting for bolder measures — “the aspirational goals” — over the longer term. 

“It’s going to be, I think, more of an opportunistic strategy, where, in various pieces of legislation, across the board, we’re going to insert measures that address climate change,” said Connolly, a leader in the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition.

The office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a fierce environmentalist who ushered the cap-and-trade bill through the lower chamber almost a decade ago, declined to comment about the Democrats’ future climate plans. Pelosi has been touring the country stumping for Democratic candidates, with a focus on economic and health-care issues.

Others anticipate a piecemeal approach to climate policy if the Democrats win the chamber.

“I could imagine that we can do ancillary pieces that are very much reinforcing this issue and concern for climate change,” said Rep. Paul Tonko (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s environment subcommittee.

Not all Democrats share that view. Faced with more data on a warming planet — and the role of human activity in exacerbating the trend — some lawmakers want the party to use its would-be majority to push a bold, sweeping package to hike the cost of carbon emissions.

Their urgency has been fueled by a new report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which forecasts impacts like massive coral reef die-offs, increased drought and sea-level rise by 2040 if emissions are not significantly cut by 2030. The report’s authors said current climate policies and the 2015 Paris agreement — which Trump promised to exit — are not nearly enough to avoid disaster.

“I do think we need to go big,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.). “I’m all for incrementalism in policy. We do lots and lots of it, and it’s a good way to move forward. But this situation is so serious that we can’t do it in little steps.”

Beyer acknowledged the political hurdles facing such a plan, not least Trump’s rejection of consensus climate science. But he sees a path for working with moderate Republican senators and getting a climate change bill to the president’s desk. If it gets that far, he thinks Trump — enticed by the opportunity to claim a victory — might change his tune.

“Politically, it wouldn’t be smart for Democrats to give him a win, but we’re not talking about politics, we’re talking about the fate of the planet and the fate of humanity,” Beyer said.

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), a co-chairman of the bipartisan, 90-member Climate Solutions Caucus, rejected the notion that pricing-up carbon is beyond reach, even in the current political environment. He’s pushing for a bipartisan carbon-fee bill that, if passed by the House, would then put pressure on Trump and Senate Republicans to act. 

“I’m not expecting the president to lead on this,” he said, “but I think Congress has an opportunity, the House has an opportunity, to move something forward — hopefully with bipartisan support — that the president would then have to respond to.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer is also on board for bold action. The Oregon Democrat said fighting carbon pollution will be “a top priority” if Democrats win the House. 

“My preferred method has been a putting a price on carbon — cap-and-trade is complex and less efficient,” he said.

Progressive groups, a vocal part of Democrats’ base, are certain to push for such an aggressive approach — as will many Democrats who launch 2020 presidential bids. Still, those lawmakers anticipating sweeping climate legislation appear to be in the minority, as more Democrats see a political environment that’s simply too hostile to move a major climate bill.

In a “60 Minutes” interview that aired on Sunday, Trump addressed the changing climate: “I think something’s happening. Something’s changing and it’ll change back again. I don’t think it’s a hoax, I think there’s probably a difference. But I don’t know that it’s man-made.”

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said the notion that cap-and-trade or carbon tax legislation could pass the Senate and win Trump’s signature “is extremely unlikely.” He suggested Democrats adopt a two-tier approach: Pass piecemeal bills on issues where there’s bipartisan buy-in — like energy efficiency and grid modernization — while simultaneously holding hearings on the larger climate problem to build support among industry leaders and other stakeholders.  

“We can’t be blind to the reality of Donald Trump’s climate change denial,” Welch said. “We can’t put all our eggs in that basket.” 

Instead, Democrats are eyeing relatively small-ball measures that push energy efficiency, modernize the electric grid to handle more renewable energy, increase incentives for power sources like wind and solar and provide more infrastructure for electric vehicles.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip, said Democrats across the board deem the warming trend a threat to both national security and public health, urging Republicans to tackle it in bipartisan fashion “instead of denying climate change is real and taking steps to exacerbate it.” He singled out energy efficiency and clean energy technology as two areas “of potential bipartisan agreement.”

The failure in 2010 of the Democrats’ cap-and-trade bill is still fresh in House Democrats’ minds. Republicans won 63 seats and the House majority in 2010, campaigning against Democrats on climate change and ObamaCare.

Polling continually shows that voters rank climate far down on their list of priorities. And although energy prices are lower than they were a decade or so ago, few lawmakers want to be responsible for significant increases in consumers’ costs or job losses that could accompany new policies.

Democrats, who are now favored to seize the House, have crafted their campaign message around issues like increasing working-class wages and lowering the cost of prescription drugs. They think the kitchen-table agenda will resonate more effectively, particularly in conservative-leaning districts where voters tend to be wary of the economic impact of climate legislation.

As Speaker of the House in 2007, Pelosi struck deals with then-President George W. Bush on a variety of bills but didn’t push climate change until former President Obama was in the White House. Addressing the issue before the 2008 election, Pelosi said, “I’m trying to save the planet.”

Environmentalists agree with the Democrats’ strategy.

“A long time ago, we came to the realization that there was no real possibility that truly progressive climate legislation was going to be signed by President Trump,” said Lukas Ross, senior policy analyst at Friends of the Earth.

Instead, Ross wants Democrats to focus on investigating the Trump administration and holding officials’ feet to the fire for its environmental rollbacks.

Ana Unruh Cohen, managing director of government affairs at NRDC Action Fund, said next year wouldn’t be the right time for big efforts on climate. The group is the campaign affiliate of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“You have to hit some singles and doubles to load the bases to hit a grand slam. I think Democratic leadership will be trying to get those bases loaded, even as some others in the caucus will be trying to point to the fences and lay out a big vision,” said Cohen.

“You have to hit some singles and doubles to load the bases to hit a grand slam. I think Democratic leadership will be trying to get those bases loaded, even as some others in the caucus will be trying to point to the fences and lay out a big vision,” said Cohen.

For the Trump administration’s supporters, the fear of a major climate bill shows that Democrats are afraid of backing up their words about climate with action.

“They will please their base, they will gin up the rhetoric on this,” said Tom Pyle, president of the industry-backed American Energy Alliance.

“As far as how bold they will be, it remains to be seen,” he said. “I see a lot of message bills and a whole lot of discussion about it.”

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), one of the lead sponsors of the ill-fated cap-and-trade bill when he was in the House, said the priority for House Democrats should be to restart the legislative conversation on climate.

“I think once Democrats start to have hearings on the severity of the problem, and how many jobs get created if you put in place a plan to deal with the crisis, that we would have a real chance at making some progress,” he said.

Tags Donald Trump Earl Blumenauer Ed Markey Gerry Connolly Nancy Pelosi Paul Tonko Peter Welch Steny Hoyer Ted Deutch
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