Dateline May 3, 2019
Yesterday the US House of Representatives passed the first major climate legislation in nearly a decade. The Climate Action Now Act (H.R. 9) prohibits the use of federal funds to advance the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement. The Act also compels the Trump administration to submit to Congress how the United States will achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below its 2005 level by 2025, within 120 days of its enactment. The targeted reduction levels were the ones President Obama committed to as the US’s nationally determined contributions (NDC) per the provisions of the Paris Agreement.
The outcome of the vote, largely along party lines, was hardly surprising. The Act’s primary sponsor, Representative Kathy Castor (D-FL), was joined by 223 Democratic co-sponsors—five more than the number of votes needed for passage. Most interesting perhaps was the favorable vote of three Republican representatives Vern Buchanan (FL), Brian Fitzpatrick (PA) and Elise Stefanik (NY). Castor is the chair of the newly created Select House Committee on the Climate Crisis.
With Republicans firmly in control of the Senate, the legislation stands no chance of passage. The only surprise I can imagine would be Majority Leader McConnell letting it see the light of day on the Senate floor. It is not to say that there wasn’t any drama surrounding the legislation.
In advance of the vote, Speaker Pelosi and other Democratic House leaders met with the Democratic caucus behind closed doors. In the meeting, members were encouraged to focus their comments on the benefits of unleashing the clean energy economy in the US rather than on the Agreement.
The leaders’ “urgings” anticipated the response that would be needed as pushback to Republican claims that the Democrats are profligate spenders and subversive socialists when it comes to climate policy. All Republican roads these days seem to lead back to the Green New Deal (GND) and its wildly hypothetical estimated cost of $93 trillion.
Written into the Act was another anticipatory defense to Republican charges. A core complaint of the White House and other Republican denialists is whatever the US does to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) will make no difference overall because Russia, India, and China will continue belching carbon particles into the atmosphere. The Act’s answer is to require the President to submit a second plan on how the United States will use the Paris Agreement’s transparency provisions to confirm that other parties to the Agreement with major economies are fulfilling their announced contributions to the Agreement.
The unity shown by House Democrats on H.R. 9 is a bit misleading. Unlike the Green New Deal resolution (H.R. 109), no righteous climate defending Democrat could have possibly found fault with either its intent or its wording. Speaker Pelosi (D-CA) chose wisely in making this the first foray of a climate bill onto the floor for a vote.
The yawning divide between moderates and progressives that was much in evidence from the day after the 2018 midterm elections remains. Progressives are still leery about the commitment of leadership and House moderates to take steps they believe bold enough, i.e., in-line with the GND, to combat climate change and satisfy their constituencies.
Oddly, the Democratic left and the Republican right share some of the same feelings about the Climate Action Act. Representative Tom Cole (R-OK) called the measure “simply another messaging bill to go on record against President Trump.” RL Miller, a co-founder of Climate Hawks Votes, said of the Act it was nice but extremely insufficient and labeled it a junior varsity bill.
The sentiment captures the worry of the progressives in general who remain suspicious of the Democratic establishment. The creation of a virtually toothless Select House Committee on the Climate Crisis under the leadership of the moderate Congresswoman Castor was not met with particularly joyful huzzahs from aggressive advocate groups like the Sunshine Movement. It is fair to say that Castor’s prime sponsorship of the bill was in part a gesture to reassure progressives of the Congresswoman’s climate creds.
Moderates are worried that the progressives are going to lose the Democrats the election in 2020. Speaker Pelosi has been nothing short of masterful in her ability to keep peace and unity within House ranks. How long the peace will remain is the question.
Tensions in the House are being added to by the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. All 22 candidates are on board with the need to combat climate change. They are not, however, of one mind on how to do that and are already taking shots at each other with more than a year to go.
Beto O’Rourke announced his version of a Green New Deal on April 29th. His policy outline is among the most detailed issued to date by any candidate—although it, like the GND, is shy of specifics. Almost immediately after the announcement was made Governor Inslee (D-WA), a contender running almost exclusively on a climate/environment platform, called O’Rourke’s plan aspirational—a term that has taken on a contemptuous tone in today’s climate vernacular. Inslee has promised to release his own version of a national climate strategy in coming weeks.
O’Rourke’s plan calls for a $5 trillion public-private sector investment in infrastructure, communities and energy technology over ten years. O’Rourke is promising that within days of being sworn in as president he would ask Congress to pass—within the first 150 days of his administration—a legally enforceable national standard to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. How the plan would be paid for remains fuzzy.
Inslee was not the only politician less than impressed by the O’Rourke plan. Representative Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), the “godmother” of the 2018 GND, thought the plan not aggressive enough. She noted publicly that O’Rourke’s 30-year goal, unlike the Green New Deal’s 10-year time frame, does not include the power sector solely but covers all greenhouse emissions — including, for example, gases from transportation and farming.
The Sunrise Movement, a major supporter of the New York representative and mover of the GND, initially shared Ocasio-Cortez’s negative reaction to O’Rourke’s proposal. Interestingly Sunrise walked back its initial criticism of O’Rourke’s plan just hours after the Hill reported that O’Rourke signed the group's pledge not to take campaign donations from fossil fuel companies and returned all the donations he has received since launching his campaign that don’t meet the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge's requirements.
Although still disappointed by the target date of 2050 the Sunrise was “heartened” by O’Rourke’s taking the pledge. The organization’s leader, Varshini Prakash, acknowledged the group’s initial comments were a “bit too hot," failing to focus on what was right about it. The entrance of Sunrise into what appears to be a negotiation of their initial stance is notable because it suggests a softening of what has been a very strident position over the past months.
Whether the Movement’s willingness to negotiate is a one-off occurrence or the beginning of a new “softer” search for consensus legislation only time will tell. Much will depend upon how much Sunrise and other progressives are willing to give in order to get a Democratic president. Therein lies the quandary that is likely to haunt the Democrats throughout the 2019-2020 election cycle.
The large field of Democratic Wannabes all trying to distinguish themselves from their opponents is creating multiple variations of the Green New Deal theme. The various schemes are going to complicate life for the 2020 Democratic platform committee as it grapples to find a unifying message—just as it will make life difficult for House Democrats to come to some agreement on a unified legislative agenda.
If the internal politics were not already tough enough, there is the recent statement by Dr. James Hansen that the Green New Deal is ‘nonsense.’
Dr. Hansen is not only one of the world’s most renown climate scientists; he is the GODFATHER of climate defenders. Hansen put his job and reputation on the line by testifying before Congress in 1988 warning of the dangers of climate change and the responsibility borne by humans in causing it. Today Dr. Hansen is being called to the witness stands in dozens of novel climate change lawsuits. The suits range from Juliana v. US which looks to establish a constitutional right to a habitable environment to state valve turner cases in which criminal defendants claim a compelling necessity defense.
Passage of the Climate Action Now Act marks the end of a decade’s drought of meaningful climate legislation in Congress. It also marks the beginning of what promises to be a loud, boisterous, and complicated march towards the 2020 presidential elections. One that has been too long in coming.
P.S. Yesterday’s House vote coincidentally comes on the heels of the UK Parliament’s declaring a climate and environment emergency. Although the action does not legally bind the UK government to act, it too marks a new beginning.
Lead image: Photo by Matt ? on Unsplash
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Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.