Climate and the New House Majority

Slouching Towards Suburbia (Part 2)

· Climate change is once again in the public eye having hitched a ride on the coattails of newly elected Congressional candidates swept into office by November’s blue wave. The buzz is palpable, even though the most avid climate hawk knows that no major environmental legislation will be passed by Congress and signed into law before the 2020 national elections.

· In Part 1 of Slouching Towards Suburbia I wrote of the need for integrated national climate policies that transcend partisan politics and the importance of educated, affluent suburban voters to making that happen.

· Part 2 begins to address the political conflicts within and between the Democratic and Republican parties focusing first on the Green New Deal (GND) and the efforts of Democratic socialists like Representative Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and identity groups such as the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats to have it adopted as a plank of the Democratic Platform in 2020.

It’s useful — as well as heartening — to begin Part 2 of Slouching Towards Suburbia saying that most Americans agree that the climate is changing, and government is doing too little to combat it. Opinion surveys conducted in 2018 by Gallup, Pew, Stanford, Yale, and other reputable institutions all support the conclusion.

As deeply divided as Americans are these days about — well everything — who would have thought it to be true? According to the latest Yale/George Mason (GMU) survey, climate plays well in the aggregate with voters, particularly Democrats and independents. Figure1 shows, with hardly an exception that adults in the US believe that global warming is happening — as illustrated by the overwhelming yellow-to-dark red colors on the map. Large majorities believe climate change is real and majorities, in most communities, attribute it to human activity.

Interestingly the American Communities Project ran the Yale/GMU survey data through its typology and found five community types in which fewer than half believed warming was caused by human activity — even though more than half believed the climate changing. The five — -Evangelical Hubs, Working Class Country, Latter Day Saints Enclaves (LDS) and Aging Farmlands — shown in Figure 2 closely coincide with Trump’s core supporters.

There is a real-world disconnect between what respondents say and how they vote. In the case of the Yale/GMU survey when all registered voters are included, fewer than four in 10–38 percent — said the issue was very important to their vote, and just 2 percent said it was the most important consideration. Among self-described conservative Republicans, climate came in dead last on a list of 28 issues. Respondents in all categories from Liberal Democrats to Conservative Republicans placed environmental protection higher on their priority lists than climate change. (Figure 3) I understand why Democrats place greater emphasis on environmental regulation but think it odd that Republicans do as well.

Why odd? Deregulation of the environment has been a driving force of the Trump administration. It is also one of the few promises Trump has managed to keep. Four days after being sworn in he signed his second executive order Expediting Environmental Reviews and Approvals for High-Priority Infrastructure Projects. The order reads in part:

…it is the policy of the executive branch to streamline and expedite, in a manner consistent with law, environmental reviews and approvals for all infrastructure projects, especially projects that are a high priority for the Nation, such as improving the U.S. electric grid and telecommunications systems and repairing and upgrading critical port facilities, airports, pipelines, bridges, and highways.

The order was the opening salvo in Trump’s assault on the environment that has included rolling back almost the entirety of President Obama’s climate legacy including the Clean Power Plan (CPP), the Waters Rule of the U.S. (WOTUS), and Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards. The order was intended to expedite the construction of oil and gas pipelines, create exit points for the export of coal, oil and natural gas, as well as to give life to coal-fired electric generating plants that the free market is rejecting on the basis of cost and replacing with natural gas and clean energy sources like wind and solar.

“Protection” is just another term for “regulation.” As deregulation of the environment is a cornerstone of the Trump agenda, I would have anticipated environmental protection to be ranked by Trumplicans at the same level as global warming. It appears from the table that only liberal Democrats thought the same.

Recent surveys show that Republican and Democrats underestimate how much agreement there is around the causes and consequences of climate change. A study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science concluded that people anticipate that others, their fellow Republican and Democratic citizens will be even more polarized and influenced by political party than they actually are.

According to one of the study’s authors, the [false] perception of within-party unanimity makes it very difficult to cross party lines.

The Yale/GMU survey found that Republicans don’t see global warming as a proximate problem. Despite years of media attention and the release of multiple reports documenting the current consequences of the changing global environment, only 15 percent of Republican respondents viewed climate change as an urgent problem. The number has changed little since 1999 — which should suggest to climate hawks the need to recalibrate the message and medium.

“Climate change belief alone is not the whole story.”

Cross-party conflicts are not the only ones flaring up these days. There are intra-party battles brewing — particularly among House Democrats and principally around global climate change.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) made climate a major issue in her stunning upset of Joe Crowley — the fourth-ranked Democrat in the House and a considered contender for Speaker. Ocasio-Cortez often referred to as “AOC,” is the youngest woman ever to be elected to Congress. The self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist made climate her central issue — proposing a program she called the Green New Deal (GND).

The GND is not a discrete legislative proposal; it’s an “idea.” Or, if you prefer, it is the title of a story yet to be written.

The concept Ocasio-Cortez has put forward rests on three primary pillars.

· Transitioning the power sector to 100 percent renewables by 2035.

· Making the transition to a low-carbon economy in a just manner — providing job training and employment at a living wage to everyone wanting a job.

· Investing heavily in the development of technologies and community infrastructure.

In some ways, the Green New Deal is more ambitious than the Depression-era program it is named for — incorporating aspects of the Great Society updated to reflect today’s realities. Although the span of the concept reflects the full breadth of the climate challenge in all its urgency and seeks a just transition to a low-carbon economy, the very vastness of the GND makes it politically hard to handle.

The two most remarkable things about the GND for the moment are the breadth of the vision encompassed by the idea and how quickly the concept has been embraced as the way forward for the nation. It is also becoming the standard by which “green” politicians will now be measured at least by millennials — a cohort needed by Democrats to have any chance of taking back the White House and winning the Senate.

The proposed GND was picked up by the Sunrise Movement and other activist environmental groups like Climate Hawks Vote and The massive momentum of the concept is nothing short of startling. There are now dozens of members of Congress who have signed on in support of the initiative. Nearly every Democratic presidential aspirant being spoken of, e.g., Senator Warren (MA-D), Beto O’Rourke, and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), has indicated support for the concept.

On January 10th more than 600 organizations submitted a letter to the House of Representatives outlining the steps they believe are needed to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius — the aspirational goal of the Paris Climate Accord. The letter is both supportive and more expansive than Ocasio-Cortez’s original proposal.

Truth to politics the Green New Deal concept is not new. Tom Friedman first wrote of it in 2007 and later expanded on the idea in his book Hot, Flat and Crowded. By his own admission, the idea never took off despite President Obama making it a part of his 2008 platform.

The Green Party of the US proposed its version of a Green New Deal in 2010. Like the current version of the GND, the Green Party’s went beyond the en-vironment to include creating millions of jobs, tuition-free higher education, and the setting of science-based emission reduction targets. To pay for the program, the green group recommended cutting military spending by 70 percent — rather than Ocasio-Cortez’s suggestion of taxing the very wealthy at the same rate.

The mainstay of AOC’s proposal was the creation of a special House com-mittee that would use the time running up to the 2020 election to draft the actual legislation. The proposed GND committee paralleled a promise that Pelosi was making to highlight the priority status a Democratic House maj-ority would place on combatting climate change once it was in the majority. She promised, as Speaker, to appoint a select committee much like the one she had appointed in 2007.

The Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming was chaired by then-Representative Markey (D-MA). Working closely with the House Energy and Commerce Committee a cap-and-trade bill was proposed and introduced into the then-Democratic Congress. The legislation, popularly known as Waxman-Markey, narrowly passed the House but failed in the Senate. The website of the Committee has been archived here and includes copies of testimony and committee reports.

Pelosi’s run for the Speaker’s chair encountered resistance from a handful of progressive members of the Democratic caucus most of whom also signed on as supporters of the Green New Deal. As part of her negotiations to secure the needed votes, Pelosi repeated her promise to establish a select committee.

The Speaker’s promise was taken to mean a select committee resembling the committee proposed by Ocasio-Cortez and groups like Sunrise with the mission of drafting the GND legislation to be introduced in 2020. It hasn’t turned out that way, however.

Speaker Pelosi has now created the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and appointed as its chair Representative Kathy Castor (D-FL). Castor is a seven-term Congresswoman. She is a longtime member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and a member of Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC).

The newly established select committee has been tasked to “prepare the way with evidence’ for energy conservation and other climate change mitig-ation legislation.” A charge not unlike the one given to the Markey committee which read:

Its sole authority shall be to investigate, study, make findings, and develop recommendations on policies, strategies…intended to reduce the dependence of the United States on foreign sources of energy and …permanent reductions …activities that contribute to climate change and global warming.

The committee contemplated by the Green New Deal(ers) would have had authorities similar to standing committees like the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Although able to hold hearings and make policy recommendations, the Select Committee has neither subpoena power nor a license to draft formal legislation. Legislative recommendations can be made by the Committee, but they will need to go through the standing committee structure firmly in the control of Pelosi’s leadership group.

Incoming progressive freshman House members, along with the Sunrise Movement, made the select committee a top priority. The select committee was being pursued for the express purpose of fleshing out the bones of the proposed GND through hearings and reports.

In a recent interview, Castor indicated that the Climate Crisis committee was to have a “wider” agenda than the GND. According to Congresswoman — while Green New Deal proponents “have some terrific ideas,” the bold proposal supported by 81 percent of Americans will not be the “sole focus” of the new Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. Castor, however, has highlighted two of the pillars of the GND — the urgency of reducing carbon emissions and job creation. Whether the recommendations of the select committee will be as “big” as Ocasio-Cortez and other supporters have in mind is another matter.

The reaction GND advocates outside of Congress has not been welcoming. It has, in some cases, been more in the nature of a warning. Upon hearing what Pelosi and Castor have said would be the mission and work of the Climate Crisis committee a spokesman for Ocasio-Cortez said the committee would be as useful as a screen door on a submarine.

Justice Democrats, a group that has supported Ocasio-Cortez and assisted the mobilization of young advocates on the Hill — 150 of whom were arrested for having staged a sit-in in Congressional hallways and offices — termed the actions of Pelosi, Castor and other Democratic House leaders weak and “not the leadership this moment calls for.”

There is a fair amount of speculation about why the Speaker established the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis the way she did. The best explanation is the one most obvious. The last time Democrats controlled the House was in the 111th Congress (2009–2010). The only other time since 2000 that Democrats were a majority in the House was the 110th. (2007–2008). Senior Democrats have been waiting in the wings since 2010 to make their marks as chairs of key standing committees like Budget, Energy and Commerce, Oversight and Reform, Natural Resources, and Science, Space, and Technology.

Senior Democrats are understandably not willing to share their new powers given who is in the White House and the leverage they now have not only to introduce and pass legislation but to investigate the conduct of Administration officials. Before Speaker Pelosi moved to set-up the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, in-coming Democratic committee chairs were publicly asking what a select committee could do that couldn’t be done by a standing committee.

There is an obvious and natural generational tension between senior and junior lawmakers; and, it will continue to be an element throughout the entirety of the 116th Congress. Only time will tell if the tension is constructive or destructive.

As positive as it is to have climate policy back on the front pages of newspapers and social media sites, there are also danger signs having to do both with the polarization of the Democratic party in much the same way the Tea Party impacted the Republicans. In Part 3 of Slouching Towards Suburbia, I will discuss further how the Green New Deal is impacting the debate on national climate policy in and out of Congress and its impact on Democratic presidential and congressional candidates in the 2020 election.

Lead image: Alex Radelich courtesy of Unsplash

Something new for 2019 — We’re now on the air. My colleague, Jennifer Delony, and I can now be heard weekly on Zero Net Fifty discussing environmental politics. Check it out, and let us know what you think and topics you might like covered.




News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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Joel B. Stronberg

Joel B. Stronberg

Stronberg is a thought leader in the climate community with over 40 years of experience covering environmental and sustainability issues as a freelancer.

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