I admit that most of my musings treat Republicans worse than Democrats when it comes to discussing what's afoot in the worlds of climate change and clean energy. The left-leaning tilt of my writings, however, is more a function of my concern for the environment than it is representative of loyalty to any party.
I take some pride, in fact, in not being loyal to any party and willing to vote for the candidate whose views on the environment and other issues, e.g., justice, most nearly reflect my own. In the name of fairness and in memoriam of the Zapple Doctrine, I am turning my attention today to the Democrats and what I believe is their abandonment of the environment in the Age of Trump—starting with a recent article in the Washington Post (WaPo) with the subheading:
When's a good time to talk climate change? Trump officials say: Not during a natural disaster.
The official in question is Secretary of the Interior Zinke whose anti-environmental stance is well-documented. The occasion of his refusal to discuss climate change was his visit to Northern California and the devastating Carr Fire.
There’s no disputing Zinke denies any connection between global warming and the increased frequency and severity of California forest fires. Typical of the man and the Administration he belittled the environmentalists for drawing a connection with hotter and longer summers and the past several years of devastating forest fires in California and elsewhere in the world, e.g., Portugal.
What I do dispute is the article’s claim that Democrats and their allies in the environmental movement, on the other hand, use the disasters as opportunities to bring up global warming. Although true of climate defenders, when it comes to Democrats not so much.
Just days before the WaPo piece Kelsey Tamborrino wrote in Politico:
With wildfires raging in California and rising temperatures shattering records across the globe, Democratic lawmakers have remained markedly silent on the link between extreme weather and climate change — and it hasn't gone unnoticed.
Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), like Zinke, begged off blaming climate change while the wildfires were still burning. The Senator, however, expressed concern for the safety and well-being of both residents and firefighters.
Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz’s explained the silence of the Democrats this way. It's more effective if we allow people to draw their own conclusions. What we've found is independents and Republicans are moving in our direction. The moment we turn it into a partisan question, people put their uniforms back on and take their positions.
Senator Schatz is undoubtedly right about the partisan nature of the climate debate. I wonder, however, what he’s looking at when he speaks of the movement of Republicans in the direction of defending the nation against the ravages of climate change.
The still burning California fires are not the first time Democrats have chosen silence over mentioning any possible connection between climate change and the devastating consequences of burning forests and raging storms. Last year’s hurricanes also seemed to quell the desire of the Democrats to discuss any possible links between global warming and the hundreds of billions of dollars of damages wrought in the wake of hurricanes like Harvey and Irma.
Interviews with Democratic members of Congress during and just after these named storms elicited mostly reasons why any connection between climate change and these catastrophic weather events was not even being mentioned. According to Senator Whitehouse (D-RI), a renowned climate hawk, We [Democrats] have a lot of time to make that point, and I think we also have a lot of legislative opportunities as we look at reauthorizing flood insurance and funding the disaster relief.
Another Democratic senator echoed Whitehouse’s thoughts about having plenty of time. He also vowed that a broader climate conversation would be coming soon. Evidently, he didn’t mean this soon. It was suggested, somewhat cheekily, that the Democrats appear to be heeding the warnings of Trump appointees like Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who said last week that it’s “very, very insensitive to the people in Florida” to talk about climate change now.
I have an easier time understanding the sentiments of the various Democratic senators, who are trying to be sensitive about turning disaster scenes into partisan debates about their causes and continually worsening consequences than I do understanding what Al Gore said during a recent interview.
According to Gore:
He (Trump) has had less of an impact so far than I feared that he would. Someone said last year that his administration is a blend of malevolence and incompetence. I think they’ve made some mistake in some of the moves they made. The courts have blocked some of what they want to do as a result.
It’s hard for one person, even the president, to change things very quickly if the majority of American people don’t want them changed….there are hundreds of other environmental procedures and regulations that Trump’s group has begun to undo. So, he’s doing some damage, but overall I would say less than I feared.
I shudder thinking what the world Gore feared must be like. I’ll grant Gore that Trump has not yet caused a full-on environmental Armageddon, but he and his appointees are doing a bang-up job not only in dismantling Obama’s legacy but in rolling environmental regulations back to a pre-Nixonian period. According to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Trump and company have withdrawn or substantially revised five federal regulations for every one passed—many of which were rules involving environmental protections.
On the Trump environmental hit parade are auto and light truck fuel efficiency standards, the Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the US (WOTUS) rule, methane emissions from commercial mining and oil and gas drilling on federal lands, and the removal of known carcinogens from the “do not use” list of chemicals and pesticides. The administration is now rumored to have light bulbs in its sights. Deregulating the environment, including efforts to maintain dirty, shitty coal plants that even the utility industry considers unnecessary emitters of greenhouse gases and threats to potable water sources are among the few actions that Trump has actually accomplished.
Add to the deregulatory actions the record number of federal judicial appointments, including two seats on the Supreme Court, and I think Mr. Gore would find that Trump is having a frightening impact on the environment. An impact which cannot be easily or quickly undone even should the Democrats take the White House and both chambers of Congress in 2020.
I do understand that Democrats are in the minority in matters of federal governance and procedurally incapable of stopping the Trump administration’s assault on the nation’s natural resources and environment or his judicial appointments. I further recognize that Democratic members of Congress in both the House and Senate have introduced legislation—albeit symbolic given the balance of power—that would put in place new policies and programs to combat climate change. None, however, offer an integrated approach to energy and the environment--rather they are piecemeal approaches to the problem.
It’s troubling that when Democrats do have control of a situation many cast climate in terms of secondary importance if it’s mentioned at all. Leadership by example is to be expected, particularly because of the low esteem in which politics and politicians are held by most voters. As historically low as Trump’s approval ratings, people’s opinion of Congress is even lower. (See Figure 1 )
Earlier this summer Christine Pelosi, a party activist, and daughter of the House Minority Leader, proposed to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) a resolution to refuse political action committee (PAC) contributions from the fossil fuel industry:
BE IT RESOLVED that the Democratic National Committee acts to revive trust in our Party by reaffirming our progressive, pro-environment 2016 Platform, encouraging grassroots donors, and rejecting corporate PAC contributions from the fossil fuel industry that conflict with our DNC Platform in order to empower Democrats to walk our talk in harmony with our stated beliefs and convictions.
The co-author of the resolution and president of Climate Hawks Political Action, R. L. Miller, explained the motivation behind the proposal. We talk about how climate change is real, and climate change is a planetary emergency, what we need to do is stop taking money from the institutions that have created this crisis. Miller also spoke of the possibility of a follow-on resolution that would ban contributions over $200 from anyone working for the fossil fuel industry.
Miller had planned to introduce the $200 limit at the DNC’s next full board meeting on August 10th in Chicago. A new resolution was passed by the DNC at the meeting; it just wasn’t the one that Pelosi and Miller had expected. The resolution was offered by Tom Perez, Chair of the DNC and read:
BE IT ALSO RESOLVED THAT, the DNC gratefully acknowledges and will continue to welcome the longstanding and generous contributions of workers, including those in energy and related industries, who organize and donate to Democratic candidates individually or through their unions’ or employers’ political action committees.
Not an outright reversal of the earlier resolution, it was as good as Pelosi, Miller and other environmental activists could have imagined.
DNC spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said the resolution came in response to “concerns from Labor” that the original fossil fuel donations ban “was an attack on workers.” According to the Huffington Post fewer than 5 percent of workers in the mining sector—including oil, gas, and coal—are union members. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, however, remains a strong supporter of pipelines and has donated more than $300,000 to the DNC this year.
Oil and gas companies are not, in the main, large Democratic contributors. In 2016 these companies spent $7.6 million on Democratic races compared to $53.7 million in donations to Republicans. (See Figure 2)
Money talks as they say in politics. Although in fairness I don’t think money was Perez’s only motivation in introducing the resolution. The Democrats recognize that they are considered the Party of East/West Coastal Americans and need to be more welcoming and pertinent to voters in Middle America. For the moment many in the middle are closer to Trump’s core supporters in environmental outlook than to Miller, Pelosi, Tom Steyer or Bill McKibben, founder of the outspoken climate activist group 350.org.
The battling resolutions are, I think, a reflection of the dilemma the Democrats are facing not just in environmental matters. The message of Democrats remains muddled. A platform solely based on being anti-Trump will only go so far. However, if America is ever to have an effective and stable climate action strategy, it is incumbent upon political leaders to inform voters about major issues.
These days the only candidate—perhaps more correctly one of the very few—who appears willing to make the environment and climate change mainstays of her candidacy is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ocasio-Cortez turned political pros on their heads with her primary victory over Representative Joe Crowley (D-NY), the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House. Proving the pundits and establishment professionals wrong, Ocasio-Cortez tapped into many of the same voter feelings and concerns with establishment politicians that propelled Trump into the White House.
Technically Ocasio-Cortez isn’t even a Democrat. Like Bernie Sanders, she labels herself a socialist and if elected in November—as seems inevitable—will caucus with the Democrats. Candidate Ocasio-Cortez has proposed a Green New Deal borrowing an image from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s to get the nation out of the Great Depression and prepared for World War II.
In her own words:
In terms of what I want to propose in Congress, we talk a lot about a Green New Deal. We talk a lot about very aggressively switching to 100 percent renewable energy as quickly as possible. We need a Marshall Plan for renewable energy in the United States. The idea that the Democratic Party needs to be moderate is what’s holding us back on this. We need to be identifying our safest seat and using those seats to advance the most ambitious vision possible that the Democratic Party wants to espouse. When people ask what the Democratic Party stands for, there often isn’t an answer beyond giving everyone equal rights. That the party’s “big idea” in 2018 is that people should be equal…that alone points to far how we have regressed and how little we’re advancing a vision beyond that.
I don’t feel like we have a Congress that is building popular support around these ideas. If we don’t have that, we need to be organizing outside the chamber and organizing popular support. That’s what the Republican Party has been doing while Democrats have been asleep at the wheel.
It is hard for any climate defender to disagree with Ocasio-Cortez’s casting of the problem. Her proposed solution not only conforms to the magnitude of effort many in the climate community—particularly climate-scientists—believe is necessary to have half a chance of keeping Earth’s warming within reasonable bounds, but it also stands alone among the political class in Washington in its scope.
I don’t know that natural disasters like the current California wildfires or last year’s hurricanes are the products of climate change—although I suspect as much. Neither can I vouch for Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal as a realistic nor even politically possible approach to combatting climate change.
What I do know with confidence, if not absolute certainty, is that Trump’s willingness to let Nature fend both for herself and us against mounting emissions released by human activities—whether intentional or not—places our nation and the world in life-threatening jeopardy. As most of the Republicans in Congress have seemingly cast their lot with an administration that has shown itself indifferent to the environmental threats facing the nation, it is up to Democrats to take a stand.
With the odds favoring a Blue Wave in November, it would seem a reasonable time for Democratic candidates and sitting Senators not up for reelection to follow in the footsteps of a political upstart who was courageous enough to take on a powerful incumbent with a message that included climate change and the need to act. So to the Democrats I say if not now, when. If not you, then…………….?
Lead graphic: Creative Commons Pixabay
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.