Climate defenders are finally getting our wish; climate change is on the front pages of newspapers and the lips of politicians of both parties. Social media is lit up with the talk of climate, and even late-night talk show hosts have gotten in on the act. This is what we’ve been waiting for--isn’t it?
The principal catalyst for this sudden turn-around in climate chatter is the Green New Deal (GND) that was proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) in her successful Congressional bid. Since the Democrats have taken control of the House, the GND concept has gone viral and with it has come the demand for more specifics.
Responding to the call, Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) put pen to paper and drafted House Resolution 109 (H. Res. 109) Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal. The Resolution, currently sponsored by 68 Democratic representatives, is only a placeholder for legislation that’s to be introduced months into the future. The Resolution has no legislative meaning and is non-binding. Release of the Resolution at a press event outside the Capitol has set-off a maelstrom of comments and criticisms across the climate defender-denier landscape.
I worry the announcement of H. Res. 109 and the events surrounding it—before and after—may end up doing more harm than good to the prospects of comprehensive climate legislation over the next 18 to 24 months. I understand the need for a rapid and broad-based response to Earth’s warming. I support a just transition. I agree that combatting climate change must occur on multiple fronts. In fact, there are few GND goals and objectives with which I disagree.
It’s not the overall substance of GND that concerns me; it’s the strategy being followed to introduce the concept to both Congress and the public. Through a series of missteps, GND leaders are dangerously close to ceding control of the needed national dialogue to Trumplican climate deniers—both on and off Capitol Hill.
The most serious misstep was the introduction of the Resolution itself. I can appreciate that GND leaders were being pressured for details of the grand scheme—with the greatest pressure coming from Trumplican climate deniers. I don’t understand, however, why it was thought necessary to respond to the nay-sayers and belittlers.
Trumplicans are of little importance at the moment. The only audience that should matter to the Democrats in Congress and the climate defense community for the next 12 to 18 months is the public. More specifically, the public that hasn’t already accepted the fact of climate change and the need to respond expeditiously.
Trump’s enablers and core supporters are not going to change their minds—no matter what evidence is offered. Climate-denial is a matter of principle with them—so why try to convince the inconvincible?
The most recent polls are on the side of the climate angels. Voters of both parties and independents are expressing increasing concern over Earth’s warming and confidence in mainstream climate science. Best of all, their confidence is based on personal experience—a circumstance making it harder for deniers to dispute.
Introducing too detailed a Resolution to a public that is just now coming to believe that climate science is not the hoax Trumplicans keep claiming it to be is a step too far. Although there are those in the target audience ready to consider various detailed options, more are needed to tip the scale towards activism.
The first step, therefore, should be to raise the level of general understanding of the problem—causes and consequences. The means to do that is already within the climate defense community—Democratic control of the House committee structure.
For the first time in nearly a decade, standing House committees are engaging leading climate scientists in a dialogue on what the most recent evidence, e.g., rapidly melting ice packs at both ends of the world and continuation of rising average seasonal temperatures, is saying about the nature and rate of change that is occurring. The month of climate hearings now going on in the House are intended to re-start the national conversation on what to do to slow the rate of warming and make communities more resilient.
Under Republican control, these same House committees wasted the nation’s time looking for credible scientific support to repudiate the conclusions of the Administration’s scientists in the Fourth National Climate Assessment and what voter eyes are seeing, e.g., more frequent, intense and, damaging storms. When evidence was found wanting, Republican denialists like Joe Barton (R-TX) took a page from the White House playbook and lied. According to Barton:
Democratic control of the House has reset the national dialogue on climate—laying the groundwork for proposed solutions that could be debated as part of the 2020 national elections.
Based on reports it was never the intention of AOC and her supporters in and out of Congress to draft or enroll a Green New Deal bill on their own before the end of the year. They had asked Speaker Pelosi to take a familiar course and appoint a new select committee. In her first term as Speaker, she had established a Select Committee under then Representative Markey (D-MA) that laid the groundwork for the Waxman-Markey bill that looked to establish a national cap-and-trade program.
Granted the select House committee appointed by Speaker Pelosi is not the one originally conceived of to convert the concept of a Green New Deal into actual legislation. For example, the Committee’s “official” powers are limited, e.g., it can’t move legislation to the House floor, compared to a standing committee like Energy and Commerce. As established, the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis will be investigating multiple policy options.
Still, it appeared as if there was peace and confidence enough in the combination of the new select and existing standing committees to bring about a Democratic climate action plan towards the end of the year after the various committees have heard from science and policy experts. A plan that would hopefully be made part of the Democratic policy platform picked up by the presidential and congressional candidates during the campaign and put in force after the 2020 elections—assuming of course that Democrats were able to capture both Congress and the White House.
The original strategy of a Green New Deal bill(s) being the product of Congressional hearings and committee deliberations has been lost to the media frenzy surrounding AOC and other first-term members of Congress. The sizzle around the GND has been selling so well that Republican deniers find themselves faced with having to push against both the hardest and softest thing of all in politics--an idea that sparks the imagination and offers a relatable vision of a better tomorrow.
There are times in politics when vagueness is to be preferred. I believe this is one of those times. People will fill in the blanks with details reflective of their positions and priorities. Climate defenders are likely to see the GND in its less detailed conceptual form as accommodative of their preferred solutions, e.g., environmental regulation and federal incentives for private investment.
Years ago, Al Capp introduced into his Li’l Abner comic strip the shmoo—a small creature that could taste like any food you desired. In its less defined state, the GND was a political concept that could be anything a climate defender wanted it to be. Its very vagueness allowed its creators to paint in broader brush strokes—to combine the elements of technological change and social justice in the same frame—at least for the purposes of discussion.
Consider that many of the nation’s foundational environmental laws are shmoo-like and for good reason. The Clean Air Act (CAA), for example, requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate the emission of harmful pollutants that “endanger public health and welfare.” The Act doesn’t prescribe what those emissions are or at what point, i.e., parts per million, they become a danger.
The details of any regulation have been deliberately left up to the EPA because the Agency has access to the experts and research laboratories needed to make the determination and because of the virtual impossibility of getting a bill through Congress and signed by any president that detailed which gases and at what amounts they should be regulated.
It is important to remember that in 1970, 1977 and 1990 when the CAA was substantially amended, bipartisanship was still being practiced. Sweeping revisions of the Act in 1990 by amendments proposed by President H.W. Bush passed the House and the Senate respectively by votes of 401-21 and 89-11. The 101st Congress was controlled by the Democrats—the Senate split was 55-45 and the House 260-175.
Even in those times of inter-party cooperation, the CAA spoke to objectives, leaving most of the details to executive agencies. The working relationship between Congress and executive agencies also means regulations can more easily grow as new knowledge and experience are gained. The alternative would be regularly requiring new legislation—which would likely take much longer than an agency’s updating existing regulations.
The regulations needed to implement the amended Act—many of which Trump and company are trying to roll back to a pre-Nixonian era—were not put in place before the US Supreme Court decided landmark cases like Massachusetts v. EPA. The CAA example also reflects the operation of a government based upon three equal branches of government.
Executive agencies and federal courts are going to become involved under any scenario, so there is no particular advantage to requiring all rule changes to be initiated by the legislature. It will only add more time to the process. Even with the historic rate at which Trump is filling federal judicial seats, the courts remain the bulwark against many of the Administration’s rollback efforts.
Since the introduction of the GND resolution, the discussion on climate change has gone from shmoos to cow farts and accusations of a deep socialist state. It’s like the members of Congress, and the media are six years old again—or maybe they still are because of arrested political development. Worse, the national climate dialogue is beginning to resemble a trope worthy of Trump with Fake or Mistakenly Released Memos and legal advisors lying on cable news.
The consequences of climate change are already being experienced. So, there can be no question that dramatic steps must be taken and quickly to have any real chance of first slowing and then reversing the rise in Earth’s average temperature.
It is unfortunate that it has taken so long for Americans even to approach the point where climate defense is considered an actionable priority. Time and a changing climate wait for no one.
Why it has taken so long is a topic for another day. That the fault is shared by both the denier and the defense communities cannot be productively questioned. Less resistance and more effective messaging would certainly have made the path more negotiable—but it is what it was, and now it is time to move on.
Is the Green New Deal the answer? Quite possibly it is. Definitely, it represents the magnitude of the approach necessary to accomplish the task. However, it is too soon to argue the details of a plan that all seem to agree is not likely to have any chance of being put in place for at least several years.
It’s too soon to make the GND a litmus test for candidates in the 2020 election. It is too soon to ask voters to choose their preferred solutions for the problem.
I agree with Senator Markey, McConnell’s rushing a Senate vote on the Green New Deal Resolution is an attempt to avoid a true national debate and kill climate defenders to organize. It’s what happens when a hand is over-played. I don’t like what the Senate Majority is threatening to do.
However, I can’t fault McConnell for using what has been offered him. I would confidently wager that Senator Schumer (D-NY) would be threatening the same as McConnell is trying had the roles been reversed.
Senator Markey’s opposition to a near-term vote and a request for more time tells me that climate defenders are themselves worried about the outcome of the vote on the Resolution. I don’t understand what is to be gained by floor votes.
An outcome along party lines is meaningless. Truth to politics, there will be Democrats who either vote NO or Present. On the Senate side, Manchin (D-WV) can’t support the Resolution. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) has indicated that he doesn’t need to vote to prove he believes in climate change and is intent on doing something about. He seems just as intent not to be boxed in by voting for the Resolution.
The story is the same on the House side. Standing House committee chairs like Representatives Pallone (Energy and Commerce) and Grijalva (Natural Resources) have already had their feathers ruffled by a new and very active group of Democrats considered to the left of establishment progressives that want to prejudge what their committees will conclude after multiple hearings. I sure they are not alone in wanting to hold back. Moderate Democrats that managed to unseat Republican incumbents will face a lot of pressure from their moderate Republican and Independent supporters.
If I were to make a prediction—not that I am, mind you—I would predict that Speaker Pelosi will find a way to keep a vote on H. Res. 109 from happening. Remember, you didn’t hear that from me.
Lead image: Photo by Anders Jildén 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.