The climate is changing, and humans are contributing to these changes. We believe that there is much common ground on which all sides of this discussion could come together to address climate change with policies that are practical, flexible, predictable, and durable.
— The US Chamber of Commerce
The US Chamber of Commerce, through its Global Energy Institute (GEI), recently announced the launch of a major new climate initiative called the American Energy: Cleaner, Stronger campaign. It’s admitted purpose is to “counter the Green New Deal (GND) with an energy innovation agenda…to persuade the public and Congress that technology is better than regulation in addressing climate change.” (emphasis added).
In taking a swipe at the GND, the Chamber has handed its progressive Democratic authors and supporters a key victory—certainly something it had not intended to do.
Whatever the Green New Deal is or isn’t, the idea of it has accomplished what was thought Impossible just months ago--the admission by traditionally conservative deniers that climate change is real and needs to be acted upon now. The Chamber’s announcement boldly states inaction is not an option. The actions to be taken, however, remain matters of dogmatic ideological debate.
On its face, the Chamber’s call to action is a far cry from its 2017 policy priorities. Today climate change is on the minds of voters because it is on the lips of every Democrat in Congress, as well as those vying for the party’s presidential nomination. The Chamber’s newly announced campaign is an effort to remain relevant.
Not every Democrat has embraced the GND. All, however, have acknowledged that climate policy is one of the Party’s top three priorities going into the 2020 elections.
The Chamber’s opinion poll (discussed below) confirms what voter surveys by Gallup and others have recently shown. Voters are putting a very high priority on the need to combat, mitigate, and adapt to the harsh consequences of Earth’s warming. For the Chamber to do otherwise guarantees its being marginalized—if not discredited—in the current 2019-2020 election cycle.
There is a legitimate question to be asked of the Chamber and others professing a sudden Saul-like conversion from denier and opposer to believer and vouchsafed advocate: Is the conversion from climate denier to defender real or simply an attempt to muddle the debate from inside rather than outside the global climate defense community?
Stated another way:
Is the recent launch of the Chamber’s American Energy: Cleaner, Stronger campaign an earnest effort to respond to the climate problem or a Trojan Horse?
Although welcoming of any earnest effort to convince federal lawmakers and private industry leaders of the need to act deliberately and quickly in light of the overwhelming scientific evidence of Earth’s warming, I remain skeptical of sudden spot-changes--by anyone.
GEI has categorically stated there is a strong voter preference for its conceptual climate defense plan compared to the GND. The claim is grounded on a telephone survey of 1,000 likely 2020 voters across the US between March 7th and 12th. The survey was commissioned by the Chamber/GEI and conducted by FTI Consulting.
Before accepting GEI’s interpretation of the survey results, a review of the PowerPoint presentation is in order. First, consider that GEI has chosen to compare itself to the GND as it is presented in the resolutions introduced into the House and Senate by Representative Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA). From a political perspective, the Institute chose wisely.
The charismatic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) has replaced House Speaker Pelosi as the “boogeyperson” against whom Republicans are currently choosing to run in 2020. Both the GND and AOC have been the subject of sensationalized media coverage since the results of the 2018 election came in.
Republicans—especially Trumplicans—point to Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez as the K. Marx of our time. They characterize organizations supporting both AOC and the GND like the Sunshine Movement and Justice Democrats as the leading wave of a rising red tide.
Trump has already set the tone for arguments against progressive climate policies. He used his State of the Union speech to fearmonger much like Joe McCarthy in the late 1940s and 1950s. Trump roused Republican lawmakers with his words:
We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.
Trump has continued to attack progressive climate defenders as enemies of the state and made no secret of his intention to continue lambasting them further from the presidential bully pulpit through the entire 2019-2020 election cycle. Trump will undoubtedly appeal to his core supporters with erroneous claims like They want to take away your car, reduce the value of your home, and put millions of Americans out of work, spend $100 trillion, which, by the way, there's no such thing as $100 trillion.
Trump’s incitements are being followed up by congressional conservatives. Senator Cotton (R-AK) has said socialism may begin with the best of intentions, but it always ends with the Gestapo. Their claims are predictably playing well with core conservative voters—despite the mischarac-terization of the various political “isms” they toss about in speeches.
Figure 1 is from FTI’s slide presentation on their survey findings. It states that energy and the environment are equally important across partisan, generational, and gender divides. Whereas the conclusion–based on the recent spate of opinion surveys—may be true, the “audiences” identified are skewed towards Democrats. Although most polls are showing a rise in the number of Republicans concerned about climate change, the split is hardly equal.
The one identity group listed that may have more hardcore Trump supporters than opponents is Women Baby Boomers and older. Voters of color, liberals, white college-educated women and residents of the Northeast all leaned Democrat in 2016. In the 2018 election, these groups were largely responsible for the current Democratic House majority. It was particularly true in Midwestern states. Why is this important?
The skewing is purposeful. Bear with me for a few paragraphs, and the Chamber’s purpose in tilting towards Democratic audiences will become clear.
Figure 2 puts forward the proposition that American voters want policies that are:
The way the questions have been structured begs the conclusion. Who wouldn’t want to keep things essentially as they are—if there was no significant downside in the outcome in terms of creating a sustainable environment within an appropriate timeframe? Why take on the immense challenge of a cultural shift, if none is needed?
Two of the suggested actions to be taken—using all available US energy sources, streamlining/ expediting the permitting process for pipelines, transmission lines, and new power plants—bear a remarkable resemblance to what the Trump administration is currently attempting to do.
Indeed, the Institute has indicated that its poll results support Trump’s most recent executive orders on energy infrastructure. The orders are intended to “streamline” the approval of projects like pipelines and natural gas export terminals—in some cases moving permitting authorities of federal agencies, e.g., the US State Department, into the White House. The orders are also intended to prevent states from blocking pipelines and other infrastructure projects.
Trump also appears to be taking aim at activist shareholder resolutions requiring companies like ExxonMobil to report on the impact of global warming on future operations and profits. One of the orders asks the US Department of Labor if shareholder resolutions violate the fiduciary duties of retirement funds.
Steve Milloy, a former member of the Trump transition team and the current publisher of Junk Science, has applauded the move. He equates socially responsible investing with investor fraud. An opinion Trump appears to agree with.
The orders are opposed by environmental advocates and both Republican and Democratic governors. Maryland’s Republican Governor, Larry Hogan, believes the pipeline order threatens to undermine the state’s environmental stewardship stating publicly:
From day one, our administration has worked with the federal government to ensure responsible environmental protections and safeguards when permitting dams, pipelines, and other infrastructure projects. State sovereignty should never be shortchanged under the guise of government streamlining. I will continue to fight to increase funding for the Chesapeake Bay and oppose attempts to erode states' rights under the federal Clean Water Act.”
Hogan is rumored as a possible challenger to Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. Hogan is a widely popular Republican governor in a very blue state with a strong environmental record.
Major proponents of the executive orders are fossil fuel groups like the American Gas Association, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and Republican governors in petrochemical states like Texas. Each side will have a chance to state their positions in open court, as the orders are already being challenged.
Figure 2 actions are in opposition to both mainstream climate science and today’s political realities. Moreover, many of the Trump administration’s efforts to “streamline” energy and environmental regulations are being challenged in court—often successfully—calling into question the feasibility of the Cleaner, Stronger Agenda.
The least supported statement in Figure 2 was the willingness of respondents to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions within a decade— regardless of cost. The statement stands in for the GND suggesting the use of unnecessarily burdensome top-down regulations that will result in higher energy costs for consumers.
The lack of respondent support for the GND is hardly startling when the poll’s phrasing implies the same end may be reached by a few simple tweaks of current federal policies.
The comparison of its announced Cleaner, Stronger America Agenda with the GND alone is deceitful. Only in a two-way comparison of the GND and the Chamber’s American Energy: Cleaner, Stronger campaign can rejection of the one be considered support for the other—even then such a conclusion would be suspect.
The non-binding resolutions introduced by Senator Markey and Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez are statements of broad principles and aspirations. They are placeholders for future legislative proposals.
Equally, there is no American Energy: Cleaner, Stronger plan on the table. It appears that what the Chamber will be doing through GEI is responding to various legislative proposals, e.g., the Green Real Deal and carbon capture, sequestration and utilization, mainly from conservative Republicans.
The Chamber is right about the existence of common ground on which all sides of the climate discussion could come together. Areas of general agreement include energy efficiency; technological innovation; carbon capture, sequestration, and utilization; green infrastructure; resilient military installations; and, some tax policies, e.g., carbon. However--
Reaching common ground requires the parties to deal honestly with the challenge of climate change and each other.
It is a new day in America. A day in which growing numbers of American voters now appear willing to cast their ballots based on the mounting scientific evidence concerning the causes and consequences of global climate change and their own experiences.
The Chamber’s recognition that anthropogenic climate change is real is a welcomed change from its previous positions. Its call to action, however, rings hollow as long as it continues to support Trump’s make America energy independent and dominant mantras.
Lead image: The Procession of the Trojan Horse into Troy about 1760, Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo/The National Gallery (creative commons)
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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.