Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., speaks during a news conference about preserving Medicaid funding during the “fiscal cliff” negotiations at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on Dec. 11, 2012 in Washington, D.C.

Democrats are letting the climate crisis go to waste

What should be a sparkling opportunity to push forward an ambitious agenda on climate — to condemn Republicans for not just ignoring but fueling a crisis with increasingly human and economic consequences — is going quite literally up in smoke. Even the most dogged climate champions in Congress are doing something Republicans would never dream of: letting a crisis go to waste.

It’s not often that planetary devastation is so omnipresent. The United States has been hit by a string of catastrophic hurricanes this season, all of which were strengthened by unusually warm Atlantic waters. Their storm surges hit coasts harder and higher thanks to sea level rise, and knocked out infrastructure largely unprepared for rising tides and fierce winds. Wildfires — fueled by unusually hot, dry weather — have ripped through the Western half of North America, turning the air in some of California’s biggest cities into a public health hazard.

Each of the 10 hottest years on record have happened since 1998, and Republicans are doing everything in their power to rip up the regulations and policies that could help mitigate the United States’ contribution to our ongoing climate crisis, most recently in taking their first official step to dismantle the Clean Power Plan.

There’s been no unified policy response from congressional Democrats to Republicans’ attack on the Clean Power Plan or recent extreme weather events. Instead, the country’s most progressive Democrats have taken the GOP’s advice of not politicizing the events of the last few months. “We have a lot of time to make that point,” climate hawk Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., told Politico when asked about seeing the storms as a chance to talk about rising temperatures.

The trouble is that we don’t — and Whitehouse knows we don’t.

Without radical developments in so-called negative emissions technology, keeping warming below 2 degrees celsius will mean a prohibition on new fossil fuel infrastructure in the short term and a total decarbonization of most Global North economies by mid-century at the latest. To get to a 1.5 degree Celsius warming cap — the more ambitious target inscribed in the Paris Climate Agreement — “you would have to shut down every coal and gas plant in the U.S. in the next 10 years,” climate researcher Glen Peters told me last year. “You couldn’t have a single petrol car in the U.S., and the same for India, for China, and for every country in the world. While you remove those, you have to build up new infrastructure, wind turbines, solar panels … a completely new car fleet, and so on.”

Senators like Whitehouse may not be ignorant about how urgent the climate crisis is, but do seem to think the path to dealing with it runs through the Republican Party. In an an interview this week with Vox’s Jeff Stein, Whitehouse spoke excitedly about his talks with “‘six to 10’ Senate Republicans who … privately support his carbon tax bill but are unwilling to publicly back it,” Stein writes. The bill he’s referencing — the American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act, co-sponsored by Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii — is an overture to the GOP, stocked with a generous reduction in the corporate income tax. Despite such preemptive concessions, it currently has just one public Republican supporter: Lindsey Graham.

Still, Whitehouse is one of the few people who reliably talks about climate at all in Congress. A handful of Democrats have condemned the Clean Power Plan repeal, and Democratic state attorneys general are suing the administration over its decision to withdraw. Reliably blue states like California have plans to ramp up their emissions reductions. On Capitol Hill, though, the Clean Power Plan has, for the most part, already spun well out of the news cycle.

Compare Democrats’ muted response to the GOP attack on climate policy to recent fights over health care. When Republicans moved to tear the Affordable Care Act to shreds, weeks of protests and coordinated civil disobedience — in congressional districts and on Capitol Hill — turned up the heat on not just Republicans but on Democrats, whose constituents made it clear that compromising with Trump on any version of their health care plan wasn’t an option. It also helped lay the political groundwork for a more ambitious proposal: Medicare for All, once a fringe proposal and now backed by a full third of Democrats in the Senate.

Whitehouse quickly shot down the idea that there could be parallels between the two. Asked if there might be some Medicare for All-type demand when it comes to climate change, he argued that there is “almost no correlation” between the health care fight and the one against rising temperatures. Rather than moving to rally the troops into the kind of mobilization that helped save the Affordable Care Act from the GOP, he tells Stein repeatedly that the right path forward on climate change is to gently coax Republicans into getting behind doing something about it, and that the sheer weight of evidence against denial — the “irrevocable force of fact,” as he puts it — will make a GOP turnaround on the issue inevitable, despite donors telling them to do the opposite.   

“Talking to Republicans about climate change is like talking to prisoners about escape,” Whitehouse adds later. “Once you find safe passage for them through the fence, through the kill zone around the fence, then the getaway car on the other side is one we all agree on.”

Strategic arguments aside, there are massive qualitative and quantitative differences between doing something about climate change and doing nothing, and it’s unlikely that any version of today’s Republican Party will willingly agree to climate solutions on the scale that physics is demanding — a suite of policies that would most definitely involve cutting into fossil fuel industry profits and those of several other industries as well. The getaway car he references here (and in support of his own carbon tax plan) was written by the right-wing Climate Leadership Council, and specifically by former Bush and Reagan cabinet members and conservative economists. It’s been endorsed by some of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies.

The same things that make carbon tax proposals friendly to major oil companies is also what makes them a terrible climate policy. To date, there is no comprehensive study connecting carbon taxes to emissions reductions, and the nature of the existing data makes it difficult to parse out what reductions were triggered by market-based solutions versus regulations, the adoption of fuel sources, like natural gas, economic downturns, or other factors. There is evidence to support the effectiveness of command-and-control style regulation, like closing coal plants, though the Climate Leadership Council’s proposal proposes a direct trade-off between regulation and market-based mechanisms. Adopting a “significant regulatory rollback” is one of the CLC proposal’s four core pillars. “Much of the EPA’s regulatory authority over carbon dioxide emissions would be phased out,” authors write,  “including an outright repeal of the Clean Power Plan.”

It’s not that more ambitious legislation hasn’t been proposed. In April, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Jeff Merkley, and more introduced a hugely ambitious plan to transition the United States to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, known as the “100 by ’50 Act.” More recently in the House, Reps. Tulsi Gabbard, Keith Ellison, and others backed a still more lofty plan to get to 100 percent renewables by 2035. Both bills included provisions to end the tens of billions in subsidies the U.S. government funnels into the fossil fuel industry each year. The House bill set aside considerable resources for investment in the communities worst hit by climate change, and a workforce development program aimed at training up a new generation of people to hold so-called green-collar jobs in the renewables sector. Neither these two proposals or Whitehouse’s have gained much traction; Gabbard’s in particular was met with relative silence.

There’s more behind this than just the chaos of the Trump news cycle. In contrast to something like health care, what’s happening at the EPA is playing out largely behind closed doors rather than in Congress. That presents fewer opportunities for activists to influence decision-makers — in part because we don’t have a completely clear sense for what those decisions are and who’s making them.

But the bigger reason climate isn’t a hot-button issue in America goes deeper. While it’s important not to discount the impact of the well-funded propaganda machine that’s helped make climate denial mainstream, climate change also occupies an odd spot in the country’s political landscape.

A majority of Americans and even Republicans now acknowledge the existence of manmade climate change and are eager for the government to do something about it. Yet it’s a reliably low-salience issue, meaning people believe in climate change at an intellectual level but that fact is unlikely to influence how they vote. Election cycle after election cycle, concerns about jobs, the economy, and terrorism reliably trump those about rising tides. Even for supposedly climate-conscious millennials, the environment is near the bottom of the list of what they’re thinking about as they go to the polls.

The fix here isn’t too complicated, whether it resembles a Medicare for All-type proposal or not: Tie climate change intimately to the things that Americans care and vote about. The Week’s Jeff Spross has suggested a federal job guarantee geared toward repairing infrastructure and building up clean energy.  Economist Robert Pollin has been one of many progressives to suggest a Green New Deal, creating as many as 2 million jobs in the clean energy sector and elsewhere to speed up our sluggish recovery from the Great Recession. The Leap Manifesto — begun in Canada and now spreading abroad — posits a switch to renewables as just one part of a broader transition to a more democratic and egalitarian economy “based on caring for the Earth and one another.” In its manifesto for that country’s most recent general election, Britain’s Labour Party outlined a ban on fracking and the nationalization of that country’s energy sector as a means to bring down electricity bills and push for more public control over vital services in the U.K.

Conversely, even well-intentioned Democrats like Schatz and Whitehouse have adopted a kind of Stockholm syndrome when it comes to Republicans’ well-funded denial, carrying out the climate debate on GOP terms and endorsing the Thatcherite mantra that There Is No Alternative to conservatives’ dominance in climate policymaking. “There’s not, like, some idea on the horizon that we’re far from but want to guide toward,” Whitehouse told Vox. He’s right: There are several. And the timing has never been better.



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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

Let’s Save Each Other

Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission