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This Democrat seeks GOP support with new climate action plan

Paul Tonko hopes to win over Republicans by tying solutions to job creation, technological advancements and other policies

Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., speaks during the Bipartisan Heroin Task Force news conference on the release of the 2018 legislative agenda for the 115th Congress on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., speaks during the Bipartisan Heroin Task Force news conference on the release of the 2018 legislative agenda for the 115th Congress on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A House Democrat hopes he can win over GOP support for a climate action by tying solutions to job creation, technological advancements and policies that do not create uncertainty for industry and families.

Rep. Paul Tonko who chairs the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, said Thursday he plans to tap into the apparent willingness of more Republicans recently to talk about climate change and come up with solutions both parties can agree on.

“I hear good things coming from both sides of the political aisle with our subcommittee,” the New York Democrat said at a climate conference, where he announced the plan that he hopes will help frame bipartisan legislation. “I think people are beginning to roll up their sleeves, but it’s going to take more than just innovation and technology. It needs a total across-the-board treatment.”

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Tonko’s outline includes moderate talking points intended to appeal to Republicans who agree on the need to control global warming but worry about the cost to families and industry of many of the progressive solutions.

The plan urges Congress to set “certain and enforceable” targets for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century. It calls for the creation of a clean energy economy with new green jobs and strong labor standards. It also demands that the federal government invest in energy efficiency, research and development in clean energy technologies such as carbon capture, increased electrification across all sectors of the economy and a cleaner transportation sector.

The lawmaker’s framework comes as congressional Democrats grapple with backlash over the more progressive Green New Deal resolution, which Republicans have branded as socialist and dangerous for the economy.

A number of Democrats have also remained reluctant to get behind the Green New Deal, which calls for a wholesale remake of the U.S. economy across all sectors to combat climate change and make communities more resilient. Tonko himself has not endorsed the Green New Deal.

At least one environmental group pushed back on Tonko’s plan as too weak, calling on him instead to work to strengthen the Green New Deal.

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“Rep. Tonko’s climate change principles have already waved the white flag of surrender,” said Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Like the Green New Deal resolution, which faces a vote in the Senate next week, Tonko’s plan proposes that as the U.S. confronts the climate crisis, it must use it also as an opportunity to address historic environmental and economic injustices to low-income, indigenous peoples and communities of color.

Tonko’s plan comes on the heels of more urgent calls for faster and bolder action from scientists and increasing demands for action from young and newly energized activists.

New majority, new priority

“The young people demanding action are inspiring, and they are right; our nation’s leaders have failed them,” Tonko said at the Climate Leadership Conference in Baltimore.

With their new House majority, Democrats have pushed climate change to the top of the agenda, after eight years of GOP leadership that rejected such action.

His GOP counterpart on the Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee, Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois, said he was happy to see a more moderate plan from Democrats.

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“Republicans have repeatedly urged our Democrat colleagues to reject extreme policies like the Green New Deal and instead work together on realistic, bipartisan responses to climate change,” Shimkus said. “I am happy to see Mr. Tonko’s proposal return to where the committee was very active last Congress through our hearings focused on reducing carbon emissions, boosting renewable energy options, and modernizing electricity generation and transmission.”

After years of Republican reluctance to confront what Democrats call the most urgent crisis of the day, the conversation in Washington has shifted since the November elections, even among some conservatives.

“There are a lot of people that need convincing that this is a crisis,” Tonko said, adding that discussions around private sector investments and job creation in industries such as wind and solar could bring some Republicans around.

His broad framework also proposes action to make communities resilient to climate impacts and to empower states, tribal, local and territorial governments to enact policies to combat and adapt to the impacts of rising global temperatures. Already many coastal Republicans, including those from Florida, agree on the need to make their regions, which are already feeling the impacts of sea-level rises, more resilient.

The framework calls on Congress to create policies that are durable and predictable, “send strong investment signals, and deliver long-term certainty to allow for proper planning and implementation” while minimizing compliance costs.

“That is the framework I will be using to build consensus,” Tonko said. “Dialogue will make it happen.”

ICYMI: Democrats downplay appearance of disunity on Green New Deal

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