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Climate-focused Democrats hope for November reward

They seek to solidify themselves as the party of climate action

Jane Fonda, center, and Susan Sarandon, red scarf, march toward the Capitol on Friday during a weekly rally to call for action on climate change. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Jane Fonda, center, and Susan Sarandon, red scarf, march toward the Capitol on Friday during a weekly rally to call for action on climate change. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats know that their “comprehensive” climate plans are unlikely to see the light of day in Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Senate and face vetoes by a president who has at times rejected the scientific consensus on global warming.

But there’s a strategy afoot to solidify Democrats’ election-year banner as the party of climate action and lure young, independent and even Republican voters disgruntled with the Trump administration’s retreat on environmental issues, analysts say.

While environmental concerns still trail economic and health care worries among voters, polls show green issues rising in importance, especially among Democrats and young voters.

A comprehensive climate bill is unlikely to become law in this Congress — or until Democrats control both chambers and the White House — but their actions now afford the party the opportunity to tout the efforts among voters for whom it’s a decisive issue, while casting their GOP opponents as “climate deniers.”

[Trump administration proposal would ease environmental impact reviews for federal projects]

“They’ve got to get it on the record,” said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. “There are some votes to be won by the Democrats from independents and Republicans — with a strong statement on climate change.”

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House Democrats’ latest effort is a broad blueprint released Jan. 8 to decarbonize the economy, led by House Energy and Commerce leaders Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., and Paul Tonko, D-N.Y. A draft bill is expected by the end of the month. 

Despite the certain Senate GOP blockade, Tonko said public sentiment favors urgent climate action and that lawmakers will try to find consensus around their latest plan, which includes some GOP priorities.

“We’ve been communicating with both sides of the aisle in both houses,” Tonko told CQ Roll Call last week. “We’ve been sharing our thinking and we’re open to their thinking.”

[Pelosi: Climate panel is not just ‘an academic endeavor’]

The framework, dubbed “The Clean Future Act,” contains prescriptions its authors say would put the U.S. on the path to achieve a 100 percent clean economy by 2050, a less urgent timeline than more progressive Democrats demand — and that at least one environmental group, Friends of the Earth, snubbed as a reckless delay and a “half hearted” approach.

‘Can’t hesitate’

Authors of the plan say it’s a “bold” approach to restructuring the U.S. economy to control Earth-warming greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the effects of a hotter planet: more frequent and more extreme storms and wildfires, rising seas, threats to public health and the economy, and new demands on federal spending.

“We can’t hesitate; every month, every year that passes means a deeper problem, a more difficult problem and perhaps … a more expensive problem,” Tonko said.

Their plan would establish a national Clean Electricity Standard, requiring utilities to generate 100 percent of their electricity from clean energy sources by 2050.

States would have the flexibility to devise strategies for reaching the 2050 targets, although the EPA would have to approve those plans. States would be allowed to work individually or partner with the government or other states.

To help ease the high cost of transitioning to cleaner operations, the proposal would create a “National Climate Bank,” akin to some that already exist in states such as New York and Connecticut.

The plan, which incorporates aspects of other legislation, would also establish a “Buy Clean Program” to drive the use of low-carbon construction materials and products for federal-backed projects.

These are “clearly legislative markers that are meant to indicate to the rest of Congress, stakeholders, NGOs and the public where the Democrats are headed” if they win a majority in the Senate and the White House, said Paul Bledsoe, a lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy.

Pricing carbon

Their latest plan signals Democrats are trying to put forward aggressive but politically popular ideas, while staying away from more contentious proposals, such as a carbon tax or banning hydraulic fracturing.

“They believe that would be less helpful in the political context,” Bledsoe said.

While the framework doesn’t directly prescribe a carbon price, it doesn’t preclude states from seeking to do so as part of their plans. It does, however, propose the use of tradable clean energy credits to coax companies to reduce their emissions.

There are enough Democrats in the House to pass such a bill and send it to the Senate — where McConnell is unlikely to bring it to the floor.

A spokesman for the majority leader said he couldn’t comment on undrafted legislation or the prospects for other House-passed bills, including a measure (HR 9) that Democrats passed last year to compel the U.S. to meet the goals it committed to in the Paris climate accord.

Pallone on Wednesday said his party will continue to seek GOP support for some proposals on which they usually agree, such as energy efficiency, carbon capture and sequestration, and pipeline safety. 

“There’s a fundamental problem here that I’d be crazy not to acknowledge; most of them are climate-deniers,” Pallone said of his Republican colleagues. “So that’s a huge problem in trying to get them to participate … so it’s going to be very difficult to get Republicans to positively respond to most of this.”

Energy and Commerce Republicans, meanwhile, have rebuked most of the Democrats’ bills, calling them unrealistic products of a process that excluded GOP lawmakers.

Ranking member Greg Walden, R-Ore., described the Democrats’ efforts as “partisan messaging exercises.”

Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee ranking member John Shimkus, R-Ill., rejected the notion that most Republicans are “climate deniers.”

“I have great respect for my friend Frank Pallone, but the chairman has fallen behind on the news if he still believes that ‘most’ Republicans in Congress are ‘climate deniers’ who ‘won’t admit there’s a human element’ to climate change,” Shimkus said, through an aide. “It’s a shame too because there are more than a dozen bipartisan bills we could pass next week — bills that could actually be signed into law this Congress — that would help ensure we are being good stewards of both our environment and our economy.”

Those bills Shimkus cited include legislation to encourage carbon capture technology, nuclear energy deployment, forest management and energy and water efficiency in federal buildings.

Tonko said the Democrats’ latest plan incorporates several of the proposals Shimkus referenced.

Both Tonko and Pallone left open the possibility of moving the package as individual bills, which would make some of them easier to pass.

“We’re going to do whatever we can to achieve bipartisan and bicameral and even get President Trump to sign on to things,” Pallone said. “This is not a messaging bill. We’re going to try to move this bill or certainly pieces of this bill when we can.”

Scientists say drastically cutting carbon emissions is key to controlling the pace of global warming. The carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere reached nearly 412 parts per million in October, according to NASA, up 48 percent from the beginning of the Industrial Age, and 11 percent above the 370 ppm in 2000.

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