By William S. Becker
There has been a 10-year drought in Congress on legislation directly related to global climate change. Now, there is a cloudburst of ideas being considered by the Democrat-controlled House. Will any of them become law? If so, will they be big and bold enough to make a difference?
For that matter, are there enough members of either party capable of being bold?
In the 116th Congress, it appears that the problem will not be a scarcity of big ideas; it may be a scarcity of political courage. Congress got off to an exciting start in January when a former restaurant worker from the Bronx tossed a Big New Deal into the House of Representatives. It exploded like a percussion grenade, jarring the Capitol awake. An impressive number of House Democrats and presidential candidates immediately embraced it. Now, however, some Democrats are running for cover to avoid begin branded as socialists, the newly highlighted term in Republican talking points. Some key Democrats including committee chairmen in the House say they are shooting for a few small legislative wins on noncontroversial topics.
The problem is that modest measures will not be nearly enough to deal with a crisis that the American people, Congress and the international community have allowed to grow so large. Passing modest measures would be like building sand castles on the beach while a Category Five hurricane makes landfall. We passed the point of modest measures a long time ago. We can’t ask the planet for a grace period or expect it to continue being patient.
The Green New Deal is ambitious, so much so that some of its ideas and deadlines seem unachievable. But its goals are based on sound science, including last October’s warning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It said we need “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” worldwide within the next 12 years to prevent climate change from reaching catastrophic levels.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has another complaint. He calls the Green New Deal “the war on coal on steroids”. True, it is a declaration of war. But the real enemies are congressional complacence and the powerful fossil energy lobby.
Fallacy of the technical fix
More Republicans are acknowledging climate change in this session than at time time in recent years. The new talking point, however, is that more innovation and new technologies are the solution. It is true that we need more R&D on a variety of new and improved technologies. Xcel Energy, one of the nation’s largest electric and gas utilities, has set its own ambitious goal of obtaining 100% of its electricity from zero-carbon resources by mid-century. It says it can get to 80% with existing technologies, but R&D is necessary to get the last 20%.
But there is a subtext here. For some, “innovation” is code for the idea that we can keep on using fossil fuels and living life as usual as long as we find a way to keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The technology to do this is called Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). The federal government has already spent billions of dollars on CCS research starting in 1997. Demonstration projects have been aborted because of massive cost overruns. Power plants equipped with CCS would use more water and energy while producing much more expensive power. Besides, the carbon footprints of fossils fuels are much larger than what happens at the smokestack or the tailpipe. Carbon dioxide is produced when fossil fuels are extracted, processed and transported.
We can’t invent our way out of climate change, not completely. Its roots extend deep into our attitudes toward nature, like the obsolete beliefs that we can control it, that natural resources exist for us to consume, and that we are unaccountable to the rest of the biosphere as well as to the rest of the world. We need to reset our human software even more than we need new hardware. If we did that, we’d be spending our research dollars on living in a post-carbon world rather than propping up last century’s energy.
Grabbing the actionable moment
Members of Congress and presidential candidates alike should seize the moment. We have heard for years that we have the technologies we need to stabilize the climate, but we lack the political will to use them. As one European official put it, “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.” The weather may solve that problem. The American people seem to be having an ah-ha moment in which mitigating greenhouse gas pollution is becoming electable. Something clearly is happening to the weather and the great majority of us knows it isn’t good.
The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has found that 81% of registered voters including 57% of conservative Republicans like the Green New Deal. Other recent polls indicate that most Americans (61%) want the government to do more about global warming, most (58%) believe that shifting to clean renewable energy will help the economy, and most support the idea of taxing carbon. Brookings has found that red states have the most to lose from climate change, which means that Republicans have the most to gain from climate action.
In reality, carbon taxes and the Green New Deal are bold, but not bold enough. Congress should write an omnibus bill that addresses global warming holistically, from farm and transportation to urban development, public lands, earth sciences, transition assistance, commerce and education. Given the urgency, an omnibus bill should refocus every relevant government dollar and program on America’s transition to zero-carbon. On Capitol Hill, it may seem like pragmatic politics to aim much lower, but it is not sufficient, or courageous, or real leadership.
This is one of those challenges on which Congress should go big, or go home.