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Can Bold U.S. Federal Climate Legislation Be Enacted Now?

Nearly 10 years after the introduction of the ambitious Waxman-Markey climate change bill, experts assess the chances of climate legislation.

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This time could be different.

That’s what former Rep. Henry Waxman hopes.

Ten years ago this month, he and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who was then a U.S. representative from southern California, introduced far-reaching legislation to curb climate change. The American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), commonly referred to as the Waxman-Markey bill, would have established a nationwide greenhouse gas cap-and-trade system with goals to reduce those emissions while also addressing energy efficiency and other issues.

The bill passed in the House with a vote of 219–212 on 26 June 2009, but it died in the Senate on 22 July 2010, having failed to win enough votes because of an effective lobbying effort by special interests, among other reasons.

But the landscape has changed dramatically since then, and the chance for significant climate action in Congress may be better soon, perhaps after the upcoming presidential election if a climate-friendly president is elected, Waxman told Eos.

“The public is going to demand action,” said Waxman, who in 2009 was chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “The public has been seeing constant examples of the harm that is coming from climate change.”

“The public is more attuned to what’s happening and is not going to accept the view that there’s no problem,” added Waxman, who currently chairs Waxman Strategies, a Washington, D.C.–based public affairs and strategic communications firm. “They are going to see the reality in connecting the scientific statements about climate change with the experience of climate change. It used to be that Republicans and others thought we wouldn’t see any problems for many, many decades, but we’re seeing the effects of climate change right now.”

A Riper Time for Action?

Other politicians and experts also say that the time is riper now for action, because of the increased urgency about climate change that has been highlighted in recent scientific reports and because of increased awareness and activism about the issue.

“The difference between 2009 and ’10 and today is the movement that has now been built,” Markey said at the 7 February 2019 press briefing outside the U.S. Capitol Building, where he and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) introduced the sweeping Green New Deal resolution, an ambitious proposal to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, promote climate justice, and create jobs, among other goals. In 2009, Markey was chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Environment.

Climate change “is now a voting issue across the country,” Markey said. “The green generation has risen up, and they are saying that they want this issue solved, and they want the people who work in this building and occupy the White House to solve this problem. So this is going to enter the 2020 election cycle as one of the top two or three issues for every candidate on both sides for them to have to answer.”

He and others highlighted another distinction between then and now. The year 2009 was when the libertarian Koch brothers and others “started to pour their millions into trying to create a climate where people did not believe in climate science,” Markey said. “We now have the troops. We now have the money. We’re ready to fight. OK. And so the difference between 2009 and ’10 and today is we now have our army as well.”

That army of activists and concerned citizens, along with scientific reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others, and the increasing evidence of climate change have encouraged many Democratic presidential candidates to support the Green New Deal or other strong actions on climate change.

These candidates include current frontrunners former vice president Joe Biden; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg; and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). Another candidate, Washington governor Jay Inslee, calls climate change the country’s number one issue.

The Democratic National Committee, however, reportedly has rejected a call for a presidential primary debate to focus on climate change.

Any Possibilities in Congress This Session?

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) told Eos that the Waxman-Markey bill stands as “the high water mark for climate leadership in the Congress,” but he is hopeful that even in the current political climate, there could be action in Congress.

“Just catching up to where we were then feels like a Herculean task given the fossil fuel industries’ efforts and the way they have punished Republicans who did support climate leadership in the Waxman-Markey bill,” he said. However, Huffman, chair of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, added, “I have faith that even the most shriveled heart of my Republican colleagues at some point will have to think about future generations.”

Some analysts won’t totally write off the possibility of minor legislation related to climate change reaching the president’s desk for approval this Congress, despite current resistance by the Senate Republican leadership and the Trump administration’s attacks on climate science.

Indeed, a lot of climate-related legislation has been introduced in the Democratically controlled House, which has held numerous hearings about climate change. And some legislation even has passed the House, including the Climate Action Now Act, which directs President Donald Trump to honor the nation’s commitments under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, and four bills dealing with ocean acidification. However, the Climate Action Now bill likely has little chance for passage in the Senate, and the same fate may await some of the other legislation as well.

Sara Chieffo, vice president of government affairs with the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), told Eos that she has not given up on the possibility of there being moderate progress on climate change legislation during the current Congress, but she thinks that passing major legislation will need to wait for a more environment friendly Senate and White House. “Given the scope and scale of the crisis and the support from pro-environment members of Congress, we are going to try to make progress where we can,” she said, whether it is, for instance, within appropriations legislation, a potential tax vehicle, or infrastructure or defense bills.

“There is no reason we shouldn’t be making small progress through those vehicles,” added Chieffo, who joined LCV just 3 weeks before the Waxman-Markey bill was marked up in the House Energy and Commerce Committee,. “But if you are asking, ‘Is anything transformative possible with President Trump in the White House?’ our answer is no.”

David Doniger, senior strategic director for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Climate and Clean Energy Program, largely agreed with that assessment. “Nothing constructive can occur during this term with this administration not playing any positive role, playing only negative roles,” he told Eos.

However, Doniger, who followed the Waxman-Markey bill closely for NRDC, said that there could be substantive and constructive steps forward, even now, in appropriations bills and perhaps in transportation and disaster relief, planning, and preparation legislation. In addition, he said that now is a time “to continue to build and refine public support” for action on climate change and to elaborate on specific legislative proposals that could be ready to move forward perhaps in a more favorable next congressional session.

Doniger cautioned, though, that a so-called innovation agenda that some Republicans are pushing, with a focus on potential technological fixes, “is just not enough by itself” to solve the climate change problem. “We need to see a commitment and understanding [from them] that we really do have to reach net-zero emissions by the middle of the century,” Doniger said. “That has to be the yardstick for measuring the effectiveness of policies that a political office holder advocates.”

Going Big?

“We need to think differently about how to get climate action through Congress,” said Jeremy Symons, who was senior vice president for programs at the National Wildlife Federation during the Waxman-Markey effort.

“Climate measures big and modest should be incorporated into all parts of Congress’s legislative agenda,” Symons, now the principal at Symons Public Affairs, a consulting firm supporting climate action, told Eos. “After all, the entire climate is changing, and tackling climate will require investment and updated regulations across all parts of government operations. We need to go big in Congress, but not put all our eggs in one legislative basket.”

The Green New Deal is one attempt to go big. Waxman commented that although a lot of the details of that resolution, including the funding for it, have not been fleshed out, he is encouraged by the effort to bring greater urgency to the climate change issue. Speaking about the resolution’s sponsors, Waxman said, “I’m proud of the fact that they have taken up this fight and they are pushing hard. I find that encouraging because it would be a shame just to withdraw from this battle, when we’ve got to prepare ideas that we need to turn to, if not now, [then] when we have the opportunity to pass legislation and use existing laws.”

Another attempt at going big, and perhaps being a successful next major step following the Waxman-Markey bill is the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2019. It would impose a fee on the carbon content of fuels and on products “derived from those fuels that will be used so as to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” with the fee providing dividend payments to U.S. citizens or lawful residents. Mark Reynolds, executive director of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), which supports the legislation, told Eos that although the bill may not pass this Congress, it sets a marker.

The current version “lays the groundwork for a simple transparent bill to be the next major climate bill introduced,” he said, noting that CCL tries to work in a bipartisan manner on climate issues. “If we can establish that this is the bipartisan approach to the problem, then I think that’s a huge win for everybody working on this issue.”

Reynolds told Eos that a related bipartisan effort, the congressional Climate Solutions Caucus, is in the process of being reconstituted following the 2019 elections. He said that Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) will be the new Republican cochair of the caucus, with Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) continuing on as the Democratic cochair.

New Changes and Familiar Opposition

The political landscape has changed in other ways since Waxman-Markey. Antonia Herzog, who was a federal climate policy analyst with NRDC when the bill was being considered, told Eos that, for instance, there has been “a lot of great stuff happening in the states and at the local levels” over the past decade to deal with climate change. However, she said she wishes that more action had already taken place.

“Every single year is a year that has been lost since it became obvious that [climate change] is a problem,” said Herzog, who currently is the climate and energy program manager for Physicians for Social Responsibility.

LCV’s Chieffo added that the clean energy economy is far more mature now than it was a decade ago. “Would we be better off if we had already been implementing climate solutions at the federal level that Congress had passed 10 years ago? Certainly. But are we starting out from zero? The answer is no,” she said.

In addition, there has been significant activity in the private sector. For instance, the We Are Still In coalition counts about 3,800 organizations in the United States—including businesses as well as states and cities—committed to meeting the Paris goals. In addition, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced today, 7 June, a $500 million Beyond Carbon campaign to tackle climate change.

One thing that hasn’t changed much in the past decade is the opposition, say a number of experts.

“The number one barrier to action in 2009 is the same barrier we face in 2019. The fossil lobby has teamed up with some deep-pocketed conservative donors in order to paralyze government action from the beltway to state ballot initiatives,” said Symons. “It’s far easier to scare people and block government action than it is to bring about real change. I call this the climate obstruction lobby. The climate obstruction lobby has a dollar-driven death grip on Republican politicians.”

That lobbying “lowered the probability of enacting the Waxman-Markey bill by 13 percentage points,” according to a paper, “The Social Cost of Lobbying over Climate Policy,” published in the June issue of Nature Climate Change.

“There is going to be a ton of oil and gas money fighting us, that’s for sure. But I don’t think it is guaranteed to have the same influence as 10 years ago,” said Doninger. He said that’s in part because the coal industry is not the economic or political force that it had been and because other energy industries, including wind, solar, and even nuclear, are asserting themselves in the economy and in politics “in ways you didn’t see 10 years or more ago.”

Theda Skocpol, professor of government and sociology at Harvard University, told Eos that although the fossil fuel industry is a significant driver of climate denialism, “the real force on the right is the Koch network.”

That network “is not just the brothers. It’s 400 to 500 ultraconservatives who organize to take over the policy making of the Republican Party, and they are very successful,” said Skocpol, author of a 2013 analysis of the defeat of the Waxman-Markey bill, “Naming the Problem: What It Will Take to Counter Extremism and Engage Americans in the Fight Against Global Warming.” “This is just one issue of a number where they’ve weighed in and changed the Republican policy making on the economy, the role of government in the economy in the states and the federal government. But this is absolutely a core area. So they both reward Republicans who hew the line they want, and they punish those who do not. You don’t find very many Republicans who are actually in office or who are running for office who are prepared to go along with much of anything.”

She added, “Republican officeholders and elites are just as locked into blocking action as they have been for a decade. And Donald Trump is definitely the denier in chief.”

Hope for a Better Outcome

Despite the defeat of the Waxman-Markey bill and the continued opposition to advance and enact climate change legislation at the federal level, experts say that there is renewed hope for incremental climate change steps now and major measures perhaps as soon as the next Congress. They also are encouraged by nonfederal progress over the past decade, the focus on climate change in the current Congress, and the heightened awareness and advocacy about climate change in light of the increasing urgency of the issue.

“The problem is going to be more and more on people’s minds as they see tornadoes and storms and droughts and all the consequences of what the scientists have been predicting from climate change,” Waxman told Eos. “They are going to demand action, and they are going to, in a democracy, turn away from those who say that there is no problem, because the truth is being driven home by people’s experiences.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), Can bold U.S. federal climate legislation be enacted now?, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO126199. Published on 07 June 2019.
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