The Changing Climate on Capitol Hill

The Changing Climate on Capitol Hill

More Americans are paying attention as the climate crisis is coming into sharper focus amid a chaotic summer of disasters that pummeled every inch of the country.

Hurricane Ida ravaged a swath more than 1,000 miles long up the eastern United States. But if there was a silver lining in the storm clouds that produced winds powerful enough to fell trees and houses in the South and rains capable of flooding the Northeast, it was in the timing.

Ida, Larry, Mindy and the progression of increasingly destructive tropical storms – along with a succession of wildfires and droughts and other natural disasters – are effectively making the case to elevate concerns about climate change just as crucial budget debates and midterm elections could influence a response to the issue that shapes policy for decades to come.

Climate change has become a more significant part of the public discourse over the past few years in a way that political observers say they didn’t see even half a decade ago. They viewed the 2020 race as the first real climate election, particularly since Joe Biden and his Democratic primary opponents talked more aggressively about combating it. Plus, younger generations are mobilizing around action to address climate change, especially since they’ll bear the brunt of its effects. But even as advocates hailed the emergence of climate change as an issue in 2020, it was largely overshadowed by other issues, like the COVID-19 pandemic, and the spectacle of the race itself.

Now, more Americans are paying attention as the climate crisis is coming into sharper focus amid a chaotic summer of disasters that pummeled every inch of the country. Nearly 1 in 3 Americans reside in a county that was hit by extreme weather over the summer, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.

“(Climate change) is at the center of national political debates like it hasn’t in the past,” says Matto Mildenberger, a political science professor specializing in environmental politics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “This is an attention to climate that we wouldn’t have seen five to 10 years ago.”

[ READ: U.N.: Future Bleak Due to Climate Change ]

And leaders, who have long talked of the dangers of climate change, seem to be making inroads. The federal government is now working to implement policies aiming to curb climate change with historic investments in the environment and green-friendly infrastructure that are championed by Biden, party leaders and the progressive wing that has helped it become a more prominent issue for Democrats.

Climate has emerged as a top priority for Biden, who ran in 2020 on a much more ambitious climate platform than any previous Democratic nominee. And his focus on the environment comes after his predecessor, Donald Trump, frequently downplayed or denied climate science and rescinded many of the pro-climate policies and rules from the Obama administration.

This week, Biden witnessed the damage that Ida wrought across New Jersey and New York City. And next week, he’ll visit the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, and survey wildfire damage in Sacramento, California. During his visits, he ticked through how climate change played a role in each recent disaster while touting his economic agenda by linking environmental efforts to the creation of more jobs.

“Every part of the country is getting hit by extreme weather and we’re now living in real time what the country is going to look like and if we don’t do something,” Biden said Tuesday. “I think we’ve all seen – even the climate skeptics are seeing – that this really does matter. We’re going to continue to shout as long as it takes to get real progress here.”

Congress is in the midst of trying to pass two parts of Biden’s agenda by the end of the month that make huge investments in climate-related provisions: the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and Democrats’ $3.5 trillion plan that also expands the social safety net.

The physical infrastructure bill dedicates billions of dollars to expanding clean-energy public transit like electric school buses and the first national network of electric vehicle charging stations across highways and in communities. But the compromise legislation falls short of many of Democrats’ climate priorities, which have a much bigger footprint in the larger bill.

In addition to family, health and education programs, the wide-ranging $3.5 trillion spending plan centers around core parts of the environment. Some of the climate-related measures include tax incentives for clean energy, manufacturing and transportation; investments in public and green housing and the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps that would be modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps worker-relief program created under the New Deal.

“We’re now living in real time what the country is going to look like and if we don’t do something.”

Because the bill won’t pass a divided 50-50 Senate in regular order, Democrats are using budget reconciliation as a vehicle for passage since it lowers the number of votes from 60 to a simple majority of 51. Democrats won’t need any GOP votes to get it through the upper chamber and can avoid the threat of a filibuster.

But major hurdles remain for Biden’s agenda, especially the Democrat-only reconciliation bill. Democrats’ duels over the price tag could stall any progress: Moderates, especially in the Senate, want the number to be significantly reduced while progressives contend that the current amount is already a compromise and they won’t go lower. Any one defection in the Senate could torpedo efforts, while Democrats in the House also have little room for error with a very narrow majority.

Observers warn that if Democrats are unable to pass key elements of the climate agenda they ran on, they could bear political consequences at a time when they’re protecting their slim majorities in both the House and Senate. And if they lose either majority, Biden will have a much harder time passing key components of his agenda during the last two years of his first term.

“If the Democrats don’t seize the moment and pass the climate reforms they promised, I think there’s a lot of political danger in the 2022 midterms,” says Mildenberger. “The political danger would be inaction or not aggressive and ambitious enough” action.

But if they ultimately pass it, he believes it’ll give Democrats a better angle to run on a climate agenda that he says will connect with many Americans. Liberal climate activist groups are already running on such legislation with the League of Conservation Voters and Climate Power releasing another $6 million ad campaign in key Senate states and House districts that’ll determine which party controls Congress.

Progressives credit themselves with getting Biden to more forcefully address climate issues during the presidential campaign and his nascent presidency. And even more so, Democrats are connecting the dots on climate change and racial inequities. People of color are disproportionately affected and face greater environmental disparities based on race with many living in areas that are more susceptible to natural disasters, heat waves and poorer air quality.

Mildenberger agrees that the progressive movement “played a real role in getting this on the agenda” for Biden but he argues that Democratic leaders across the federal government appear to “have a real deep understanding of the issue and are addressing it on its own terms now.”

And while progressives have largely praised Biden’s initial climate push, they’re once again pressuring him to use his sweeping influence to get Democrats aligned on the reconciliation bill and their climate goals. Moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have repeatedly said they won’t support the current size of the spending package.

But Manchin went a step further last week when he argued his party should take a “strategic pause” on passing trillions of more dollars in the reconciliation bill that is currently being drafted. The next several weeks will feature a pivotal tug-of-war within the Democratic Party to see whether they can once again achieve party unity on top agenda items, including climate change.

[ READ: Senate Passes $1.2 Trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill ]

“Biden must do everything in his power – from using his bully pulpit to moving members of his party – to pass at least a $3.5 trillion dollar reconciliation package,” Ellen Sciales, spokeswoman of Sunrise Movement, said in a statement. “If Biden does not deliver on at least a $3.5 trillion investment through budget reconciliation, while he has a potentially fleeting Democratic majority, future generations will ask why he didn’t do more when we still had the chance.”

Republicans, meanwhile, see climate change as a lower-priority issue, though polling shows that some in the party are receptive to policies that’ll help blunt its crippling effects. According to a recent poll from Pew Research Center, only 17% of Republicans believe that human activity greatly contributes to climate change. But the same survey shows younger Republicans believing that more needs to be done to address the issue.

The party has made more recent strides in bringing attention to the issue. About a third of House Republicans, including many members who will face tough reelection races in 2022, belong to the newly created Conservative Climate Caucus, which acknowledges the existence of climate change and human contributions to it. The biggest split between the parties is that Republicans believe fossil fuels “can and should be a major part of the global solution,” according to the GOP-only caucus, while Democrats want to transition away from them.

But the GOP is also home to a larger contingent of those who deny climate change exists or that humans contribute to it. Political observers argue that the ideological split has worsened over time and was greatly exacerbated during the Trump administration. Mildenberger points to recent Republican presidential nominees like John McCain and Mitt Romney whom he described as fairly pro-climate before Trump.

With the reality of a rapidly growing climate crisis, political observers say Republicans will need to address the issue in a more serious way going forward.

“A similar political risk exists for a party that does not accept climate science,” Mildenberger says. “In some ways, the rise of the Trump wing of the Republican Party has allowed the faction of the (GOP) that has been sort of deeply captured by the fossil fuel industry and has tried to undermine climate change for decades.”

While more Americans appear to prioritize the environment and climate, some experts still see a roadblock to adequately tackling the issue in a timely way: an unwillingness to make personal sacrifices in order to ease climate change.

Debra Javeline, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame who teaches environmental studies, also points out that voters rarely “reward” elected officials with “forward-thinking behavior” when it comes to disaster prevention. She argues that the electoral prospects for politicians look better when they’re able to provide the financial and physical support to victims after a disaster hits.

But Javeline contends that younger generations are already more receptive to making lifestyle changes and sacrifices that would lessen the effects of climate change. She sees that gradual shift as an opening for more candidates to run on environmental agendas that’ll break through as a more pressing issue for voters.

“With each election cycle, more of this generation will influence electoral outcomes, and the good news for responsible candidates of either party is that they will be able to campaign on more honest platforms, acknowledging the urgency and the imperative of mitigation and adaptation,” says Javeline. “Unfortunately for some people, especially the world’s most vulnerable, it may be too late.”

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