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The Democratic Divide on Climate Policy
Several weeks ago, I had commented during a Zero Net Fifty podcast that I thought there was a coming together — under the Biden banner —…
Several weeks ago, I had commented during a Zero Net Fifty podcast that I thought there was a coming together — under the Biden banner — of pro-gressive and establishment Democrats on climate matters. It was naïve of me to believe the wings of the Democratic Party would begin to flap in unison so far ahead of the convention.
Diversity has always been both the strength and weakness of the Democratic Party. In the past, compromise — or at least some accommodation for long enough to get presidents elected — has been possible. Today differences of opinion on issues like climate change and racial justice may defy traditional negotiation. In part, the differences of opinion are complicated by demands for a generational shift in party and congressional leadership.
Youth movement groups often see matters like climate and racism as more moral than political, which causes them to be viewed as binary. They accuse older generations of having compromised their futures away. I think the coming together of generations in the streets calling for racial justice and systemic change is evidence that morality is hardly unique to any one generation. Older generations have learned through experience that you often need to give in order to get and that failing to compromise can mean gridlock. The differences between the generations is more a matter of where each is willing to draw the line.
There are also significant differences of opinion as to the degree to which the private sector can be counted on in finding solutions. In climate matters, these differences force different approaches. Carbon pricing is an example of where the factions are unlikely to reach an accommodation. Progressives are much less tolerant of allowing pollution to continue, whether it’s paid for or not, or whether dividends are returned to all Americans to offset any increases in consumer prices.
These are tenuous times for the Democratic Party and, in turn, for the environment. Should divisions within the party not be bridged before the election, a repeat of 2016 could be in the cards. Fewer than 100,000 votes tipped the election to Trump.
Will 2020 see a repeat of progressives choosing to stay home on election day or casting their ballots either for third party candidates or Trump? It’s a good question and one that no one can answer with certainty. What is certain is that a second Trump presidency is going to be bad for the environment. As discussed below, there are areas of agreement and disagreement over climate policy. How these issues are resolved — or not — by the Democratic platform committee at the August convention will be telling.
The Environment and Climate Crisis Council (Council) of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has called for the spending of $10 to $16 trillion to combat climate change over the next decade. In its recently released 14-page plan, the Council calls for the development and implementation of a science-based national climate plan that employs aggressive use of executive actions, establishment of new structures and practices, and bold legislation.
The Council’s proposed targets are extremely ambitious. They include 100 percent clean, renewable energy for electricity generation, buildings and transportation by 2030, 100 percent zero-carbon new building infrastructure by 2025, and the direction of 40 percent of climate and environment invest-ments to frontline and vulnerable communities. The Council calls for a just transition for workers in the fossil fuels sector, investment in sustainable agriculture, as well as elevating the Environmental Protection Agency to a federal department and making its Office of Environmental Justice permanent.
The Council was formed a year ago as a release valve for all the pressure the DNC’s establishment was feeling from progressive climate activists like the Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement. Although a permanent part of the DNC, the Council’s role is to advise the party on climate matters. It’s input, along with that of others, will be considered by the party’s platform committee as part of the work of the national convention.
The Council’s announced plan has ruffled more than a few feathers as it far exceeds Biden’s current climate plan or anything thought to be included in the party’s final platform coming out of the convention. Anonymous sources, as reported by Reuters, have called the plan a nonstarter and accused the Council of blindsiding the party by acting like insurgents trying to stake out a left flank before the convention.
Despite the plan’s provisions calling for assistance to workers in the fossil fuels sector the United Mineworkers president, Cecil Roberts, was not happy. Roberts was quoted as saying: I can assure you that the mere issuing of this report has already cost Democrats potential votes in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. All three are considered critical swing states in 2020.
Unless some middle ground can be found, conflicts between labor and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party over climate matters could be a significant problem for Biden come the general election. As I’ve written before, organized labor failed to turn out for Hillary Clinton despite a massive voter mobilization effort. Clinton’s stance on the environment and the role of fossil fuels in a sustainable economy was partially responsible for labor leaving the Democratic party, its historic political home.
Once Sanders acknowledged Biden as the Democratic nominee, they sought to show unity in the effort to defeat Trump in November. Sanders is still being accused by many in the Democratic establishment of failing to support Clinton’s candidacy in earnest.
Although Sanders’s work on Clinton’s behalf may have lacked a degree or two of enthusiasm, the charges are misplaced. Sanders fully endorsed Clinton both in word and deed. He regularly campaigned on her behalf post the convention and urged his supporters not to abandon her in favor of a third party, e.g., the Green Party, or fail to show up on election day.
As Robert Wheel at the Center for Politics has suggested — Trump has a far better case that then Ohio governor Kasich and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) let Clinton get too close than Clinton has a case that Sanders cost her the presidency. Recall that Cruz stood up at the Republican convention and told his support-ers to vote their conscience, and Kasich never even bothered to travel the 140 miles from Columbus to Cleveland.
Even if Sanders and Biden had nothing else in common, their opposition to Trump has forged a partnership of sorts. As a part of their efforts to work together, they’ve established unity task forces on six critical issues: climate change, criminal justice, education, the economy, healthcare, and immigration.
The climate committee is co-chaired by former Secretary of State John Kerry and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Other members of the unity panel include Representative Kathy Castor (FL), who chairs the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, and former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. McCarthy is now the chief executive of NRDC. Other members include activists Catherine Flowers of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ) and Varshini Prakash, the co-founder of the Sunrise Movement.
The pairing of establishment and progressives on the Biden-Sanders committee is a strong visual of their willingness not only to defeat Trump but actually to find common ground. It lays a foundation on which the platform committee will be able to come to some agreement at the time of the convention. It is also the reason I had made the statement I did on the podcast.
None of this is to say, however, that the joining of the groups will have the hoped-for results in terms of keeping Sanders supporters — particularly youthful climate advocates — from bolting in November. There are some deep-seated differences of opinion between the groups — although perhaps not as many as some would suppose.
According to the Candidate Tracker of Resources for the Future, Biden and Sanders are in outright agreement on five of the eleven markers, which include carbon pricing, fossil fuels on federal lands, fracking, methane regulation, and the establishment of targets.
There’s partial agreement on three issues. Biden would ban fracking on federal lands but doesn’t call for a nationwide ban, whereas Sanders wants to ban fracking across the board. The two also differ on their target dates for clean energy and zero-net emissions. Biden sets 2050 for both, while Sanders calls for clean energy by 2030 and zero-net emissions by 2050.
The two also differ on nuclear energy. Biden favors phasing it out, while Sanders is opposed to atomic power. Somewhat oddly Sanders is shown supporting Obama’s Clean Power, while Biden’s position is unclear. There’s divergence on carbon pricing. Biden supports, while Sanders’s stance on the issue is unclear.
A simple comparison on issues can be a bit misleading both because of what could be called the passion quotient and because Sanders is not a solid surrogate when it comes to what groups like the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats believe. For example, fracking on and off federal lands has a high passion quotient and is pretty much a bottom-line demand of youth activists. Biden’s hedging on the issue loses him support with groups that have supported Sanders, but for whom Sanders can’t be said to speak for on all matters.
It’s hoped that the unity group will be able to present a blended position to the platform committee. Whether they will have worked out differences with the DNC Climate Crisis Council is an unanswered question at the moment.
As positive as the presence of both establishment and progressive members on the Biden-Sanders unity groups is, there are going to be issues between the wings outside of these efforts. Their differences can be great enough to act as a drag on the party — severe enough to bring the party down in November. Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are supporting progressive primary candidates that are challenging Democratic incumbents[i]. Their support of lefty challengers is considered treasonous by the establishment.
More importantly, their support of establishment challengers plays into the question of whether progressives like Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the vaunted Squad[ii] are real Democrats. It has been alleged before that they are using the party in much the same way as Trump has been accused of using and then taking over the Republican Party.
The greatest threat to a Democratic victory in November is going to be whether progressives show up to vote for Biden in November. I think it’s fair to say that almost anything Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and other congressional Democrats like Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) will be considered suspect, at least until the votes are in in November.
A Biden victory is likely to be considered evidence that the moderate and progressive wings of the party can indeed work together. Once the votes are in, there will be a detailed examination of whether progressives within the party were actually able to produce the needed votes of the various youth activist organizations.
The third group of climate policies is coming out of Congress — primarily the House of Representatives. The Democratic majority in the House has spawned multiple policy proposals on climate change. None will ever be enacted as long as the Senate and the White House remain in Republican hands. However, the proposed measures do reflect Democratic thinking both in terms of priorities and their willingness to put forth single bills covering multiple sectors.
On June 22nd, Speaker Pelosi unveiled the full text of the 2300 page Moving Forward Act (HR 2). The $1.5 trillion proposal focuses on infrastructure, climate change, and unemployment. Sections of the Act include initiatives on drinking water quality and wastewater infrastructure, housing, community development, broadband, transportation infrastructure, and clean energy. From the fact sheet released along with the bill:
By investing in families, workers, and communities across the country, we can support American manufacturing and ingenuity and create millions of jobs that cannot be exported, all while putting our country on a path toward zero carbon emissions.
Most importantly, for the solar and wind industries is HR 2’s five-year extension of their existing tax credits. The bill also extends incentives for carbon capture technology and offshore wind and offers new incentives for energy storage, waste energy technologies, and qualifying biogas projects.
Although Trump has spoken frequently about his intention to produce an infrastructure bill, none has been forthcoming. Trump’s open enmity towards Speaker Pelosi almost guarantees there will be no collaboration on an infrastructure bill, at least before the election.
Democrats had initially tried to include climate-related provisions in the $2 trillion CARES Act that sent stimulus checks out to all Americans and provided financial assistance to businesses and industries. The proposed provisions were dropped when it became apparent that the Republicans were willing to hold up the bill. Senate Majority Leader McConnell, President Trump, and other Republicans had used the clean energy proposals as an excuse to brand progressive Democrats socialists and to use the Green New Deal as the “proof of their pudding.”
The Moving Forward Act is unlikely to be entirely satisfactory for the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition (SEEC). The Coalition sent a letter just days before the announcement of HR 2 urging the Speaker to prioritize climate in all COVID-19 relief and recovery legislation and forwarding a detailed list of proposals on topics ranging from weatherization to grid upgrades and transportation:
As leaders of the nearly 70-member House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition (SEEC), we write to advocate for important sustainability policies…. As our work in Congress evolves, we must continue to address the immediate needs of individuals, workers, and communities across the country, especially those most in need. Any subsequent legislative package must continue to protect people and public health, and we urge you to prioritize opportunities that can also move our country towards a cleaner, healthier, and more just nation as we aim for recovery.
The Moving Forward Act does not cover all the topics in the SEEC plan. How-ever, other pieces of legislation taken together expand HR 2’s reach. The INVEST in America Act is a five-year, $500 billion measure that will be voted on by the House before the 4th of July.
The bill is another infrastructure law and is heavily attentive to climate resiliency and the need for improved rail lines and the buildout of electric vehicle infrastructure. The highway and bridge provisions in the proposed law emphasize repairing what’s already in place rather than a lot of new construction. It also focuses on establishing new public transit routes and improved services consistent with the desire to cut down on the use of automobiles.
The Moving Forward and INVEST in America acts are not the first sweeping efforts by House Democrats. Earlier Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee drafted and introduced the CLEAN Futures Act that sets a 100 percent clean economy by 2050 and somewhat parallels the breadth of the Green New Deal. There are other bills in the hopper as well, including the $180 billion Green New Deal for Public Housing Act sponsored by Sanders in the Senate (S. 2876) and Ocasio-Cortez in the House (HR 5185).
With all the Sturm und Drang that surrounds the Trump presidency, it is easy to forget that climate scored at or near the top of voter priorities in the early primary states and, indeed, across America. Climate concerns are no longer solely those of Democrats. Republican voters, although not as worried, are concerned. It is particularly true of young Republican voters.
Climate is not going to be relegated to the rumble seat in 2020 electoral politics they way it was in 2016. Democrats are going to showcase climate and the role of science prominently between now and election day. Should the election go their way, President Biden will pen rescissions of all of Trump’s climate-related executive orders within hours of being sworn in as the 46th president of the United States.
The Democrats suffer in some ways from a surfeit of approaches to combat-ting climate change. The devil of any effective policy is found in the details. The Democrats, however, would do well to look past the details of the various proposals — at least until November 4th. In-fighting is not going serve the number one priority of winning the White House and with a bit of luck the Senate.
It’s fast approaching the time for Democrats to come together on issues like climate and environmental justice. Blindsiding and accusing each other of being disingenuous should be left to President Trump and the Republicans.
Surely the Democratic tent is big enough to accommodate all generations and to take the best bits of each factions climate defense plans and blend them into supportable legislation that puts the necessary policies and programs into place. Every generation depends upon it.
[i] Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and groups including the Sunrise Movement have supported challengers to incumbent Representatives Henry Cuellar (TX) and Eliot Engel (NY). They also supported a challenger to Amy McGrath for the nomination to run against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
[ii] The Squad is comprised of Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
Lead photo courtesy of DISNEY/ABC FLICKR/CREATIVE COMMONS