Quite a number of Republican politicians have softened their erstwhile rhetoric on the climate crisis lately. They’ve stepped away from language like “hoax” and say they agree that the climate is changing and that government policy must address this. But when it comes down to actual legislation, even something as exceedingly modest as H.R 9—the Climate Action Now bill that passed the House Thursday—the words of most turn out to be nothing more than boilerplate to give themselves cover against being labeled scientific numbskulls. They aren’t really interested in effective action.
This pathetic behavior was on full display Thursday when the House passed H.R. 9 by 231-190, with every Democrat present voting for it, but just three Republicans joining them. These were Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvnia, Elise Stefanik of New York and Vern Buchanan of Florida. That’s a whopping 1.5% of the Republican caucus in the House.
The Climate Action Now bill, the first even slightly significant climate legislation to pass in a decade, would prohibit the climate science-denying Trump regime from using federal funds to withdraw from the 2015 Paris accord, something Trump called “onerous” and “harsh” when he said two years ago that he would withdraw the United States from the agreement. This can’t actually be done until November 2020. The bill also calls for the White House to put together a plan for the U.S. to meet its pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26%-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. The intent is to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.4 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, with an aspirational goal of just 1.5 degrees C.
Several Republicans argued with straight faces that Democrats should have strived for more bipartisan agreement on the bill. For instance Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan—a 17-term congressman who has served as chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce and spent the Obama years crafting reactionary energy legislation—voted against H.R. 9 and asserted in an interview: “It’s not bipartisan, they could have worked with us to actually get a bill that I think would have worked. It was just a little bit too far and there was no outreach to Republicans whatsoever.”
As if cooperating with Democrats has been anything Republicans have been willing to do in the past decade. Just before the vote, in fact, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who has stonewalled Democrats at every turn since Barack Obama stepped into the Oval Office in 2009, said the bill would fail in the Senate because “middle-class Americans” oppose it, “So this futile gesture to handcuff the U.S. economy through the ill-fated Paris deal will go nowhere here in the Senate.” As usual, BS is McConnell’s main stock in trade. Contrary to his claims of opposition, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs showed in a poll last July that 68% of registered voters wanted the United States to stay with the Paris accord.
No surprise about the Senate. It’s been obvious from the minute Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida introduced H.R. 9 that it stands no chance of passage in the Republican-controlled body or of getting Donald Trump’s signature if it did pass. Instead, she says, it’s a message bill about the kind of things Democrats will do if they win the Senate and White House in 2020, and a signal to the rest of the world that the U.S. is not withdrawing from the effort to address climate change, no matter what Donald Trump and his fossil fuel fools propose.
Although no Democrats broke ranks on the Castor bill, many on the left side of the party spectrum—as well as climate hawks in various environmental advocacy groups—view H.R. 9 as weak tea: not bad, but not nearly bold enough. Some fear that this will be a substitute for what they consider to be more substantive legislation. Most of these critics are backers of the Green New Deal, which proposes a complete and quick move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy and includes a program of environmental and social justice. Ari Natter at Bloomberg reports:
“Simply put, it’s the junior varsity bill,” said RL Miller, the chairman of the California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus and co-founder of the Climate Hawks Vote, a political action committee. “It’s nice but extremely insufficient.”
Other Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, see the Green New Deal, for which specific legislation has yet to be drafted, as potentially problematic for some Democratic incumbents and challengers, particularly where Democrats won Republican-held seats in 2018. This is the case even though a new CNN poll shows that 96 percent of Democrats say “taking aggressive action to slow climate change” is something that will matter more than any other when they choose a presidential candidate.
Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, one of the 92 House co-sponsors of the Green New Deal, told Marianne LaVelle at Inside Climate News that he and other supporters want to craft GND legislation carefully before bringing it to the House floor:
At this point, the Green New Deal is only an aspirational resolution, with the details yet to be worked out on how to achieve the massive jobs and environmental program it envisions. “We want to move on a Green New Deal, but we want to do it right,” he said.
[Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the initiators and most visible advocates of the GND resolution], signed on as one of the 224 co-sponsors of the Climate Action Now bill and told Bloomberg that there was “no harm” in passing a bill voicing a commitment to the Paris climate accord, but she said more was needed. “The idea that we can just reintroduce 2009 policies is not reflective of action that is necessary for now in the world of today,” she said.
Several Democrats said in interviews that while H.R. 9 may not be all they would like it to be, it’s just the beginning. Rep. Sean Casten of Illinois, a member of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis chaired by Castor, says of the policies put forth by the Obama administration: “Were we moving fast enough? No. Were we doing enough? No. But we were moving in the right direction.”
Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, told E&E News that the Democratic majority that came into office in January needs to close an “aspirational gap” on climate change, rather than sticking to Obama-era policies that he said were inadequate in light of the technological and scientific advances of the past decade.
“I think that there is a policy inertia within the Democratic Party right now, particularly in the House,” said Pica, who has been critical of the Paris Agreement.
While he didn’t criticize Pelosi for moving the Paris legislation first, Pica said H.R. 9 must be followed with more substantive climate action.
“I think Pelosi should put up a repeal of the oil and gas tax breaks fossil fuel subsidy bill like she did with H.R. 6,” he said, referring to provisions stripped from the 2007 energy law. “There are a number of bills like that that she could put up that I think would force hard votes.”
From climate hawks and their allies, the message about the Climate Action Now bill seems to be: much more climate action—now.