Washington Takes on Climate Change? Rhetoric vs. Reality

Policy Column

Drue Banta Winters | AFS Policy Director

In its first month, the 116th Congress was embroiled in a debate over funding for a border wall between Mexico and the United States, the primary roadblock in finalizing the federal fiscal year 2019 budget. The stalemate resulted in the longest government shutdown on record. Natural resource agencies were shuttered for over a month leaving a cadre of federal fish and wildlife professionals unable to conduct research, collaborate on cooperative projects with state agencies, operate critical research facilities, or make grants to academic and other nongovernmental organizations.

The border wall has become a defining battle in America’s latest culture war, but the specter of climate change looms large over the debate even if the words were barely mentioned in the mainstream press. A wall threatens to fragment migratory corridors and destroy important habitat for endangered plants and animals, both increasingly problematic in the face of climate change. On the opposite side, mass migration of refugees seeking respite from extreme weather events, rising temperatures, and drought is likely as the effects of climate change become more severe, creating additional challenges for the USA.

At the end of January, the warring factions agreed to a temporary stopgap funding measure that allowed the government to re‐open and climate got some long overdue time in the spotlight. After all, there is a presidential election on the horizon and the issue promises to be important in 2020.

February ushered in the most action on climate in nearly a decade with a flurry of press events, no fewer than seven congressional hearings, and the creation of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. Not since the 2009 Waxman–Markey cap and trade bill was introduced has climate been given so much airtime.

Notably, climate champion Sen. Ed Markey (D‐Mass.) joined freshman and self‐defined socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio‐Cortez (D‐N.Y.) in announcing a framework for a “Green New Deal,” a non‐binding resolution that seeks to achieve net‐zero greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by 2030, create jobs, and invest in sustainable infrastructure. A key goal of the framework is to transition 100 percent of the country’s power demand to renewable energy sources. The International Panel on Climate Change report called for drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the same time frame—11 short years. The Green New Deal does not yet lay out how to accomplish the lofty environmental goals or how to accomplish some of the social and economic concepts called for in the plan. The devil is always in the details.

Sweeping legislation will still require the support of the Republican controlled Senate and White House. Even with some Republicans acknowledging the settled science behind climate change for the first time in recent hearings, it is unlikely that economic conservatives and energy hawks will buy into the concepts proposed in the Green New Deal. Republicans pushed back against the concepts proposed as part of the deal at a House Energy and Commerce hearing with Greg Walden (R‐Ore.) citing the $5.7 trillion price tag that would be passed on to consumers and taxpayers to make the deal a reality. Rather, he suggested the right will be focused on adaptation, innovation and conservation. Democrats themselves are divided on a solution with leadership favoring an approach that would charge carbon dioxide emitters a price for the right to release it into the atmosphere.

A change of this magnitude would require a sweeping overhaul of our daily lives and our economy. Ten years is not likely to be a realistic timeframe for such a far‐reaching transition in our transportation systems, including airplanes and cars, electricity generation, agriculture, and industry to allow for such a drastic reduction in emissions. Further, without a firm commitment from other countries to reduce emissions, especially those big emitters like China and India, the United States is unlikely to take action that would disadvantage domestic business interests.

In her compelling testimony to the House Natural Resources Committee’s Water, Oceans, and Wildlife subcommittee, Deborah Bronk, President and CEO of Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science and former director for the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Science stated, “Our challenge as a nation moving forward is to reduce the risks of climate change while capitalizing on its benefits, and I believe there will be plenty of both. The nation who will own the future will be the one that invests in the science of climate change so that decisions are based on sound data, that educates its citizen on ways to mitigate its effects, and that adapts to the new reality we all face. There has been much talk about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and as a nation we need to make this a priority…Supporting programs to advance the science and reduce the cost of green technology is critical to our country’s future. I believe it is too late, however, to rely solely on this approach to mitigate severe climate disruption. The carbon ship has left the dock and humanity has shown little commitment to taking it back into port.” It is hard to argue with these realities. The risks that climate change pose to fish and wildlife and our way of life makes it imperative that we continue to find solutions that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it promises to be an uphill battle and we don’t have time to wait. As an initial matter, the fiscal year 2020 budget may provide some opportunities to make inroads. Investing in research, infrastructure, and forests could be options on the table.

AFS is working to define a proper role for the society in this dialogue and I anticipate many spirited debates on this topic. We will be forming a special working group on climate to update the science. Keep an eye out for programming in Reno this fall on the great work of the joint AFS/TWS Ecosystem Transformation working group and other exciting climate related topics. As always, consider ways that you can contribute your time and talents to this important issue whether within the society or at‐large.