Democrats Detail a Climate Agenda Tying Environment to Racial Justice

Source: By Christopher Flavelle, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The policy road map, expected on Tuesday, could guide the party if it gains control of Congress and the White House in November.

Rep. Kathy Castor, Democrat of Florida, during a House committee meeting last month.
Pool photo by Greg Nash

WASHINGTON — Democrats in Congress are expected to make public on Tuesday a broad list of proposals on climate change, laying out in detail what could become the starting point for their climate agenda if the party regains control of Congress and the White House next year.

The 538-page report sets a range of targets including ensuring that every new car sold by 2035 emits no greenhouse gases, eliminating overall emissions from the power sector by 2040, and all but eliminating the country’s total emissions by 2050.

It also calls for requiring companies, and by extension consumers, to pay for emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but in a way that gives money back to low- and moderate-income households. In the past, efforts like these have been politically difficult to achieve: In 2018, Gov. Jay Inslee tried and failed to enact a version in Washington State.

The package also approaches climate change as a matter of racial injustice. The report cites the police killing of George Floyd in its opening paragraph and goes on to argue that communities of color are also more at risk from the effects of climate change. The report says the government should prioritize minority communities for new spending on energy and infrastructure.

“We have to focus on environmental-justice communities,” said Representative Kathy Castor, Democrat of Florida and chairwoman of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which compiled the report. “There is an awakening across the country to systemic racism, and this is a report that at its center, at its core, focuses on those communities.”

Few of the proposals are likely to go anywhere this year because they would require support from the Republican-led Senate as well as President Trump, who has called climate change a hoax. But as a political statement the package is notable because it presents what Democrats call a comprehensive legislative agenda for climate change at a time when public support is on the rise.

In 2016, only 38 percent of adults in the United States said dealing with global climate change should be “a top priority for the president and Congress,” according to the Pew Research Center. By this year, that number had jumped to 52 percent.

Still, a major challenge remains: how to address the demands of climate activists without alienating more centrist voters.

Last year, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York introduced the Green New Deal, which called for getting 100 percent of the country’s power from renewable and zero-emissions within 10 years. Republicans have pilloried her proposals, using (and at times mischaracterizing) them to try to paint Democrats as willing to sacrifice the economy in the pursuit of environmental goals. The Democratic leadership has sought to distance itself from the package.

A growing coalition of Republicans led by the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, have moved in recent months to embrace solutions to climate change. Those measures focus on developing technologies that can capture carbon dioxide emissions from power plants or other industrial facilities and store them so they don’t enter the atmosphere, rather than limiting fossil fuels.

The economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has put new pressure on Democrats, who must balance voters’ concerns about their jobs with policies to cut emissions. Since the start of the pandemic, many Republicans have characterized even modest efforts to tackle climate change as having too high an economic cost for Americans who are struggling financially.

Representative Garret Graves of Louisiana, the leading Republican on the climate committee, said the two parties had found some common ground, including on the need to make communities more resilient to natural disasters.

But where the two sides diverged, he said, was on the question of the continued use of fossil fuels. Mr. Graves said Democrats’ view boiled down to, “fossil fuels are evil.”

“In my opinion, that ignores the science,” Mr. Graves said, stressing that he had not seen the report that Democrats planned to release. “If you can find ways to utilize the fuels, but have as good or better emissions, then that is a viable option.”

Ms. Castor said the measures included in the report, including new federal spending on energy and infrastructure, would create new jobs and opportunities.

The proposals call for cutting emissions of methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas, from the oil and gas sector two-thirds by 2025, making all new residential and commercial buildings effectively zero-emissions by 2030 and setting “climate stewardship practice goals across all U.S. farmland.”

The report, which comes 11 years after House Democrats passed a bill to impose a cost on companies that emit greenhouse gases, only to watch it fail in the Senate, again calls for some version of that same approach, though the authors emphasized that such a system would have to be implemented with care.

“Carbon pricing is not a silver bullet,” the report says, adding that energy-intensive industries that try to reduce pollution should remain “on a level playing field with foreign competitors that use dirtier technologies.”

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In a sign of how quickly the discussion around climate change has shifted, the report also embraces positions that might have seemed radical just a few years ago.

It cites a 2018 United Nations report that found preventing a dangerous level of global warming is not possible simply by cutting emissions, and requires finding a way to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as well. Congress must “dramatically increase federal investment in carbon removal research and development,” the report says.

The report also says that as hurricanes, flooding and other effects of climate change accelerate, the government must spend more to fortify vulnerable communities with better infrastructure, but that doing so won’t be enough. In some cases, people will need to move.

“Communities need support developing longer-term strategies, including options to relocate and resettle willing neighborhoods or communities,” the report reads. Federally funded programs should “consider the trade-offs of relocation and protection.”

The prospect of climate-driven migration, both internal and across borders, is so serious that it must be incorporated into the country’s national defense and homeland security planning, the report adds.

“Developing countries are especially ill-prepared to face the impacts of climate change,” the report says. “The resulting humanitarian and refugee crises, if unchecked, have the potential to become national security threats.”

Lisa Friedman contributed reporting.