Democrats Are Shockingly Unprepared to Fight Climate Change

There’s no magic bill waiting in the wings—and no quick path to arriving at one.

Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders contemplate a melting iceberg and a hurricane radar image.
Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock / Eric Thayer / Aaron P. Bernstein / Reuters / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

There’s a wrinkle in how the United States talks about climate change in 2017, a tension fundamental to the issue’s politics but widely ignored.

On the one hand, Democrats are the party of climate change. Since the 1990s, as public belief in global warming has become strongly polarized, the Democratic Party has emerged as the advocate of more aggressive climate action. The most recent Democratic president made climate policy a centerpiece of his second term, and the party’s national politicians now lament and oppose the undoing of his work. Concern for the climate isn’t just an elite issue, either: Rank-and-file Democrats are more likely to worry about global warming than the median voter.

On the other hand, the Democratic Party does not have a plan to address climate change. This is true at almost every level of the policy-making process: It does not have a consensus bill on the issue waiting in the wings; it does not have a shared vision for what that bill could look like; and it does not have a guiding slogan—like “Medicare for all”—to express how it wants to stop global warming.

Many people in the party know that they want to do something about climate change, but there’s no agreement about what that something may be.

This is not for lack of trying. Democrats have struggled to formulate a post-Obama climate policy because substantive political obstacles stand in their way. They have not yet identified a mechanism that will make a dent in Earth’s costly, irreversible warming while uniting the many factions of their coalition. These problems could keep the party scrambling to face the climate crisis for years to come.

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The roots of this crisis go back to 2009, when Democrats held unified control of the White House and Congress. The end of the last decade was a unique moment in climate politics: Thanks to a string of intense hurricane years, and the unexpected success of Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, public support for addressing climate change through legislation was higher than it had ever been.

Democrats responded with the American Clean Energy and Security Act, widely known as “Waxman-Markey,” after its two sponsors, Congressmen Henry Waxman of California and Edward Markey of Massachusetts. The bill proposed creating a carbon-emissions trading market across the United States. Under its terms, the government would have distributed a number of “right to emit carbon” credits to companies, which they could then have bought and sold to each other. As the years passed, the government would allot fewer credits, forcing the price of emitting carbon to increase, which would—in theory—ultimately decrease the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

Though more than a little technical, a pollution market was a proven idea in U.S. environmental law: George H.W. Bush established a similar “cap-and-trade” system during his presidency to reduce the pollutants that create acid rain.

In June 2009, Waxman-Markey passed the House. But as that summer wore on, the bill’s prospects floundered. By August, the Tea Party rose to command more media attention, and public opinion turned against Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—focused on passing what would become the Affordable Care Act—declined to take the climate bill to the Senate floor. By the middle of the next summer, Waxman-Markey was effectively dead. Only a few years after it opened, the window to pass climate legislation had already shut.

Even in defeat, Waxman-Markey cost the party dearly. More than two dozen congressional Democrats who had supported the cap-and-trade bill lost in the 2010 midterm election. The casualties included Rick Boucher, a 14-term veteran of Congress whose district included much of southwest Virginia’s coal country. Boucher had negotiated concessions for local coal companies into Waxman-Markey, but this could not save his seat. Ten House Democrats, including Boucher, voted for Waxman-Markey and against the Affordable Care Act. Six of them lost their seats in 2010.

Indeed, Democrats seemed to prevail only when they ran against the climate bill. Joe Manchin, then the Democratic governor of West Virginia, won a special election that year to serve in the Senate, but only after he ran an ad that showed him shooting a pile of paper with a rifle. “I sued EPA, and I’ll take dead aim at the cap-and-trade bill,” he said in the commercial, which received wide media coverage.

So Waxman-Markey failed. And then, freed from a unified campaign, American progressives took climate policy in two different directions.

First, the Obama administration pressed ahead with its plans to use the Clean Air Act to limit carbon dioxide. (This power predated his presidency: In 2007, the Supreme Court told the EPA it must consider regulating greenhouse gases under that law.) This push eventually produced the Clean Power Plan in 2015, a set of rules meant to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from the power sector by 30 percent from their historic peak.

Though it dominated press coverage of Obama’s climate policy, the Clean Power Plan never actually took effect. In February 2016, the Supreme Court blocked it from gaining the force of law. But the administration got many other rules aimed at drawing down carbon pollution on the books by the end of Obama’s term.

Second, a swath of environmentalists abandoned the hope of passing climate legislation and returned to a more grassroots, project-by-project approach. Instead of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions through law, these activists hoped to deprive oil companies of their social license to operate altogether.

Chief among these new groups was, led by the author Bill McKibben. 350 opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, a mega-infrastructure project that linked the Canadian tar sands to U.S. export terminals, warning its completion would spell “game over for the climate.” In 2010, the Sierra Club also began to use environmental litigation and public pressure to shut down hundreds of coal-burning power plants as part of its Beyond Coal campaign.

This climate antagonism was one aspect of the left’s general resurgence during this period. Inspired in part by Naomi Klein’s 2014 book This Changes Everything, many activists came to see climate change as one more symptom of a dehumanized and extractive capitalism.

These two sides even had something of a proxy battle during the 2016 Democratic primary. During that race, Hillary Clinton opposed a carbon tax and endorsed the Obama administration’s ongoing regulatory efforts. Sanders endorsed a carbon tax and called for more aggressive investment in climate mitigation. Unlike Clinton’s policies, Sanders would surely have required a Democratic Congress to enshrine his policies.

In some ways, though, the 2016 primary was an imperfect battleground for climate policy. Sanders did not seek an energy economist’s ideal climate policy. He wedded climate-hawk positions—like his opposition to natural-gas fracking—to the 1970s’ classically green opposition to nuclear power. (Even though his proposed carbon tax would have been the greatest boon to the nuclear-power industry in decades, as nuclear plants emit no greenhouse gases.)

And there likely would have been little substantive policy difference between either candidate’s presidency, at least at first. Had Clinton or Sanders won the election, their EPA would have dutifully defended the Clean Power Plan in court. And their administration would have benefited from one more liberal seat on the Supreme Court to help enshrine more aggressive climate protections into law.

But Trump won. And that brings us to the present.

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On October 10, Scott Pruitt formally repealed the Clean Power Plan, the first phase of a planned disembowelment of Obama’s environmental legacy.

Pruitt is not assured to succeed in this effort. Many environmental lawyers argue that his legal arguments are not particularly well-supported. To push his repeal through, Pruitt had to muck with the EPA’s internal cost-benefit calculations. His EPA changed how it estimates the social harms of carbon dioxide, calculating a number more than 50 times smaller than what the Obama administration used; it also changed how it values the threat that air pollution poses to the American public.

It may all be for naught. Some environmentalists argue that the Clean Power Plan already accomplished its main goal, which was sending an anti-coal price signal to utility managers. Michael Bloomberg, a UN special climate envoy and the former New York mayor, has argued that the falling cost of renewable energy and the availability of cheap, bountiful natural gas will help the United States meet its carbon-reduction goals even without the federal policy.

But Pruitt does not need to win a total victory to succeed. The Clean Power Plan repeal will now be litigated in court, with the EPA lobbying on the side of deregulation. The fight will last years. It may even wind up in front of a Supreme Court more conservative than it is now.

No one knows the future, but it’s not hard to sketch possibilities. Pruitt may very well secure a ruling that effectively keeps the Clean Air Act from ever regulating greenhouse gases. Even if he fails, a future Trump EPA may succeed in permanently limiting the law’s regulatory power.

And when a climate-concerned Democrat next enters the White House, whether in 2020, 2024, or 2028, he or she may find that the Obama administration’s main policy implement for fighting carbon emissions has been dulled into uselessness. Attorneys at some future EPA will, at that point, probably improvise some new way to address climate change in regulation. They will have no other choice. But there will likely be a need, too, for new legislation. What will Democrats do?

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Democrats face at least three major problems in trying to formulate a climate policy.

First, the relationship between environmentalists and labor groups has disintegrated since 2009. Once upon a time, unions widely supported Waxman-Markey. The bill funded assistance for workers put out of work during the transition away from fossil fuels and launched “green-job” retraining programs. It also provided tens of billions in funding for “carbon capture and sequestration,” an experimental technology that would possibly have allowed coal plants to keep running. But when it failed, the pan-Democratic consensus fell apart with it.

Neither of the two climate strategies that have succeeded Waxman-Markey offer particular appeal to organized labor. The Clean Power Plan essentially made nonprofits and already-strapped state budgets (in GOP-governed states) responsible for softening the economic blow of carbon regulation. In large part, they declined.

The antagonistic approach to pipelines and other fossil-fuel projects has also alienated labor. Construction-union workers still spend much more time building pipelines than installing renewables. Divorced from a unified legislative campaign—and the promise of federal funding—the new environmental antagonism can seem to run directly counter to worker interests.

This isn’t necessarily the fault of the antagonists alone: Unionization in the renewable industry is also lagging. Renewable-energy companies are often as anti-union as any other California-based tech firm. In October, for instance, Tesla—which swears it is trying to hire more employees as fast as it can—fired 400 to 700 workers in what many analysts understood as a union-busting move. United Auto Workers has filed a complaint with the National Labor-Relations Board.

Green-energy companies don’t only harbor an anti-regulatory, Silicon Valley–style dislike for organized labor. They also see themselves as fighting a desperate battle on price with oil and gas companies. Every cent the union might add to production cost, they argue, is a cent that disadvantages them against fossil fuels.

The green-labor breakdown is the party’s biggest political obstacle. But its second problem is that Democratic voters still don’t care about climate change very much. Like other Americans, most of the party’s electorate experience it as a “low-intensity” issue. Though a majority of Americans in every state believe in climate change, very few people use climate policy to decide whom to vote for. Even Democrats say that a candidate’s proposed climate policy matters less when making a voting decision than his or her proposed policies about jobs, health care, the economy, education, income inequality, and terrorism.

As it happens, Trump is helping solve this problem: Due to his steady siege on Obama-era climate policy, he seems to be motivating rank-and-file Democrats to address the issue. His withdrawal from the Paris Agreement was much more unpopular than the treaty itself. But it remains unclear whether the passage of climate policy motivates its supporters more than it aggravates and alienates the issue’s “anti-constituency” (such as coal and oil workers).

Finally, dealing with climate change through any policy is just hard. Most of the good news in climate change lately has come from the power sector, where emissions have dropped by 18 percent over the last five years. But electricity production only makes up about 29 percent of total U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. For the United States to decarbonize—which even the newest and most optimistic projections say must proceed at a historically unprecedented pace—it must also tackle carbon pollution from other sectors.

Those other sectors will be tougher to crack. Most of the emissions from the transportation sector (which itself makes up more than a quarter of U.S. greenhouse-gas pollution) come from cars and trucks. In order to draw those emissions down by 2050, consumers will have to opt in to electric vehicles en masse and service stations will have to erect electric chargers across the country. Analysts say that’s unlikely to occur without large public investment.

And there are few ideas about how to tackle the 21 percent of U.S. emissions that come from the industrial and manufacturing sector.

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These questions are more pressing than they seem. Eighteen months from now, Democratic policy advisers will meet to develop their chosen candidate’s primary policies. If Democrats win unified control of Congress and the White House in, say, 2020, history suggests they will get a sliver of time to commit any kind of new policy to statute before public opinion turns against them. During that window, dozens of issues will compete for law makers’ attention.

In that light, consider how Democrats have treated health care over the past 10 months. While there’s no party-wide consensus, small groups of voters around the country have organized around the issue, calling their senators every day for months. More than a third of Democratic senators have supported a bill to introduce a single national health insurer. And Bernie Sanders, the party’s 2020 frontrunner, has debated Trumpcare (in its many forms) on CNN several times.

In sum, many Democrats have coalesced around a single phrase (if not quite a policy to accompany it) and promised to deliver it the next time they’re in power. And even if some Democrats see “Medicare for All” as a base play—as a slogan more likely to be deployed in Vermont than Colorado—it remains a policy-focused promise about future governance. The party has similar promises for other issues, too: On immigration, it can promise the DREAM Act; on LGBT rights, the Equality Act.

I suspect that many voters (including most rank-and-file Democrats) believe that there’s a similar strategy on climate change. They think there’s some bill waiting in the wings that would address the issue. They trust that Democrats have a legislative plan to resolve climate crisis, and that the party only needs to be granted control of Congress to pass it.

But nothing of a similar scale exists, and some of the Senate’s most vocal Democrats on the issue resist formulating one. Sheldon Whitehouse, who delivers a weekly climate-themed haranguing on the Senate floor, recently told Vox’s Jeff Stein that way to politically solve global warming is to convert Republicans to the cause.

There are only two bills that come close to serving as a flagship bill. The first is the 100 by ’50 Act, released in April by Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “100 by ’50” is an ambitious economic-planning package that would require 100 percent of American electricity to come from clean or renewable energy by 2050.

The bill’s release was timed to the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C., and McKibben attended its unveiling. It represents the triumph of the wing of the environmental movement, blocking future fossil-fuel investment and directing plenty of funding to help historically at-risk and marginalized communities. But the 100 by ’50 Act debuted to a fizzle and Sanders, its more prominent cosponsor, spends little time discussing it publicly.

The only other bill is Merkley’s the Keep It in the Ground Act, which would prohibit new oil and gas leases on federal lands. Though cosponsored by Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren, it receives little attention beyond Merkley’s own press statements.

Labor sources have also told me that both of these bills would face problems if Democrats tried to run with them. By design, the “100 by ’50” Act includes no economy-wide mechanism to phase down carbon emissions, like a carbon tax or cap-and-trade market. (Many of the more leftist environmentalist leaders reject these arrangement as failed technocratic policies.)

Indeed, most Democrats told me that climate change could only make it to the legislative docket through some other kind of bill. The days of a Waxman-Markey climate-only bill are seen to have passed, but it’s possible that climate could be addressed in a tax or jobs bill.

If Republicans succeed in overhauling the U.S. tax code, then Democrats could slide a carbon tax into a progressive rewrite of the system. Aging Reaganite Republicans proposed just such a carbon tax-and-rebate scheme earlier this year. Such a policy would bump up the cost of gas by several dozen cents per gallon, discouraging carbon pollution (in theory)—but it would also send every American family a check for $1,500 four times a year. In the eyes of its supporters, this would reduce carbon emissions while also testing an anti-poverty universal basic income.

Democrats could also institute a carbon tax that funds renewable-energy development, as Vox’s Dave Roberts has proposed and as some national polling supports. Some economists worry that such a mechanism would be less politically durable at the national level.

Or Democrats could choose another route and pass a “green jobs and infrastructure” law that subsidizes renewable-energy construction across the country. They could underwrite the electrification of steel production and impose an import tariff on Chinese steel. They could also compel renewable companies to respect unionization drives—a feasible goal, since the short-term success of the solar and wind industry depends in large part on Democratic victories.

The party could do any of these things. But a glance around the infrastructure of the Democratic establishment reveals that little of this planning work is actually getting done. There is no consensus about whether a carbon tax is a good idea. There is no ideal policy embraced by Democrats in lieu of a carbon price. There is, as far as I could find, no think tank putting a bill together or thinking through legislative language. I could barely find professional Democrats planning how a future offensive on the issue would look.

Meanwhile, as Kate Aronoff writes at The Intercept, climate change has come to dominate headlines in the past few months like never before. Three historic hurricanes have wreaked havoc across the United States, leaving the worst blackout in American history (which, at writing, is ongoing). Wildfires have destroyed neighborhoods across the West. And 2017 is almost certain to be the second-hottest year ever measured.

Against this background, the Trump administration has waged an assault on environmental policy and science with little precedent in U.S. history. In response to this, the Democrats have admonished Trump, have lamented the downfall of Obama-era policy, and have sworn their allegiance to the Paris Agreement’s goals—but have promised no substantive alternative. Waxman-Markey is dead, and the Clean Power Plan is writhing on the floor. What’s next, Democrats?