On Climate, Democrats Now Have a Plan to Make a Plan

Starting with a new bill that would keep the U.S. in the Paris Agreement

Chuck Schumer holds a printout from the Tampa Bay Times.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer challenged Republicans to come up with a climate plan, while Senator Brian Schatz, right, will lead the Democrats' new climate committee. (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

Democrats don’t yet have a consensus plan to address climate change, but they’re trying. On Wednesday, the party’s leadership in Congress issued a demand to President Donald Trump and began searching for long-term footing on the issue.

In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi unveiled the Climate Action Now Act, a bill that would essentially forbid the United States to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. The bill would also require that the White House develop a plan to meet the U.S. commitment under that treaty.

“Despite what the president has said, America will not retreat, and America will not cut and run,” said Representative Kathy Castor, a Florida Democrat, in a press conference at the Capitol.

In the Senate, without a majority, Democrats can’t do as much. On Wednesday, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced a new Democratic committee on climate change that will give his party a larger forum for talking to experts and planning next steps. But the new group will lack the powers of an official Senate committee: Democrats say they tried, and failed, to interest the GOP in forming a bipartisan climate panel.

Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii will chair the new group. He told reporters that he didn’t think Democrats would be able to do much without a Senate majority. “The truth is, we’re preparing to lay the predicate for action when and if Chuck Schumer becomes the majority leader,” he said.

The double billing provided a good view into the party’s unsettled climate agenda. The problem for Democrats is not that they have too few options; it’s that they have too many. Since 2010, when the Obama administration’s climate bill failed, dozens of senators and representatives have proposed various climate policies big and small, including several variations on a carbon tax. But these proposals have been advanced haphazardly, to send a message, with little hope of passage.

This is a very different problem from the one faced by the GOP. While many Republicans in Congress will now affirm the reality of climate change, the party has not advanced a serious policy proposal in years. And the Republican president is furiously undoing climate-focused regulations—and questioning the underlying scientific basis—as fast and energetically as he can.

Now, with a House majority and a newly climate-concerned public, the Democratic Party is searching for a serious legislative way forward—and so far, its moderates have found the Green New Deal lacking.

The party is almost totally united around one climate policy: being in the Paris Agreement, which the Trump administration has promised to leave. (For legal reasons, the United States cannot fully exit the pact until late 2020.) Pelosi would not have introduced the Climate Action Now Act if it couldn’t pass her caucus overwhelmingly. She even gave it a single-digit number—in the House filing system, it’s known as H.R. 9—to underscore its importance; it sits on a par with Democrats’ bills on campaign finance (H.R. 1), LGBTQ equality (H.R. 5), and gun control (H.R. 8).

Rejoining the Paris Agreement won’t do anything by itself, though. The agreement is mostly nonbinding, and it imposes few requirements on its member states. During the Obama administration, the laws that actually cut carbon emissions weren’t Paris-related; they were rules issued by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act.

So the Climate Action Now Act aims to put some legal muscle behind Paris. It uses Congress’s power over the federal purse to shore up the accord, prohibiting the executive branch from spending any money to advance the withdrawal from the climate treaty. Similar language appeared in the bipartisan NATO Support Act, which passed the House earlier this year and forbade U.S. withdrawal from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

When it first joined the Paris Agreement, the United States promised to cut, by 2025, its carbon emissions to at least 26 percent below their historic peak. The country is currently not on track to meet that goal.

The Climate Action Now Act requires the White House to submit a plan saying how it will make that 26 percent target. It also mandates that a new, more ambitious plan be submitted every year. But it provides no legal mechanism to punish the president if he fails to follow through on a plan he submitted.

The new House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which Castor leads, will also devise its own plan to meet the Paris goal.

Democrats know this isn’t enough—and they are willing to say so. “This is a step in the right direction,” said Representative Mike Levin of California, another member of the climate-crisis committee. “There’s so much more we must do. H.R. 9 is a down payment.”

But what should Democrats do? Here it gets dicey. At the press conference on Wednesday, senators expressed a strikingly divergent set of goals for their new climate committee. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island said he hoped it would attack Republicans, oil companies, and “phony baloney” climate deniers. “We are going to have fun,” he said. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, meanwhile, lauded the Republicans’ “honorable legacy” of environmental legislation. He hoped the group could set up an eventual bipartisan climate bill.

Schatz, the chair of the panel, would have to serve as “chief cat herder” on the issue, one of the members joked. And Schatz, perhaps aware of his tough mandate, refused to say whether any eventual climate bill would aim to keep global warming below a certain number of degrees, or emissions below a certain level. He promised only that Democrats would take action commensurate with the problem.

Looming over the proceedings of both houses of Congress this week was the Green New Deal, which—for all its vagueness—has generated more debate over climate policy than anything else has in years. On Tuesday, Republicans in the Senate roundly defeated the progressive resolution, 57–0. All but three Senate Democrats essentially abstained from the tally, voting only “present.” On Wednesday, Schumer thanked Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for holding that vote, saying that it underlined that Democrats want to do something about climate change and Republicans don’t. (Which is true, as it goes.) But when a reporter asked Schumer whether the new committee had been founded in response to the Green New Deal, he avoided the question. Schatz then intervened, and recognized the activists indirectly: “Whenever the cause, we certainly feel like we have momentum. We have the moral high ground,” he said.

But legislators may have a harder time talking in those moral terms. Earlier in the week, dozens of activists associated with the Sunrise Movement—the youth-led group that first brought national attention to the Green New Deal—lined up outside the Capitol dome. They wore shirts with a clear, if philosophically interesting, demand: “We have a right to a GOOD JOB and a LIVABLE FUTURE.”

“The Green New Deal is more than a resolution; it is a revolution,” declared Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts, who sponsored the original resolution with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Markey is also on the new Democratic climate committee.) He was one of several senators to criticize McConnell. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York compared the Green New Deal to President John F. Kennedy’s moonshot. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon led the assembled activists in cheers.

Then Senator Ron Wyden, also of Oregon, took the lectern. Bedecked in an emerald scarf, tie, and baseball cap, he told the crowd that, as the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, he knew there were 40 tax breaks for oil companies.

“Folks, let me promise you today—as part of our effort, I’m going to throw those dirty-energy tax breaks in the garbage can!” he said. When Democrats take back the Senate, he promised, they would replace those 40 tax breaks with only three: “One for clean energy, one for clean transportation, and one for energy efficiency.”

It was an applause line, and the young people arrayed behind the senator eventually figured that out and clapped. The moment seemed to gesture to the difficulty of making climate policy popular—to how, in the day-to-day reality of government, a moral demand for a livable future can transform into a reform for internal-revenue collection. In the months to come, Senator Schatz and Representative Castor are going to propose plenty of tax-reform-style ideas. It will be interesting to see whether they sate activists.