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With a new House membership comes a Green New Deal — and new attention to climate change on Capitol Hill

The climate rhetoric coming from the new Democrats is as radical as Congress has ever heard.

Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar
The “Green New Deal” platform, a wide-reaching set of proposals on climate, energy, and economic policy, has been championed by people like Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota’s 5th District.
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley

After years of being dismissed and denigrated, climate change is back in the spotlight on Capitol Hill.

Weeks before the new Democratic majority even is sworn into office in the U.S. House of Representatives, climate change has soared to the top of the party’s agenda — a place it has not always been — thanks largely to incoming lawmakers who made sweeping action on climate a centerpiece of their campaigns.

Advocates are now hopeful that focus and energy will translate into a new dynamic in Congress — one in which climate change is a top issue. Democrats are poised to use their new authority to not only debate and vote on climate legislation, but also to hold hearings and even create a new special committee on ways to counter climate change.

What’s more, the climate rhetoric coming from the new Democrats is as radical as Congress has ever heard: The “Green New Deal” platform, a wide-reaching set of proposals on climate, energy, and economic policy, has been championed by people like Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota’s 5th District, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, someone who — on the first day of new member orientation in November — demonstrated with activists at Nancy Pelosi’s office, pushing her to adopt the Green New Deal.

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It represents a remarkable shift from the last four years of unified Republican control of Congress, during which the majority — populated by people critical of the idea of human-caused climate change — mostly ignored the issue. When they did focus on it, the point was often to discredit the issue by holding skeptical hearings or, in one notable case, by bringing a snowball on the Senate floor as evidence against global warming.

Republicans still control the Senate, and much of the House GOP contingent favoring action on climate either retired or lost in 2018. The Republican president, meanwhile, does not believe in human-caused climate change.

That means that most climate legislation — especially the big stuff favored by the progressive Democrats — is unlikely to go anywhere in the next two years. But that isn’t stopping lawmakers and advocates from treating the Democratic takeover as a landmark moment in D.C.’s climate debate, and one that could lay the foundation for bolder actions on climate later on.

New and old deals

The climate views of the new Democratic majority run the gamut, from the Green New Deal — something which previously existed only on the progressive fringes — to more mainstream policies that Democrats tried to advance the last time they controlled Congress.

The Green New Deal, now supported by Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, and more than 30 of their fellow congressional Democrats after a flurry of post-election activism, is capturing the excitement of the progressive base right now. There is a sense of urgency to counter climate change in the wake of President Trump’s reversal of several Obama-era climate policies — not to mention two recent reports, from the United Nations and the U.S. government, that forecast catastrophic damage from climate change if nothing is done.

While the congressional version of the Green New Deal is not officially defined yet — Ocasio-Cortez and others are calling for a special committee to draft a final plan — it will entail a dramatic reshaping of the U.S. relationship with oil, gas, and coal. Blueprints call for 100 percent of U.S. power to come from renewable sources within 10 years, a total reworking of the U.S. energy grid to make it more efficient, and the reduction or elimination of carbon emissions in the agriculture and manufacturing industries.

Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
REUTERS/Carlos Barria
On the first day of new member orientation in November, Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez demonstrated with climate activists at Nancy Pelosi’s office, pushing her to adopt the Green New Deal.
Initial versions of the plan also call for several left-wing policy proposals, such as establishing a “universal basic income” and a federally backed jobs guarantee, cementing it as a jobs and economy initiative as much as it is a climate and energy-driven initiative.

In a tweet announcing her support, Omar said “as the devastation caused by our changing climate becomes more real, it’s clearer now than ever that we are in desperate need of a #GreenNewDeal. We need urgent action — and real commitment — to break our addiction to fossil fuels.”

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The Democrats who aren’t pushing for the Green New Deal, however, still have a lot to say on climate policy. Dean Phillips, the representative-elect for the 3rd District, talked about the issue in his successful 2018 bid, focusing on Trump’s moves, particularly the president’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the 2017 Paris climate accords, which were hailed as an important step toward global action to reduce carbon emissions.

Phillips supports something called the Carbon Fee and Dividend Plan, which would leverage market forces to reduce carbon emissions by imposing a tax on fossil fuels, the proceeds of which would be returned to consumers to insulate them against higher energy costs.

It’s regarded in a similar light as the so-called “cap-and-trade” carbon tax scheme put forth in one of Congress’ most recent significant legislative efforts on climate change, a 2009 bill that narrowly passed the Democratic-controlled House but went nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

‘A huge deal’

That a big group of Democrats is pushing these policies in D.C. is an exciting development for climate advocates, who often use words like “despair” to describe the difficulty of pushing U.S. policymakers of both parties to act on climate — or even talk about it — in an era of dire warnings about where the planet is headed.

According to Kevin Lee, a senior staff attorney at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, a St. Paul-based advocacy group, the shift in D.C. power dynamics is a “huge deal” for climate policy.

“The really exciting thing about some of the proposals is, this is really the first time I’ve ever seen policy proposals that reflect the scale of the crisis that is climate change,” he said.

He is not expecting that Congress will approve sweeping climate legislation anytime soon. “The real power comes from these new members of Congress,” he said. “Even if we can’t drag the Senate along with us, the momentum that provides to states and local governments is transformative.”

Nicole Rom and Sarah Goodspeed are staff members of Climate Generation, a Minneapolis nonprofit advocacy group. They say they’ve long focused primarily on what gains they could make on the state and local levels in the absence of action from Washington. Neither expects that to change in 2019, but they’re hoping for more from D.C. than before.

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Rom said Democrats talking about climate change will help to “normalize” the issue — a benefit she says will trickle down to state-level efforts on climate and energy. “If that’s all Democrats do, keep it in the media and on the radar, it does a lot for the moment with which we can get some action,” she said. (A possible example of that power may come soon: After retaking the majority, key Democratic lawmakers with jurisdiction on climate policy announced they’d be holding hearings in January on tackling climate change.)

She said climate issues helped to fuel the “blue wave” in the 2018 midterm, especially in Minnesota’s suburbs. “There’s no shortage of policy ideas I feel we’ll be sharing with our congressional representatives, to keep the issue moving forward.”

Are Republicans totally a lost cause on climate issues? According to a report in the Atlantic, 20 House Republicans who favored climate action did not win re-election in 2018 — leaving about two dozen Republicans open to climate policy still in office. The views of most members in the smaller GOP House contingent are likely closer to those of Jim Hagedorn, the congressman-elect in Minnesota’s 1st District, who has expressed skepticism about man-made climate change and cast emission-reduction efforts as bad for the economy.

Mike Franklin, president of the Minnesota Conservative Energy Forum, has hope for bipartisan cooperation on climate change — and he believes a vocal contingent on energy and climate issues in D.C. may help bring the GOP along.

“The Democrats are very likely to debate and pass a climate bill that I hope will force the hands of the Republicans and even some moderate Democrats,” he said, “to pivot off whether to do something into what should we do.”

Franklin said Democrats would do well to embrace moderate Republicans who are willing to compromise with them on issues of climate and energy, and expressed concern Democrats were going “overboard” with policies like the Green New Deal.

“Are we doing energy and environmental policy, or are we doing tax policy and public welfare work?” he asked. “I’ve seen a temptation to mix those things a lot, and I hope they don’t. … I’m rooting for a thoughtful conversation, hopefully a bipartisan conversation, on what to do.”

These advocates agree that Democrats have an opportunity to put climate at the top of the national agenda — and to keep it there. Observers are already predicting they will help make climate change a major issue in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, and possibly in the general election, too.

“This feels substantially different than other things that have happened in the past,” Lee said of the Democratic takeover. “There’s a level of not just enthusiasm but engagement on the issue that I’ve never seen before — and that is different, that is substantially different.”