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America’s Bipartisan Climate-Policy Failure

In American politics, the Republican Party's commitment to the fossil-fuel industry means that it will continue to deny climate science and favor policies that exacerbate global warming. But the Democratic Party, too, has long been in thrall to a form of climate-change denialism.

SARASOTA – US President Donald Trump’s anti-climate agenda is in full swing. His administration has already taken action 117 times to repeal or weaken climate regulations, and much more deregulation is in the works. By unraveling environmental protections on an unprecedented scale, including through executive orders, Trump is using every tool at his disposal to increase fossil-fuel extraction and the production of dirty energy. Apparently, he is hell-bent on topping his predecessor’s own fossil-fuel boom.

That’s right, former President Barack Obama presided over a fossil-fuel boom: the domestic shale-energy revolution enabled by the advent of hydraulic fracturing (or fracking). The fact is that neither major party in the United States has been the climate champion that the country – and the world – needs. While young activists around the world are stepping up to show what true climate leadership looks like, politicians are barely taking note. As Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic US senator from California, dismissively told a group of young people advocating a Green New Deal (GND): “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I know what I’m doing.”

The longer both parties cling to a policy of “business as usual,” the more likely we are to face a climate catastrophe in which millions of people perish or have their lives upended. In reality, though, the responsibility for adopting a new paradigm ultimately rests with the Democrats. While Trump has been disastrous for the planet, his administration’s policies are in keeping with a Republican Party that won’t change anytime soon.

In a recent review of more than 1,000 climate-related bills introduced in the US Congress since 2000, we found that, in the past decade alone, Republicans presented 187 that would increase greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions. Most of these bills have sought to advance the interests of the fossil-fuel industry over those of everyone else. The Republicans’ purported rationale is to achieve “energy independence,” which, in practice, has meant offering special treatment to the oil, gas, and coal companies that spend exorbitant amounts on campaign contributions.

Not long after coming to office, Trump promised that by unleashing America’s fossil-fuel reserves, his administration would “create countless jobs for our people, and provide true energy security to our friends, partners, and allies all across the globe.” Following the same logic, Don Young, a Republican congressman representing Alaska, has introduced the American Energy Independence and Job Creation Act, which would allow exploration and extraction of oil and gas reserves in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Adding insult to injury, the bill would direct half of the tax revenues generated by the exploitation of public resources to a pot of incentives for the fossil-fuel industry.

But the real insult is the behavior of Democratic leaders, who continue to abide by what James K. Boyce of the University of Massachusetts calls “climate-change denial lite.” Consider the case of the Democratic National Committee. Last year, the DNC decided that it would no longer accept contributions from political action committees affiliated with the fossil-fuel industry, only to reverse course and embrace an “all-of-the-above” energy policy just months later.

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Though congressional Democrats have introduced modest proposals to curtail GHG emissions, they haven’t made any major push for climate legislation since the failed American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (the Waxman-Markey bill). And even that bill would not have reduced emissions fast enough, relative to what the climate crisis demands.

Among the more meaningful climate bills introduced by Democrats in recent years is the 100 by ‘50 Act, which includes provisions to “achieve 100% clean and renewable energy by 2050.” But, again, this falls far short of what is needed to limit global warming to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels – the threshold beyond which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts devastating consequences.

Fortunately, a growing chorus of Democrats has begun to demand genuine action that would start to make up for decades of climate-change denialism lite. They understand that without significant, comprehensive action by the US, the climate cannot possibly be stabilized at a level that is still conducive to human flourishing.

Rather than talking about what people must give up to reduce emissions, the climate realists are trying to sell voters on a new vision of the economy, one that offers long-term economic security and environmental stability. The GND resolution introduced earlier this year has rapidly shifted the window of discourse, such that once-radical proposals are now garnering public support and being debated seriously.

Though the details of the GND still need to be fleshed out, Democratic presidential contenders such as Washington Governor Jay Inslee are already offering concrete proposals in accordance with its prescriptions. The GND could be the “north star” of the country’s decarbonization path. But much will depend on Democratic congressional leaders such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who has scoffed at ambitious climate proposals as a “green dream.” Either that changes, or we will all find ourselves in an environmental nightmare.