Partisan approaches to America’s climate policy have been an unavoidable fixture of news headlines for the past month. Unusual weather patterns have served to give fuel to the climate change fire. In January, a polar vortex drove temperatures to below -50 degrees in some areas in the U.S. and proceeded a 70-degree swing over the course of four days in Chicago, according to local media. Weather news is second only to news of climate policy in terms of frequency and volatility of swings.
Democrats hope to leverage this focus and what they learned from the 2018 midterms to drive a wedge and advance their interests. But when public discourse is focused on issues that President Trump can dominate, such as immigration and national security, Democrats struggle to earn air time. Hoping to control the narrative moving into the 2020 elections, Democrats believe their best chance to run the tables is with the climate change debate.
Recent Republican attempts to challenge progressive positions have served to reinforce this belief among Democratic strategists. President Trump recently unveiled his Presidential Committee on Climate Security to be chaired by William Happer. The Princeton physics professor made news when he equated the representation of environmental pollutants with the treatment of Jewish people during World War II. During a CNBC interview Happer said, “The demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler. Carbon dioxide is actually a benefit to the world, so were the Jews.” As conservative lawmakers scramble to repackage their messaging, Democrats are using the opportunity to expand the discussion.
Rhianna Gunn-Write, one of the architects of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s Green New Deal, said, “We have to throw the full might of the country behind this [climate change] problem if we are going to solve it.”
She went on to outline a new strategy for the use of climate policy as a campaign tactic. During a recent interview, Gunn-Write said, “If we can talk to people and connect climate change to the things that they care about, that’s a huge potential of climate voters that you just activated.”
She also discussed linking health problems and income inequality to climate change. Gunn-Write further asserted that institutionalized racism is a consequence of climate change saying, “66 percent of asthma deaths in the county are women, 73 percent if African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, black children are three times more likely than white children to die of asthma, and 80 percent of Latinos live in an area with at least one air pollution violation.”
Impacts to minority communities, Gunn-Write says, are further evidence of a need for more radical environmental policy. Preempting Republican responses, she asserted, “These are the same populations that, let’s be honest, conservative groups and fossil fuel companies are going to target talking about job loss,” she says.
Popular opinion seems to be on her side. A December 2018 joint study by Yale and George Mason University reported that 73 percent of Americans think global warming is happening, ten points higher than in 2015. The study also found that 46 percent of Americans say they have personally experienced the effects of global warming while 48 percent believe that U.S. citizens are being harmed “right now” by global warming. Advocates of the Green New Deal also find solace in the study’s findings that 66 percent of Americans don’t believe that it’s too late to address global warming, a position not shared by most climate scientists.
While public support for climate remediation policy seems to be increasing, radical approaches debated on Capitol Hill still face stiff challenges. When approached by climate activists Democratic California Senator Dianne Feinstein met questions on the Green New Deal with criticism. “There’s no way to pay for it,” she said to teenage activists. “That resolution will not pass the Senate… I’ve been in the Senate for over a quarter of a century, and I know what can pass and I know what can’t pass.” Pragmatic Democrats are the only lawmakers with concerns.
Legislatures in oil and gas producing states also greet climate change policies with lackluster enthusiasm. This is because royalties, taxes and other fees from oil and gas drive some state budgets. And no state is more dependent on this money than New Mexico. Earlier this year, New Mexico Tax Research Institute found that in fiscal year 2018, the oil and gas industry contributed nearly one-third of the funding for the state’s schools, infrastructure, healthcare and public safety. That equates to $2.2 billion of the state’s $6.81 billion recurring revenue with an additional $1.5 billion going to other state and local funds.
Wyoming faces a similar economic dependency with 20 percent of gross domestic product coming from extractive industries according to the U.S. Department of Interior. Despite similar economic situations, New Mexico and Wyoming each have diametrically opposed congressional delegations; New Mexico’s five members of congress are all Democrats and Wyoming’s three are all Republicans. While Democratic lawmakers may hope to reduce emissions, they are less ready to forgo the sizable contributions made to state and local operating funds.
That didn’t stop the recent introduction of climate change policy at the state level in New Mexico where some Democratic legislators are proposing to install a four-year moratorium on fracking. State budget analysts estimate this would result in a $2.21 billion-dollar loss over those years. How these losses would be offset is a question opponents and voters alike are asking, not just in New Mexico but across the country. Despite progressives’ superior message discipline, important questions still remain as the 2020 election draws nearer.
By James Clarke, Account Associate at Agenda