Climate change: What AOC and House Democrats actually want to do about it

In 2007, shortly after Democrats took back the House of Representatives in the 2006 midterm elections, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi created the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, meant to gather expert testimony and develop policy plans to address climate change. Until Republicans killed it in 2011, the select committee amassed an enormous body of knowledge, which it contributed to the 2007 energy bill, the 2009 Obama stimulus bill, and the ill-fated Waxman-Markey climate bill (which died in the Senate).

In 2018, after Democrats re-took the House, Pelosi proposed reconstituting the committee. Climate change activists, led by newly elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, demanded that the new committee have teeth — that it be charged with developing a Green New Deal. The original sit-in at Pelosi’s office, where AOC drew scads of media attention by appearing after having been elected but before being sworn in, was in part about demanding a more robust committee. Activists eventually got dozens of lawmakers to sign on to the effort.

In the end, though, Pelosi gave the new select committee a purely advisory role, with neither subpoena power nor a specific legislative mandate. (I recount the fight in more detail in my Green New Deal explainer.)

After the initial hullabaloo, the select committee largely fell out of the headlines and got to work.

The committee’s initial request for input in the fall of 2019 drew about 700 substantive responses. Through March 2020, committee staffers have had more than a thousand meetings with various stakeholders — the report cites “elected officials, tribal leaders, scientists, business representatives, policy experts, public health advocates, youth activists, and individuals representing communities on the front lines of climate change” — alongside 17 official hearings, seven member-level roundtables, and several meetings with staff and members of other committees. Since March, there have also been a number of online member briefings about Covid-19 and its impact on public health and clean energy.

“We didn’t need subpoena power to do our work,” says Melvin Félix, the committee’s communications director. “People were eager to share their views on how to solve the climate crisis.”

All those consultations, hearings, and meetings have culminated in the release of the select committee’s official report and recommendations: “Solving the Climate Crisis: The Congressional action plan for a clean energy economy and a healthy and just America.”

It is the most detailed and well-thought-out plan for addressing climate change that has ever been a part of US politics — an extraordinary synthesis of expertise from social and scientific fields, written by people deeply familiar with government, the levers of power, and existing policy.

“I am very heartened to see the detail and ambition that the committee has put forward,” says Leah Stokes, an energy policy expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It shows that the Democratic Party is waking up to the scale and urgency of the climate crisis.”

The report weighs in at well over 500 pages, with hundreds of individual policy recommendations — even the bullet-pointed list goes on for four pages. I will not presume to try to summarize it. Instead, I will just lay out the basic structure, the twelve policy “pillars” identified, and then say a few things about the political landscape in which the report arrives. We now have as close to a definitive answer as can be provided in advance of the question, “How can we do this?” What remains, politically speaking, is the question of whether we’ll do it, i.e., the question of power.

Greenhouse gas reductions through 2050 in the select committee plan.
Energy Innovation

The 12 pillars of a comprehensive response to climate change

The overall goal of the recommendations is net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the US by “no later than” 2050, and negative emissions thereafter. (As I explained in a recent post, net-zero by 2050 is the new climate baseline in US politics — even conservatives are signing on to it.)

It’s worth a note of clarification here. The recent IPCC report recommends net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. But carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas — there is also methane, nitrous oxide, and others, some of which are particularly difficult to eliminate. Getting to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, all inclusive, is actually a bolder target than the IPCC’s.

It’s that bolder target that the report recommends as the US national goal, though, as we’ll see, the policies within it don’t quite get all the way there.

The report’s policy recommendations were assessed by the independent energy consultancy Energy Innovation using peer-reviewed modeling. It found that they would get the US to net-zero carbon dioxide emissions a little before 2050, but not quite net-zero GHG emissions.

House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis plan CO2 reductions.
Carbon dioxide reductions under the select committee plan.
Energy Innovation

Specifically, they would reduce net GHGs at least 37 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and 88 percent by 2050. “The remaining 12% of [GHG] emissions comes from the hardest to decarbonize sectors,” the report says, “such as heavy-duty and off-road transportation, industry, and agriculture.”

In meeting these targets, the policies would prevent 62,000 premature deaths every year by 2050, most of them through a reduction in fine-particle pollution. “The cumulative net present value of the estimated monetized annual health and climate benefits,” the report says, “are equal to almost $8 trillion (real 2018 U.S. dollars) at a 3% discount rate.”

That’s $8 trillion in savings — up to $1 trillion a year by 2050, relative to the no-policy baseline. Pretty soon you’re talking about real money.

The report also recommends that the president set interim 2030 and 2040 targets and that the US Academy of Sciences conduct regular assessments of decarbonization progress, focusing especially on distributional impacts, i.e., environmental justice.

So, how can the US move toward net-zero? Here are the 12 pillars:

  1. Invest in infrastructure to build a just, equitable, and resilient clean energy economy.
  2. Drive innovation and deployment of clean energy and deep decarbonization technologies.
  3. Transform US industry and expand domestic manufacturing of clean energy and zero-emission technologies.
  4. Break down barriers for clean energy technologies.
  5. Invest in America’s workers and build a fairer economy.
  6. Invest in disproportionately exposed communities to cut pollution and advance environmental justice.
  7. Improve public health and manage climate risks to health infrastructure.
  8. Invest in American agriculture for climate solutions.
  9. Make US communities more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
  10. Protect and restore America’s lands, waters, ocean, and wildlife.
  11. Confront climate risks to America’s national security and restore America’s leadership on the international stage.
  12. Strengthen America’s core institutions to facilitate climate action.

Under each of these pillars there are multiple subsections, each with their own list of supportive policies. No matter your idiosyncratic climate policy interest, it’s in there somewhere. Multi-modal urban transportation options? Page 104. Resilience-focused building codes? Page 419.

For each policy, the report identifies the congressional committee with jurisdiction. What’s notable is that just about every committee in the House, from Agriculture to Natural Resources to Transportation to Financial Services to Defense, has a full menu of things to do. There is lots of work to go around.

“This is an ambitious and comprehensive plan,” says Stokes. “It shows that the committee listened to stakeholders, watched the Democratic primary carefully, and learned from climate champions like Governor Jay Inslee.”

Former Democratic presidential candidate Washington Gov. Jay Inslee walking with a group of students down a New York City street.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee set the pace on climate policy.
Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Does it constitute a Green New Deal? It doesn’t contain a job guarantee or universal health care. It doesn’t nationalize any industries. But it does “represent a major shift in congressional leaders’ approach to climate policy,” says Maggie Thomas of Inslee campaign spin-off group Evergreen Action, “toward a more urgent plan built on clean energy standards, investment, and environmental justice.”

The select committee report, in other words, is perfectly in tune with the growing climate-policy alignment on the left around standards, investments, and justice (SIJ). It contains the same strong standards on electricity, cars, and buildings that served as the core of both Inslee’s and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s plans. It recommends a wide array of investments in infrastructure, domestic industries, and community resilience. And throughout, there is a focus on the hardest-hit communities. It’s like an SIJ policy encyclopedia.

Will it do any good? Let’s conclude with three quick points about the politics around the report.

Policy is not the sticking point — it’s making policy matter

There are some areas of the report with which the climate left will take issue. It places great emphasis on carbon capture, storage, and reuse, is friendly to nuclear, and does not ban fossil fuel infrastructure. But there are two points to make about that.

First, anything the report might lack in Sanders-style top-line ambitions, it makes up for in terms of Warren-style policy specificity. It is enormously valuable for policymakers, when they stumble into those rare opportunities to get something done, to have a detailed policy blueprint available. Wherever and whenever those opportunities occur, there will be plans ready to take advantage.

Second and more importantly, in political terms, the ambition of climate policy is not going to be settled by pre-election intramural left debates. The differences between this plan and the Green New Deal or Inslee’s plan or various plans from green groups are minuscule relative to the yawning gap between any of those plans and the capacities of the US political system.

More bluntly, policy ambition won’t be constrained by policy visions and plans, it will be constrained by power. It’s something neither the right nor the left enjoys hearing, but it’s true: To a first approximation, the more power Democrats have in the federal government, the more climate policy will get done. Even if Democrats take the presidency and the House and the Senate, each additional vote in that Senate majority — 51 vs. 52 vs. 53 — will give them more room to maneuver and make more climate policy possible.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The closer the election gets, the less pressing it is to answer the question, “What would Democrats do if they could do everything they wanted?” However much or little that may be, it’s much less than what they can do in the face of Republican opposition. It is their strength and numbers in the face of that opposition that will determine the outer bounds of climate policy in 2021.

So at this point, the best thing climate advocates and activists can do is demonstrate to Democrats that their new embrace of SIJ policy is a political winner, by translating it to electoral success. Politicians who run and win on an issue are more likely to stick with it.

A third and final point: Can you imagine Republicans doing this? Assembling a policy committee and holding more than a year’s worth of consultations, meetings, and hearings to gather expert testimony and translate it into a detailed policy blueprint?

There’s simply nothing like this happening on the right side of the aisle, on any issue. There’s no demand for it.

Trump has no policy plans or principles, he lurches from one gesture to another, trying to get good coverage on cable news. And Republicans in Congress are hardly better. They pass tax cuts for the wealthy and increase military spending; otherwise, they have effectively shut down Congress as a legislative body. As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell boasts, the Republican Senate is a graveyard for legislation, accomplishing little beyond stocking the federal judiciary with unqualified right-wing judges.

With no demand for policy expertise, there’s less and less supply. “One of the biggest problems faced by the GOP today is how degraded its policy shops have become,” says Jerry Taylor, a former libertarian who now heads the center-right think tank the Niskanen Center. “Conservative think tanks are heavily loaded with ideologues will little concrete legislative knowledge. Few have ever been involved in writing real (non-messaging) legislation.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) is one of the right’s foremost climate figures. That’s the problem in a nutshell.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

This was illustrated recently when Republicans got nervous about polling on climate change and decided they needed something to call “climate policy.” They came up with R&D subsidies to oil and gas companies and … trees. Policy-wise, it was puddle-deep, and it’s not clear the GOP’s diminished policy shops are capable of coming up with anything better.

There are plenty of people on today’s right familiar with the latest conspiracy theories about the deep state or antifa, but there’s almost nobody left who knows how to craft policy. Everyone in the conservative coalition has become the same shitposter, competing to go viral owning the libs. What policy development capacity still existed on the right before the Trump era has either embraced ethnonationalist hackery or faded into irrelevance.

And so, as the select committee report illustrates in the starkest possible terms, if you want serious policy to address urgent national problems, there’s only one party offering it.

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