Climate Change Issue Will Heat Up in 2019

January 9, 2019
Protestors calling for a “Green New Deal” were among those arrested during a demonstration in Washington, D.C., last Dec. 10. The movement is pressuring Congress to act by stopping climate change and introducing clean-energy jobs. Photo: Becker1999, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Climate Change Issue Will Heat Up in 2019

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one in a series of special reports from SEJournal’s Joseph A. Davis that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2019 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report for more.

Human-caused climate change is an issue that certainly won’t go away in 2019. Instead, the topic will get hotter as congressional Democrats now in control of the House of Representatives push back against the Trump administration’s efforts to hamstring federal climate programs.

Expect hearings.

Expect pressure for a “Green New Deal” to build a clean-energy jobs program.

Expect lawsuits over Trump agency attempts to rollback climate rules.

Expect international studies warning of dire consequences.

Expect tropical storms and wildfires.

Most certain is that the basic physical trends underlying climate change will continue in 2019.

The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to go up. Emissions of other greenhouse gases like methane will continue to rise. More forests will be cut. World population will keep growing. Polar ice and permafrost will keep melting. Sea levels will keep rising.

And certainly international efforts to control climate change will ratchet up.

The Paris Agreement of 2015 is alive and well — even without much help from the Trump administration. The “rulebook” adopted by parties to the agreement during their December 2018 COP24 meeting in Katowice, Poland, will help guide nations toward implementing their pledges. But the process is complex and will take years.

The bad news is that it won’t be enough.


Summit to consider more ambitious climate goals

The nations were shocked in October 2018 when the main world climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, warned of dire consequences if global warming exceeded a target of 1.5 degrees centigrade (may require subscription).

The target referred to in the Paris agreement was 2 degrees — itself unlikely to be met with current pledges.

The IPCC said the world had only 12 years to bring greenhouse gas emissions down drastically if catastrophic heatwaves, drought, wildfire, tropical storms and poverty were to be avoided.

That didn’t happen at Katowice. The nations did not stiffen their goals nor ratchet up their “ambition” (climate treaty jargon for trying to do more). Under the Paris Agreement, each nation sets its own targets. To raise their ambition toward a 1.5 degree goal, each nation would have to commit to more.


A September 2019 U.N. Climate Summit will certainly

be a test for President Donald Trump.

But sadly, there are obstacles even greater.


So, in September 2019, the United Nations will try again. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for a “Climate Summit” on the occasion of the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting, inviting heads of state. His goal is to pressure the nations to crank up their ambition.

This will be a hard sell and a heavy lift. And it will certainly be a test for President Donald Trump.

The first test will be whether he will even attend. He likes attention. He addressed the General Assembly when it met in September 2018, but his grandiose claims drew laughs from some of the delegates.

The second test is whether Trump can play any constructive role. In Katowice, the U.S. delegation promoted coal and joined the few nations blocking endorsement of the IPCC 1.5 degree report. It will certainly not help Secretary-General Guterres make his case for greater ambition if Trump is pushing in the opposite direction.

Sadly, there are obstacles even greater than Trump.

Many of the nations are trying to reduce carbon emissions by putting a price on them via one mechanism or another. French President Emmanuel Macron put a tax on fuel in his country and was met with populist “yellow vest” protests so intense that he was forced to cancel it (may require subscription).

The same could happen in other countries, including the United States, where “carbon tax” proposals are being floated in Congress.


Stalemate on U.S. climate action

At the U.S. federal level, the push for climate action has met largely with erosion and stalemate for the last two years.

The signature initiative of the Obama administration was the so-called “Clean Power Plan,” which put strict limits on carbon dioxide emissions by power plants — particularly coal-fired ones. But that initiative was blocked, first in the courts and eventually by regulatory rollback efforts (may require subscription) from the Trump EPA itself.

The Trump rollback proposal for power plants was amplified by rulemaking proposals to undo methane controls (may require subscription) and auto emissions controls (may require subscription). Those, too, are stalled amid rulemaking procedures and court challenges.

These struggles will continue in 2019, and final resolution of most seems unlikely.

As 2019 begins, it may be worthwhile to remember that former President Barack Obama’s executive branch initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions came mostly as a response to Congress’ failure to pass climate legislation.

In 2009, Democrats held all the cards — they controlled majorities in both House and Senate and they occupied the White House. The bill that emerged was known as the Waxman-Markey bill. It set an upper limit on the total amount of greenhouse gases that could be emitted nationally, and then set up a system whereby companies could buy and sell permits to emit the gases (mainly carbon dioxide). This “cap-and-trade” system had originally been a Republican idea.

The House passed the Waxman-Markey bill by a tight margin in June 2009. But the Senate never considered it on the floor, so it died. By 2011 Democrats had lost control of the House.


When it comes to climate action by Congress,

party politics matters. But it’s not simple.

Case in point: Many Democrats do support

many tenets of the environmental movement.

But those from states rich in coal and oil

often oppose controls on fossil fuels.


When it comes to climate action by Congress, party politics matters. But it’s not simple. And you can’t understand the prospects for Congressional action on climate in 2019 without some appreciation of party politics complexities.

Case in point: Most Dems voted for Waxman-Markey in 2009 and most GOPers voted against. But not all. Many Democrats do support many tenets of the environmental movement. But Democrats from states rich in coal and oil often look at things differently and oppose controls on fossil fuels. Some Dems who voted against Waxman-Markey thought it was not strong enough.

Republicans, to risk a generalization, have tended to oppose climate action. Perhaps that has to do with the regional politics of fuels. Often it seems grounded in an anti-regulatory ideology. But increasingly, it has been based also in disbelief in the settled science of climate change (or vice versa).

The climate denial movement goes back to the 1990s, when the now-defunct Global Climate Coalition (may require subscription) was funded by companies that produced and used fossil fuels. By 2009, Republicans who would acknowledge climate science were rare.

All these forces will influence climate legislation in 2019. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is the only person who has ever moved a climate bill through to passage. But any climate bill passed by the House in 2019 would face tough sledding in the GOP-controlled Senate, where partisan rancor can be high and where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and some Democrats (like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin) hail from coal states.


‘Green New Deal’ ups the ante

Enter the “Green New Deal.”

Within days of the November 2018 election, which gave Democrats the House, a group of demonstrators almost no one had heard of were sitting in protest in presumptive Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, demanding what they called a Green New Deal. And with them was Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), progressive bellwether and media phenomenon.

Soon, the Green New Deal was a thing. But what, exactly?

It was the product of a youth-led spinoff of mainstream environmentalism called the Sunrise Movement. The Green New Deal is focused on stopping climate change, but its program today remains a bit vague.

The movement wanted a new House committee on climate. It wanted Democrats, especially those on that committee, to pledge not to take campaign money from fossil fuel interests. It envisioned a massive jobs program transitioning the country to green energy like wind and solar. And it wanted to get to 100 percent clean energy within 10 years.

It did not, however, have a proposed bill or a clear mechanism to pay for this, although it proposed spending the next two years building a program. It was, however, good at getting media coverage and being aggressive in soliciting and advertising endorsements.

Pelosi did create a climate committee — which she had already intended to do, and which she had previously done in 2007. And she appointed Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) to chair it;  her Tampa-area district is vulnerable to the coastal problems that come with climate change.

But because chairmen of existing committees were jealous of turf, Pelosi gave the panel no legislative authority or subpoena power. She also did not include the “Green New Deal” language in its charter.

The panel will likely raise the profile of climate in 2019 and as the 2020 election approaches. But it will hardly be the only game in town. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), incoming chairman of the House Energy Committee, for instance, has already announced that his first hearing will be on climate. He has legislative jurisdiction.


Remember ‘infrastructure’?

At the worst of the Great Recession in 2008, infrastructure needs seemed to offer a jobs program that both parties could agree on. But they didn’t, for the most part.

The promise of bipartisan infrastructure programs at the start of the Trump administration did not pan out either.

But climate action also offers jobs, and mainstream Democrats see that (may require subscription), as do Green New Dealers. And they are running on it. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said recently (may require subscription) that any infrastructure deal in the new Congress would have to include climate change.


If there is hope for climate progress in 2019,

it may stem from other factors entirely —

technological progress, energy market trends,

socially responsible companies,

and state and local governments.


Will Congress come up with — and substantially advance — a viable climate bill in 2019?

That’s a very long shot, given that Republicans still hold the Senate. But House Democrats could spend the two years developing legislation that could become viable when and if Dems retake the Senate and/or the White House in 2020.

More importantly perhaps, by hammering the climate control message, they might even motivate some voters to actually put Dems in power in 2020. On the climate issue, polls favor them.


Climate closer to home

If there is hope for climate progress in 2019, it may stem from other factors entirely — technological progress, energy market trends, socially responsible companies, and state and local governments.

An energy revolution has been mounting in the United States over the past decade. The price of natural gas has dropped, largely because of increased domestic production from fracking and horizontal drilling in previously unproductive shale formations. This has made natural gas a more profitable fuel than coal for many electric power plants, and many have converted from coal to gas.

Still, Trump campaigned in 2016 promising to restore coal by environmental deregulation. Despite his rollback of Obama climate measures, coal plants have kept closing at an accelerating rate.

Over the same period, the technology of photovoltaic solar panels has improved and their cost fallen dramatically. The permitting and construction of wind power turbines, onshore and offshore, has also quickened in pace and gotten less expensive, partly because of growing scale.

Climate benefits notwithstanding, studies show that the wind and solar industries are creating more jobs than the coal industry does — and many of the strongest are in deep red Midwest flyover country.

A lot of companies around the world have been coming to the conclusion that climate action is merely good business. At every year’s meeting of the climate treaty nations, there are more declarations from companies that they will act.

It’s good business (may require subscription) in a lot of ways  Some are realizing that if climate change continues unchecked, it will harm them financially. For others, it presents as a golden opportunity to make money. There is money in repowering the industrial base, for instance, and there is money in adaptation — rebuilding infrastructure that is destroyed by climate change.

Companies and banks may be able to move faster and more effectively than governments. In the face of Trump’s declaration that he would withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, many businesses are declaring: “We are still in.”

The 2018 election did something else to improve the outlook for climate action in 2019. It shifted power in a half dozen or more state legislatures and governor’s mansions. The result, even if the federal government remains deadlocked, may be numerous new state actions to address climate.

Not all state elections were climate-positive, but many were. Post-election pundits have pointed to California, Washington, Florida, Illinois, Wyoming, Michigan, Maine, Nevada, Wisconsin, Kansas and New Mexico as places that could see greenward shifts in climate policy.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 2. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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