Supporters of sweeping climate action have won.
Well, not exactly. They haven’t won the war, but in some key battles, they’ve been victorious.
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A year ago, advocates set out to inject climate change into policy and political discussions in D.C., as well as the presidential primary stage. They’ve largely accomplished what they set out to do.
They had goals of priming the congressional pump with climate policies, goals and messaging — ideally for consideration in 2021; forcing Democratic presidential candidates to prioritize climate change; and putting climate change on the front burner for voters.
And voters are paying attention. A poll late last year by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that a strong majority of Americans — about 8 in 10 — say that human activity is fueling climate change, and roughly half believe action is urgently needed within the next decade if humanity is to avert its worst effects. As a result, over the last year, a lot has happened:
— The House Energy and Commerce Committee just released a sweeping bill that would reshape virtually all aspects of energy and climate policy.
— House leadership released a massive infrastructure framework that, along with traditional staples of infrastructure bills, included a substantial emphasis on climate.
— The Climate Crisis Select Committee is weeks away from releasing its ambitious report that will outline policy recommendations for how Congress can tackle the climate challenge.
Leading American companies such as Microsoft and Starbucks are making ambitious commitments to decarbonize their operations and be more sustainable.
Every Democrat running for president has a comprehensive and detailed strategy for dealing with climate change, and they are talking about it on the trail more than any previous election.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has pointed out that younger voters are even more worried about climate change than older generations. Recently, he led his conference in sketching out a GOP plan that focuses on conservation and planting trees, as well as climate resilience, funding for clean energy research and promoting innovation.
But while these are all the makings for big, click-worthy headlines, it’s also important to look at what’s happening below those big headlines — because while the big moves above have educated voters and catalyzed a conversation, the real progress is happening incrementally, more quietly and often in bipartisan ways that might be unexpected.
In January, E&C marked up nine bills, many of which were non-controversial, such as grants for modernizing school buses, updating the grid, promoting energy efficiency or supporting clean city initiatives. While smaller bore, these are meaningful proposals and, notably, all nine bills were passed by voice vote, and four of the nine were bipartisan.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has also teed up several bipartisan bills that are in some cases narrow but nonetheless impactful — related to smart-grid, energy storage, and energy efficiency, among other areas. Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) are working to combine some of these energy bills into a package with conservation and parks measures.
Sens. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) formed the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, which aims to “craft and advance bipartisan solutions to address climate change.” Each week it seems like more senators are joining that team.
Several weeks ago, Republican Rep. Tom Reed (N.Y.) unveiled a bipartisan bill to provide federal tax subsidies for “first-of-a-kind” clean energy technologies to combat climate change. Reed’s Energy Sector Innovation Credit is unique in that it is technology-neutral.
And Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) released his Climate Playbook chalk full of bipartisan, actionable policy ideas that can be enacted this year.
There have also been meaningful, bipartisan movements around the issues of “forever chemicals” and chemical safety with the House passage of a PFAS Action Act last month. There are also bicameral, bipartisan proposals dealing with hydrofluorocarbons, which are as potent as greenhouse gases. Broadly supported bills have been introduced in the House and Senate that would phase down HFCs and transition to new and better performing refrigerants.
None of this is to say that climate and energy policy is on some new, bipartisan glidepath; in fact, like many issues, this area is as tough and partisan as they come. But, there’s lots of evidence that the plates are shifting. These issues are resonating more with voters and, as a result, are getting more focus from policymakers in both parties.
A climate crisis is happening, and what we as a country do, or fail to do, will have huge implications for future generations. That’s why we must continue to work the long game and take big policy swings.
At the same time, we also need to create smaller wins that are doable in the near term. In this election year — and indeed, as our legislative process often works — that’s where progress is made.
Make no mistake, voters are demanding action — and policymakers are listening. While the smaller progress we’re seeing today isn’t attracting huge attention, it is nonetheless moving the needle and helping create momentum for more ambitious action in 2021.
John Mulligan leads Monument Advocacy’s climate and energy practice and is former chief of staff to Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.).
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