Miami will likely be underwater before the Senate can muster enough votes to meaningfully confront climate change. And probably Tampa and Charleston, too—two other cities that last week's National Climate Assessment placed at maximum risk from rising sea levels.
Even as studies proliferate on the dangers of a changing climate, the issue's underlying politics virtually ensure that Congress will remain paralyzed over it indefinitely. That means the U.S. response for the foreseeable future is likely to come through executive-branch actions, such as the regulations on carbon emissions from power plants that the Environmental Protection Agency is due to propose next month. And that means climate change will likely spike as a point of conflict in the 2016 presidential race.
President Obama, from his first days in office, made it clear to intimates that he believed a legislative solution to climate change would provide a more stable, broadly accepted response than executive action. But his experience has highlighted the structural forces that make a legislative agreement so unlikely, especially in the Senate.
Reaching agreement on any issue has become increasingly difficult in a Congress deluged by partisan polarization and money from interest groups. But climate change faces two other headwinds that make the path to legislative action even more daunting.
One is the difficulty that all democracies face with decisions that impose costs today while promising benefits tomorrow. The shift toward a lower-carbon economy could produce compounding advantages in the form of new industries, new jobs, and, not inconsequentially for the politicians making these decisions, new campaign contributors. It could also prevent environmental hazards that would otherwise occur in a warming world. Yet for many political leaders, all of that has seemed less compelling than the jobs (and contributions) tied to the existing fossil-fuel infrastructure.
On this front, though, the balance looks to be shifting toward environmentalists. Scientific evidence is strengthening the case that not acting on climate carries its own costs—not someday, but now.
The federal National Climate Assessment released last week catalogued current-day consequences linked to a shifting climate that range from heat waves, droughts, and extreme weather (more high-intensity hurricanes along the Atlantic Coast and a nearly 40 percent increase in heavy downpours in the Midwest) to rising sea levels pressing against coastal cities. Scientists followed that cannon shot with the release of new studies this week showing that climate change is accelerating an apparently irreversible melting in the West Antarctic ice cap that will raise sea levels worldwide.
Yet even as the price of inaction grows more tangible, a second structural barrier impedes legislative action. Much like gun control, climate is an issue that unites Republicans by ideology but divides Democrats by geography. Even if Democrats can build a bigger Senate majority through the next few election cycles—they are positioned to add seats in 2016 even if they lose control in 2014—such gains probably won't produce the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster against legislation to limit carbon emissions.
The Democrats' problem is that they cannot build a big Senate majority without winning seats in states heavily dependent on coal, which would suffer the most from limits on carbon. Democrats now hold 21 of the Senate seats in the 19 states that rely on coal to produce a majority of their electricity and half of the seats in the 10 states (some overlapping) that mine the most coal. Resistance from some coal-state Democrats doomed climate legislation in 2009, even when the party controlled 60 Senate seats and then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi narrowly muscled a cap-and-trade bill through the House. Senate Democrats such as North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp and Indiana's Joe Donnelly remain equally unenthusiastic today.
Theoretically, those Democratic votes could be replaced by Republican votes from states less reliant on coal. But Republicans face overwhelming ideological pressure to oppose action on climate change and even to reject the scientific consensus that it is occurring, as Sen. Marco Rubio from vulnerable Florida demonstrated in his dismissal of the federal climate report. Republican unity and Democratic division promises a permanent legislative stalemate over climate.
As a result, despite Republican howls of executive overreach, there's an air of inevitability to Obama's shift on climate, toward regulatory action centered on higher vehicle-fuel-economy standards and the upcoming EPA regulation of carbon emissions from power plants. With House Republicans voting repeatedly to block the power-plant rules, it also looks inevitable that the 2016 GOP presidential nominee will run on their repeal.
Obama's tilt toward regulation captures a larger change. Because the Democratic electoral coalition is growing demographically but remains excessively concentrated geographically, the party now is more likely to control the White House than Congress. In a reversal, that is transforming Democrats into a party favoring strong executive action to advance its goals—and Republicans into defenders of congressional prerogatives. That dynamic is already unfolding on issues such as immigration and education. Nothing crystallizes this new pattern more than the turbulence over Obama's efforts to confront a changing climate.
This article appears in the May 17, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Under Pressure.
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