Miami Will Likely Be Underwater Before Congress Acts on Climate Change

Why the struggle over climate is moving to the executive branch.

NEW PORT RICHEY, FL - JUNE 26: Residents of the Mill Run area ready their homes and prepare to leave under a mandatory evacuation order by emergency management officials on June 26, 2012 in New Port Richey, Florida. According to local news, two area rivers have converged and surpassed the 100-year flood plan. 
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Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
May 15, 2014, 5 p.m.

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.

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