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. 
Getty Images
Ronald Brownstein
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
TWO MONTHS AFTER REFUSING AT CONVENTION
Cruz to Back Trump
2 days ago
THE LATEST
WHO TO BELIEVE?
Two Polls for Clinton, One for Trump
2 days ago
THE LATEST

With three days until the first debate, the polls are coming fast and furious. The latest round:

  • An Associated Press/Gfk poll of registered voters found very few voters committed, with Clin­ton lead­ing Trump, 37% to 29%, and Gary John­son at 7%.
  • A Mc­Clatchy-Mar­ist poll gave Clin­ton a six-point edge, 45% to 39%, in a four-way bal­lot test. Johnson pulls 10% support, with Jill Stein at 4%.
  • Rasmussen, which has drawn criticism for continually showing Donald Trump doing much better than he does in other polls, is at it again. A new survey gives Trump a five-point lead, 44%-39%.
NO SURPRISE
Trump Eschewing Briefing Materials in Debate Prep
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

In contrast to Hillary Clinton's meticulous debate practice sessions, Donald Trump "is largely shun­ning tra­di­tion­al de­bate pre­par­a­tions, but has been watch­ing video of…Clin­ton’s best and worst de­bate mo­ments, look­ing for her vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies.” Trump “has paid only curs­ory at­ten­tion to brief­ing ma­ter­i­als. He has re­fused to use lecterns in mock de­bate ses­sions des­pite the ur­ging of his ad­visers. He prefers spit­balling ideas with his team rather than hon­ing them in­to crisp, two-minute an­swers.”

Source:
TRUMP NO HABLA ESPANOL
Trump Makes No Outreach to Spanish Speakers
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Donald Trump "is on the precipice of becoming the only major-party presidential candidate this century not to reach out to millions of American voters whose dominant, first or just preferred language is Spanish. Trump has not only failed to buy any Spanish-language television or radio ads, he so far has avoided even offering a translation of his website into Spanish, breaking with two decades of bipartisan tradition."

Source:
$1.16 MILLION
Clintons Buy the House Next Door in Chappaqua
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Bill and Hillary Clinton have purchased the home next door to their primary residence in tony Chappaqua, New York, for $1.16 million. "By purchasing the new home, the Clinton's now own the entire cul-de-sac at the end of the road in the leafy New York suburb. The purchase makes it easier for the United States Secret Service to protect the former president and possible future commander in chief."

Source:
×