Semantics Will Matter in Debate on President’s Climate Fund

WEEHAWKEN, NJ - OCTOBER 30: Much of the New York City skyline sits in darkness after Hurricane Sandy, on October 30, 2012 in Weehawkin, New Jersey. The storm has claimed at least 40 lives in the United States, and has caused massive flooding accross much of the Atlantic seaboard. US President Barack Obama has declared the situation a 'major disaster' for large areas of the US East Coast including New York City. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
National Journal
Clare Foran
March 6, 2014, 2:04 p.m.

Pro­spects for es­tab­lish­ment of a “cli­mate re­si­li­ence fund” as pro­posed by Pres­id­ent Obama this week in his 2015 budget will de­pend heav­ily on how it is de­scribed on Cap­it­ol Hill.

“If this is tied to the ma­gic words ‘cli­mate change,’ you’ll see people start run­ning back to their par­tis­an corners,” said Sen. Bri­an Schatz of Hawaii, a Demo­crat­ic mem­ber of the Sen­ate Cli­mate Ac­tion Task Force. “But if we talk about mak­ing com­munit­ies bet­ter pre­pared to deal with severe weath­er, there is an op­por­tun­ity there to get bi­par­tis­an sup­port.”

The fund would dole out grants and tech­nic­al as­sist­ance to state and loc­al gov­ern­ments to shore up in­fra­struc­ture and in­crease ad­apt­a­tion to cli­mate change.

It would also set aside fed­er­al dol­lars for cli­mate re­search, in­clud­ing sea-level rise ana­lys­is, and dis­aster re­lief. The Fed­er­al Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency would be giv­en $400 mil­lion for “haz­ard-mit­ig­a­tion and pre­pared­ness-as­sist­ance ef­forts,” ac­cord­ing to a White House blog post.

Fed­er­al fund­ing to ad­vance cli­mate sci­ence will be a hard sell with con­ser­vat­ives. But Demo­crats are hope­ful that re­si­li­ence plan­ning and emer­gency re­sponse could win sup­port on both sides of the aisle.

“Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans re­cog­nize the real­it­ies of ex­treme weath­er and ac­know­ledge that we need to do something to bet­ter pro­tect our com­munit­ies,” said Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­or Ben Cardin of Mary­land. “I think there is a way to make pro­gress here without put­ting a spot­light on cli­mate change.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska took a sim­il­ar line. “If you’re talk­ing about something as large and en­com­passing and yet so amorph­ous as cli­mate change, how are you go­ing to get folks to sign onto that with a bil­lion dol­lars?” the Re­pub­lic­an said. “If you were to fig­ure out a way to deal with fund­ing for dis­aster re­lief, on the oth­er hand — wheth­er for fires, floods, hur­ricanes, or what have you — then I think we could have a more hon­est and con­sidered dis­cus­sion about it.”

Sen. John Mc­Cain in­dic­ated he would be open to re­view­ing pro­pos­als to as­sist com­munit­ies im­pacted by ex­treme weath­er. “If some of the fund would help people re­cov­er from a dis­aster, then that’s an at­tract­ive pro­pos­al,” he said.

But even if law­makers agree on meas­ures to provide re­lief and make towns and cit­ies bet­ter able to with­stand nat­ur­al dis­asters, there’s still the thorny ques­tion of fund­ing. “I’d have to look it over and see how it’s paid for,” Mc­Cain ad­ded. “I’d need to know where the money is com­ing from be­fore know­ing wheth­er I could sup­port it.”

Sen. James Risch, an Idaho Re­pub­lic­an, called ef­forts to boost re­si­li­ence “as neb­u­lous an idea as I’ve heard in a long time.”

When asked about emer­gency re­lief, he said: “That’s a whole dif­fer­ent ballgame. When you talk about dis­aster re­lief we know what we’re talk­ing about. But the dev­il’s al­ways in the de­tails with something like that.”

So what are the de­tails?

The White House lis­ted the fund in its budget un­der a head­ing that could also be a heavy lift: a $56 bil­lion Op­por­tun­ity, Growth, and Se­cur­ity Ini­ti­at­ive. The ini­ti­at­ive, ac­cord­ing to the budget re­quest, would be fully fun­ded through off­sets, in­clud­ing cuts to fed­er­al crop-in­sur­ance sub­sidies and tax be­ne­fits for mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar re­tire­ment sav­ings ac­counts. It would also be fun­ded, in part, by pre­vent­ing in­di­vidu­als from draw­ing checks for dis­ab­il­ity and un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits at the same time.

The idea of par­ing back the so­cial safety net might ap­peal to con­ser­vat­ives. But broad agree­ment between Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans on fund­ing will likely prove elu­sive.

“With the budget con­straints we’re fa­cing right now and all the oth­er com­pet­ing pri­or­it­ies, I think you’d have a really tough time try­ing to get any­thing to do with re­si­li­ence fun­ded right now,” Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida, said.

Re­pub­lic­an Sen. John Bar­rasso of Wyom­ing cast doubt on the idea that the plan will be ap­proved, piece­meal or oth­er­wise. “If there is a vote it’s go­ing to be up or down on the en­tire pro­pos­al,” Bar­rasso said. “And I’m go­ing to vote against the pres­id­ent’s budget.”

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