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
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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