Begich Personifies Democratic Divide on Climate

ANCHORAGE, AK - JANUARY 18: Senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska) photographed near University Lake in Anchorage, Alaska, on January 18, 2013, in Anchorage, Alaska. Begich faces reelection in 2014. 
National Journal
Amy Harder
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Amy Harder
Feb. 6, 2014, 2:43 p.m.

For­get cli­mate-deny­ing Re­pub­lic­ans. Demo­crats face big di­vi­sions of their own about how to tackle glob­al warm­ing. And Sen. Mark Be­gich of Alaska, one of a hand­ful of vul­ner­able, mod­er­ate Demo­crats up for reelec­tion in an en­ergy-rich state, of­fers a glimpse in­to this split.

Be­gich, who ranks in the middle of the lib­er­al-con­ser­vat­ive spec­trum in Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s 2013 vote rat­ings for the Sen­ate re­leased Thursday, ac­know­ledges glob­al warm­ing is real. He reg­u­larly points out how Alaska is already be­ing af­fected by it, but he says politi­cians should dis­cuss cli­mate change in the con­text of sav­ing money and as­sess­ing risks, not car­bon emis­sions.

“You have to broaden the per­spect­ive and look at what’s the goal here,” Be­gich said in an in­ter­view. “If the goal is to lower emis­sions, that’s dis­con­nec­ted to most people. If the goal is to save tax­pay­ers’ money, now the pub­lic has some in­terest.”

Be­gich and oth­ers in a sim­il­ar spot like Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisi­ana, Kay Hagan of North Car­o­lina, and Mark Pry­or of Arkan­sas were not among the 18 Demo­crats who un­veiled a cli­mate-change task force last month.

“The pur­pose is to use the bully pul­pit of our Sen­ate of­fices to achieve that wake-up call,” Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Bar­bara Box­er said at a brief­ing an­noun­cing the new ini­ti­at­ive. “We be­lieve that cli­mate change is a cata­strophe that is un­fold­ing be­fore our eyes, and we want Con­gress to take off the blind­folds.”

On Thursday, House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Henry Wax­man, who works with Box­er and Sen. Shel­don White­house, D-R.I., on cli­mate-change is­sues, an­nounced that he and oth­er House Demo­crats are go­ing to high­light the risks of cli­mate change in reg­u­lar op-eds in The Huff­ing­ton Post.

Their po­s­i­tions aren’t aligned with that of Be­gich, who says cost should be a more para­mount con­cern. “That’s how we should be talk­ing about this,” he said. “If we’re over here, and that’s why I have a little rub with the task force, if you’re just talk­ing about emis­sions, we un­der­stand that be­cause we talk in that lan­guage, but if you con­vert that to ‘Your in­sur­ance rates are go­ing up,’ or ‘That elec­tri­city bill could be lower,’ then sud­denly.”¦”

The task force launched by Box­er and White­house is “try­ing to put this is­sue back on the table, which I think is a fair dis­cus­sion,” Be­gich said.

When asked why he didn’t par­ti­cip­ate in the co­ali­tion’s press con­fer­ence, Be­gich re­spon­ded: “Prob­ably be­cause they know where I would be, and I would not be 100 per­cent in the dir­ec­tion of how they’re go­ing about it.”

He plans to show up at task force meet­ings, though, even if he’s not a form­al par­ti­cipant.

“I think it’s im­port­ant that they hear the broad per­spect­ive of how to deal with this from a state that’s ground zero on this,” said Be­gich, re­fer­ring to his im­promptu and un­of­fi­cial par­ti­cip­a­tion in pre­vi­ous cli­mate talks.

Con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ist groups are hop­ing to use cli­mate change — and mod­er­ate Demo­crats’ pre­sumed sup­port for pri­cing car­bon emis­sions — as a polit­ic­al tool against them this cycle.

Be­gich said ac­know­ledging cli­mate change is real and sup­port­ing ac­tion (al­beit not a car­bon tax or cap-and-trade) doesn’t help or hurt him in his reelec­tion bid. “With my base, they’ll greatly ap­pre­ci­ate it, and with mod­er­ates, they’ll like it be­cause they un­der­stand it,” Be­gich said. “For people who are just anti-cli­mate change, well, it is what it is.”

While Demo­crats are split on what to do about cli­mate change, Re­pub­lic­ans are isol­ated al­most to the point of be­ing ir­rel­ev­ant. Many don’t talk about the is­sue at all, and most of those who do re­fuse to ac­know­ledge it is real and that burn­ing of fossil fuels is a big factor. That’s out of step with nearly 70 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans who say glob­al warm­ing is a real prob­lem, ac­cord­ing to a Pew Re­search poll last year.

Ben Geman contributed to this article.
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