The Democratic House in the 116th Congress will face a critical choice on climate change.
Go big on the policy front, steamroll a carbon-tax bill past Republican opposition, and potentially jeopardize a newfound majority the next election cycle—only to watch the legislation die in the Senate.
Or boost funding for advanced energy technologies through adroit political diplomacy, while laying the groundwork for dramatic action after potentially seizing more power down the road.
Democrats could, of course, sidestep the dilemma all together, push ahead controversial legislation and big funding bumps, and grind Trump administration energy activity to a halt through a flood of subpoenas.
At least some on the political frontlines of climate change are warning Democrats to tread carefully.
“Anytime you try to do something major on one side of the aisle, the pendulum swings and it’s undone, and we really don’t have time now on climate to do, undo, and then do again,” Bob Inglis, executive director of RepublicEn and a former Republican House member, told National Journal.
“We've got to clear the way to the goal. We can’t take shots that are going to be deflected,” said Inglis, who lost his South Carolina district to Rep. Trey Gowdy in 2010 after saying climate change was man-made. “The consequences are so close now. It’s got to be a clear shot.”
A spate of alarming reports about impending dramatic changes to the environment caused by man-made greenhouse-gas emissions is upping the ante for action.
In October, a United Nations panel sounded the alarm on climate change, arguing that “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes” are needed to ensure a “more sustainable and equitable society.” The report called for action to limit global-temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius in the coming decades. And scientists regularly tie the recent ferocity of hurricanes and wildfires, among other weather phenomena, to climate change.
But key Democratic veterans seem to be backing Inglis’s call for caution.
“There’s not much they can do by way of legislation in a major way. But they have a lot of power to set the agenda, and I think that this will give them an opportunity to raise issues that will be a predicate for legislation when the time comes,” former Rep. Henry Waxman, who served as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told National Journal. “There are other ways to bring public attention to climate change and the consequence of it, and Democrats ought to do it.”
The top House Democrat and presumed next speaker, Nancy Pelosi, recently called for a revival of a House select committee on climate change akin to one Democrats sponsored from 2007 to 2011. Republicans axed the committee after clawing back House control.
Democrats will have a slim majority next year, with some new moderates. And key lawmakers in the party have so far steered clear of championing big legislation. No climate-change legislation garnered significant support in recent Congresses. That tips the scales in favor of a policy-crafting 116th Congress, rather than a serious push on a big climate bill.
“Major legislation, a huge climate-change bill, may not be acceptable to [Senate Republicans and the White House],” Rep. Paul Tonko, the ranking member on the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on environment, told National Journal after winning reelection Tuesday. “This is probably going to take a bit of time to develop.”
Still, Tonko, who is vying to take the reins of that subcommittee, said the specter laid out in the UN panel’s report, coupled with recent legislative proposals from some Republicans, paves the way for Democrats to prioritize the issue.
“There’s a growing acceptance and awareness of climate change, and I think as leaders in the country we need to set the tone and we need to set the process,” he said. “We need to be ahead of that curve, and in a sense, we’re behind that curve. I think that we need to do oversight and we need to do legislative development.”
A slew of states, municipalities, and Fortune 500 companies are vowing to meet the goals laid out in the Paris climate agreement. And not all former Democratic heavyweights are advising members against a big push on climate legislation.
“They shouldn’t wait. I think legislation should be introduced, debated carefully, considered at appropriate length, but there shouldn’t be some intentional delay thinking that this is an item that ought to wait for another two years,” said former Rep. Rick Boucher, who was a high-ranking Energy and Commerce Committee member.
“Frankly, I’m not sure we can afford to wait a whole lot longer, in view of the damage that continued emissions at the existing levels is doing,” he added.
Boucher played a central role in the development of cap-and-trade legislation under Waxman in the 111th Congress. That bill passed the House by a razor-thin margin, losing 44 Democratic votes. It ultimately died in the Senate.
The tea-party 2010 election wave swept Boucher out of power, and the former lawmaker says his support for the cap-and-trade legislation played a role, though likely a minor one, in his loss. Some observers have suggested dramatic action on climate change and other policy could shoot the House back into Republican hands in 2020.
Boucher rejected that caution.
“Anytime you do something bold and different there is some element of political risk,” said Boucher, now a partner at Sidley Austin LLP. “I have no doubt that some members are going to look at that [cap-and-trade] experience and approach the idea of a carbon tax with some degree of reluctance. Weighed against that is the imperative to do something.”
But supporters of dramatic action on climate change also suffered a stinging defeat in a high-profile state plebiscite Tuesday. Voters in liberal-leaning Washington state roundly rejected a carbon tax that would have directed money to green-energy and infrastructure projects.
And now, fossil-fuel advocates are goading Democrats to take the issue head-on and put a spotlight on policy that, according to those advocates, will ding American pocketbooks.
“Will they take the leap and begin to drop a carbon tax and start building momentum for it? We’ll see,” said Tom Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance and an adviser on the Trump administration transition team. “I hope they do. I want votes on carbon taxes every day.”