When Republicans began crusading last year to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, progressive Democrats ― and centrists with 2020 presidential ambitions ― countered with a push for Medicare for all. The proposal, though unattainable in this political moment, outlined a clear vision for the party and offered voters a sweeping sense of what is possible.
If you think the partisan divide over health care is intense, it’s even worse when it comes to climate change. Republicans are the only major political party in the developed world to question the scientific realities of manmade global warming as a platform issue. Yet Democrats, at least on a national level, remain scattered, without a strategy to deal with what they regularly call the most pressing issue of a lifetime.
At no point was this more clear than on Tuesday. In the first of two back-to-back snubs, Democrats on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works spent comparatively little time grilling Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt on climate change during his first appearance before the panel since his confirmation nearly a year ago. They chose instead to focus on local pollution issues.
Later that night, the official response to President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address ignored climate change. Two others made passing mentions of it, yet only aghast Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) inveighed: “How can a president of the United States give a State of the Union speech and not mention climate change?”
Democrats’ kids-gloves approach to climate change is baffling in 2018. Last year was the second-hottest on record. Hurricanes and wildfires devastated densely populated coastal areas and huge swaths of the West, causing a record $306 billion in damages. And a historically unpopular president spearheaded an all-out assault on climate science, instigating witch hunts and censorship in agency ranks, showering polluters with taxpayer money and vowing to withdraw from a global emissions deal signed by every other nation on Earth, even Syria and North Korea.
Voters are overwhelmingly in favor of climate action. Fifty-eight percent of voters agreed that the federal government should regulate business to protect the environment and believed that efforts to do so would create jobs, according to 2016 results from American National Election Studies. Twenty percent were neutral on the question, and just 22 percent said they believed regulation would not do much to help the environment and would cost jobs. Democratic voters polled by Kaiser Family Foundation last week ranked climate change sixth among their priorities in this year’s midterm elections.
The majority of Americans understand the basic science behind climate change. Sixty-nine percent know global warming is happening, and 52 percent understand humans are the main cause, according to 2016 survey data from Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication.
Yet, on a federal level, Democrats have largely shied away from moonshot legislation that would push the climate policy debate more to the center after it has been dragged to the right over the past decade by intransigent Republicans who turned the discussion to whether to accept objective scientific findings in the first place.
There have been some exceptions. In April, Sanders and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) rolled out a bill to completely wean the United States off fossil fuels by 2050. In September, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) introduced the Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act, which proposed eliminating oil, gas and coal use by 2035, cutting all subsidies to drilling, mining and refining companies, and providing funding to workers to transition into new industries.
But other legislative proposals were rife with concessions to conservatives who dismiss the severity of the crisis the bills are meant to address.
In July, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) introduced a carbon tax bill alongside companion legislation by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.). The bill, announced at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, proposed using part of the $2.1 trillion it projected generating in the first decade to lower corporate taxes by 6 percent. On Monday, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) reintroduced a nearly decade-old cap-and-dividend bill that would put a price on carbon, institute auctions for pollution rights and return the proceeds to Americans in the form of a rebate. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) introduced a companion bill in the House. But the legislation excludes emissions from meat production, which makes up a growing portion of the 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases that come from agriculture, according to the EPA.
“It’s not surprising to us that the party is making proposals that rely on market mechanisms to solve a problem that is created by the market,” said Maria Svart, national director at the Democratic Socialists for America. “We’re not thrilling with that kind of solution, but we also recognize why that’s all that’s on offer right now. Our political system is entirely corrupted by big money.”
The party’s weak-kneed stance on climate change attracted scrutiny in November, when The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer called out how “shockingly unprepared” Democrats seemed to be on the issue. The piece concluded that the party was haunted by the specter of its last grand attempt to regulate carbon pollution. In 2009, Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced the American Clean Energy and Security Act. The cap-and-trade bill, widely known as Waxman-Markey, passed in the House but died in the Senate amid intense fossil fuel lobbying and a wave of right-wing Republican victories funded by the Koch brothers. In response, Vox’s David Roberts concluded that Democrats reached their “once and future consensus” with that bill.
“The Waxman-Markey bill was good,” Roberts wrote. “Furthermore, if there is ever again to be consensus about a federal approach to climate change, it’s probably going to look something roughly like the Waxman-Markey bill.”
“As long as they are taking money from the oil industry, it’s very hard for them to get out in front of bills that may have a negative impact on the oil industry’s bottom line.”
Yet the dearth of audacious climate proposals could also be a symptom of the think tank industry that lawmakers have relied on since congressional research budgets shrank over the last several decades. As a result, centrist groups like Third Way and the Brookings Institution have dominated Democratic policymaking with ardent pushes for technology to capture carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and free-market solutions. That centrist culture, preaching a strategy of cleaving off moderate Republican voters rather than exciting the left-leaning Democratic base, has generally sanitized the party’s public policy stances.
“There’s a desire among Democrats to describe their positions in a way that gets 80 percent approval, unobjectionable and something people won’t criticize,” said Jeff Hauser, a veteran progressive Democratic operative. “But you’d be better off with 60-40 percent, where your 60 percent is more passionate and you’re tricking the other side into arguing it.”
“That is part of the argument for why you discuss climate and the environment in a more provocative and detailed way,” he added. “That forces the conversation onto terms that get the other side to engage in an issue you ultimately win and create an actual mandate to act upon your findings.”
It has limited the number of policy proposals and model bills crafted to envision generous government spending on renewable energy infrastructure.
“There hasn’t been that sort of ideological work to put that on the table. Instead you end up with the carbon tax,” said Sean McElwee, a New York-based activist and political researcher. “It definitely does seem like the whole project is on hold.”
In his own response to The Atlantic article, Grist’s Eric Holthaus dismissed concerns over Democrats’ lack of a national climate strategy, noting that progressive policies were starting to blossom at the state and local level.
That has proved true. In July, mayors representing 148 million people and 41.8 percent of electricity use across the U.S. signed a pledge to go 100 percent renewable by 2035. Last month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to divest a $5 billion stake in fossil fuels from the city’s five pension funds and sue oil companies for damages from sea-level rise. That same week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) proposed a $20-per-ton fee on carbon dioxide that, with a Democratic-controlled legislature, could well become the nation’s first carbon tax.
State- and city-level leaders have also provided a groundswell of progressive climate policy ideas. Last summer, the New York State Legislature considered the Climate and Community Protection Act, hailed as one of the most progressive climate bills in the country because it set fair-labor standards for clean energy projects and mandated directing at least 40 percent of state energy funding to low-income communities. The bill, however, died after state Sen. Tony Avella, a Queens Democrat, declined to push Senate leaders to bring the bill to a vote.
In an interview with HuffPost in October, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto called for an “American Marshall Plan” for clean energy across the country, comparing the need for increased government spending to the United States’ $132 billion initiative to rebuild Western Europe after World War II.
Lee Carter, the Democratic Socialist who won a surprise victory in November to the Virginia House of Delegates, made climate a key part of his platform, proposing expanding the state’s commuter rail lines and increasing public spending on renewable energy projects.
“The focus of the climate movement is shifting very much to things happening on state and local levels,” said Bill McKibben, the environmentalist and 350.org founder. “There, there are very positive signs.”
McKibben dismissed concerns about Democrats’ climate strategy.
“We have one political party that’s wholly owned by the fossil fuel industry ― it might as well be a subsidiary,” he said. “The other one is scared at times, whatever, but I don’t think that’s the thing that’s getting in the way as much now.”
One obstacle could be Democrats’ acceptance of fossil fuel donations. Exxon Mobil Corp. doled out less than 9 percent of its $2.1 million 2016 election spending to Democrats. The American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s main lobby, spent $748,100 on Democrats in 2016 ― at least 15 times more than any previous election year ― yet the contributions still paled before the $3.1 million Republicans received. But those donations helped secure dependable allies in Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.).
On Wednesday, 350.org hosted a Climate State of the Union, where Sanders became the first senator to sign the group’s new pledge to reject all fossil fuel donations.
“When Democratic politicians stop taking oil money and they start realizing the oil money is just poisonous, that will be a big help,” said RL Miller, president of Climate Hawks Vote, a super PAC. “As long as they are taking money from the oil industry, it’s very hard for them to get out in front of bills that may have a negative impact on the oil industry’s bottom line.”
There are some who see Democrats’ lack of a national strategy as an opportunity to embrace Republicans who have inched toward accepting climate science. He pointed to the 33 Republicans now on the House Climate Caucus, including Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who last year proposed a bill to “completely abolish” the EPA.
“This is the first step for them. They’re grabbing the first rung on the ladder of climate leadership, and what needs to happen now is for their constituents to give them the support they need to grab the next rung,” said Steve Valk, a spokesman for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. “It’s not as easy for Republicans to step up on climate change.”
For Democrats still reeling from electoral devastation, aggressive climate action could hold the key to attracting new voters. During the 2016 election, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer infamously said: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” The quote came to symbolize the failures of the party’s strategy after Trump won nearly all those states.
Yet, despite ranking low on surveys of voter priorities, climate and environmental issues poll exceptionally high among many registered voters who don’t regularly show up at the polls, especially Latinos and young people whom the Democrats could easily target. To Nathaniel Stinnett, a campaign operative who now runs the Environmental Voter Project, a group seeking to increase turnout among “environmental super voters,” this offers the possibility of a new, winning bloc.
“These are the people who need a little extra nudge to get off the sidelines,” Stinnett said. “Having a candidate clearly differentiate herself or himself from the crowd and talk about an issue not a lot of people are talking about, they could drag new voters into the electorate. That’s going to be enormously important in 2018.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of rebuttals that ignored climate change.