Trump Pulled The U.S. Out Of The Paris Deal. Now Greens Want The GOP To Pay.

But to resonate with voters, Democrats can't just "talk about the winter and seals."

WASHINGTON 鈥 Green groups and scientists tried to make climate change a wedge issue for years, and voters threw the economy, jobs, immigration and national security back in their faces.

President Donald Trump may have just changed that.

On Thursday, Trump announced the U.S. will withdraw from the climate change agreement nearly 190 countries joined in Paris in 2015, making America one of only three nations to ignore the pact. The unprecedented agreement 鈥 a pillar of former President Barack Obama鈥檚 legacy 鈥 between both rich and poor countries put the globe on a path to keep warming 鈥渨ell below鈥 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

But Trump鈥檚 decision to take the U.S. out of the agreement, effectively retreating from the global conversation on how to combat climate change, may end up hurting Republicans politically. Democrats and environmental groups are already chomping at the bit.

WE ARE NOT DETERRED, CLIMATE IS ON THE BALLOT IN 2020,鈥 read an email sent out by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) as Trump stood in the White House Rose Garden announcing his decision.

Trump had barely started his speech when Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) sent out his own statement, which included a rare plea.

鈥淚f you haven鈥檛 joined an environmental group, join one. If your voice needs to be heard, get active,鈥 Whitehouse said. 鈥淚f you are a big corporation with good climate policies that has shied away from engaging politically, it鈥檚 time to engage. And if you鈥檙e a university that teaches climate science, it鈥檚 time to stand up for your scientists. Whoever you are, help end climate denial and take action.鈥

But even with the ammunition that a Trump presidency has provided Democrats 鈥 who are hoping to make inroads against the Republican majority in both chambers of Congress in 2018 and 2020 鈥 green groups and the Democratic Party will have to learn from prior mistakes. For one, the talking points on climate change and the Paris accord during an election cycle can鈥檛 be about simply saving the planet or keeping streams clean. They have to make a strong connection between climate change and jobs; climate change and asthma; climate change and future generations.

Jamie Henn of the climate action group thinks they can do it. But he also acknowledged it will be a challenge to address the rift in the Democratic Party over how to turn out voters, prevent a repeat of 2016, and make a wedge issue out of a somewhat abstract problem like human activity contributing to the destruction of the planet.

鈥淲hat was missing from Democrats in the last election was making this lofty rhetoric about a beautiful future feel like an economic plan that addresses people鈥檚 concerns,鈥 Henn said. was critical in leading the climate movement鈥檚 battles against Keystone XL, fracking in natural gas production, and the Dakota Access pipeline. The ability of environmental organizations like 350, Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters to make the 鈥渇ossil fuel industry feel real to people,鈥 as Henn put it, somehow gets lost when those groups try to make the jump to climate change and the Paris climate agreement.

Henn said it doesn鈥檛 help that the political arms of the Democratic Party, from the Democratic National Committee to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, have struggled to develop strong messaging on the topic.

鈥淭om Perez is not out there touring renewable energy facilities and saying how this will help the Rust Belt,鈥 Henn said of the newly elected chair of the DNC. 鈥淭here鈥檚 a difference between adopting talking points and making it a fully fledged effort to have [climate change] as a cornerstone of campaigns.鈥

Environmentalist Tom Steyer speaks during a protest outside the White House on March 28 in Washington. Activists protest against President Donald Trump's executive order to roll back President Barack Obama's rules to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
Environmentalist Tom Steyer speaks during a protest outside the White House on March 28 in Washington. Activists protest against President Donald Trump's executive order to roll back President Barack Obama's rules to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
Alex Wong via Getty Images

For 350 it鈥檚 about making climate change tangible and 鈥渇eel real鈥 to voters. For billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who founded NextGen Climate ahead of the 2014 midterms, it鈥檚 about convincing voters 鈥 especially young ones 鈥 that their vote matters.

Since 2014, Steyer has thrown his money at congressional candidates who will aggressively champion climate change policies. He also funded numerous ads focused on clean energy and global warming during presidential debates in 2016, and ultimately backed the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Looking back, Steyer admitted that NextGen has had difficulty fulfilling its pledge to make climate change a deciding factor in races that last two election cycles.

鈥淲e just weren鈥檛 big enough,鈥 Steyer told HuffPost.

And now things are different, according to Steyer. Because of Trump, voters have to worry about things they didn鈥檛 think about before.

鈥淲e鈥檝e never seen people this upset because they鈥檝e never seen their rights and privileges attacked the way they鈥檙e being attacked right now by their president,鈥 Steyer said.

Green groups may not have been able to convince voters before that they should care about climate change, but Steyer seems convinced that in 2018 and 2020, voters will know they can鈥檛 stay home.

鈥淲e鈥檙e seeing it in terms of civic engagement right now,鈥 Steyer said. 鈥淎nd I think we鈥檒l see it in terms of participation in elections because I think that people are understanding, 鈥極h my gosh I never thought that XYZ would be under attack.鈥 Can you imagine we have to march for the idea of science?鈥

But how do green groups and Democrats make the connection that Trump鈥檚 decision to take the U.S. out of the Paris agreement means they should vote against their Republican senator or House member? The fact that midterm elections tend to be a referendum on any sitting president helps.

鈥淵ou don鈥檛 even have to make that connection,鈥 Steyer said. 鈥淸Republicans] have his back and they鈥檙e one big group pushing all his policies.鈥

A picture taken Thursday shows the city hall of Paris illuminated in green following Trump's announcement that the United States will withdraw from the 2015 Paris accord.
A picture taken Thursday shows the city hall of Paris illuminated in green following Trump's announcement that the United States will withdraw from the 2015 Paris accord.

Tiernan Sittenfeld of the League of Conservation Voters 鈥 which spent a record $45 million in 2016 鈥 pushed back against the idea that climate change doesn鈥檛 play well with voters, and issued warnings to the GOP.

鈥淎ny Republican members of Congress who stand with Trump do so at their peril,鈥 she said, adding that the public understands Trump鈥檚 decision to pull out of the climate change pact is 鈥渂ad for public health, bad for the environment, bad for the U.S.鈥檚 standing in the world, and cedes the clean energy economy to China and others.鈥

But in case voters have trouble making the connection, the DCCC started to make it for them on Thursday.

In an email blasted out just hours after Trump鈥檚 announcement, the DCCC targeted Rep. Carlos Cuerbelo (R-Fla.), who鈥檚 up for re-election in 2018. Curbelo is a supporter of policies aimed at fighting climate change, and he urged Trump to stay in the Paris agreement. Curbelo and 19 other House Republicans are members of a bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, but their small numbers make it nearly impossible to get any policy related to reducing greenhouse gas emissions or boosting renewable energy through the chamber.

鈥淭rump鈥檚 decision today is a big political problem鈥 for the 20 Republicans in the Climate Solutions Caucus, one DCCC aide said. 鈥They are now stuck between their party and their district.鈥

And beyond that caucus, the DCCC is eyeing 16 other districts held by Republicans that Clinton won and where climate change will likely be of concern.

鈥淔amilies in south Florida deserve more than the empty rhetoric they鈥檙e getting from Carlos Curbelo,鈥 DCCC spokesperson Cole Leiter said in a statement. 鈥淭hey need a Representative who will protect coastal communities, local economies, and help create jobs in the American clean energy sector.鈥

In the end, Trump鈥檚 move to withdraw from the Paris accord may have given the environmentalists exactly what they needed to help Democrats regain power.

鈥淭his makes battle lines really clear,鈥 Henn said. Now it鈥檚 up to the environmental community to 鈥減aint a more compelling picture and not stay at the slogan level and talk about winter and seals.鈥

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