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Flipping on Fossil Fuels: Where to for US climate policy?

Image credit: US Department of Agriculture (Creative Commons: Flickr)

As summer draws to an end in the Northern Hemisphere, fire fighters in California are only now close to extinguishing the largest wildfire in the state’s history. Across the Southwestern United States, farmers battle the effects of extreme drought, and in Hawaii, the clean-up from former Hurricane Lane has barely begun. In Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida, recovery efforts continue a year on from one of the most catastrophic Atlantic hurricane seasons in living memory.

Every indication is that each of these events was intensified by human-induced climate change. But President Donald Trump could perhaps only do less to address climate change if he ordered the National Guard to burn every Tesla, Prius and Nissan Leaf in the country.

Trump’s anti-climate policy

In late August, the Trump Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled the Affordable Clean Energy rule (ACE), a replacement for President Obama’s signature domestic environmental policy: the Clean Power Plan (CPP).

The CPP assigned states stringent targets for reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants. It aimed to cut US greenhouse gas emissions to 32 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. The ACE removes these targets. Instead, it is predicted to cut emissions by only 0.7 to 1.5 per cent.

Labelled by critics as a ‘coal bailout’, this plan followed the EPA’s rollback of Obama-instituted automobile fuel efficiency standards in August this year. It is but the latest addition to a long list of actions taken by the Trump administration, including withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, that either do the bare minimum on climate change, or actively inhibit its mitigation.

This record comes as no shock from a president who believes global warming to be ‘a total and very expensive hoax'. Nor is it surprising from Trump’s present and former EPA heads—Andrew Wheeler, a coal industry lobbyist, and Scott Pruitt, one of America’s most prominent climate change sceptics.

But whilst extreme, the administration’s environmental policy has deep institutional roots in the Republican Party’s entrenched unwillingness to combat climate change.

Particularly over the last decade, congressional Republicans (many of them beneficiaries of vast millions in fossil fuel lobby donations, and representatives of states with large oil, gas and coal industries) have exercised a resolute commitment to blocking any climate action seen as remotely threatening to the economy, energy security or energy sector jobs.

Although there are some notable Republicans—in governor’s mansions, and even a handful in Congress— who do support at least some action to mitigate climate change, their voices are drowned out by their party and administration colleagues.

In short, the Trump administration’s efforts to torch Obama’s environmental legacy only crystallise a point that has long been abundantly clear: if robust climate action is to occur in the US, it will be propelled by the Democratic Party.

Resistance from across the aisle

This action is well underway at the state level. For instance, within hours of US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the Democratic governors of California, Washington, and New York announced their formation of the US Climate Alliance—a now 17-strong coalition of mostly Democratic states and Puerto Rico, committed to reducing emissions in line with Paris Agreement targets. Nationally, emissions reduction and renewable energy promotion are also central objectives in the Democratic Party’s platform.

If a Democratic president gains power in 2020, or perhaps even if the Party gains control of Congress in this November’s midterm elections, it seems certain that they will push some level of climate change action. But how much?

On this question, the Democratic Party seems conflicted.

The DNC’s climate wars

In June this year, the Party’s governing body, the Democratic National Committee (DNC), approved a ban on accepting donations from corporate political action committees (PACs) representing the fossil fuel industry. This was largely symbolic, as donations from the energy and natural resource sector amounted to only about 1 per cent of those received by the DNC in the 2016 election cycle.

But the ban was a victory for progressive climate hawks, and a useful messaging tool for energising young voters enthusiastic about climate action. Most notably, it was an important symbol that the Party was putting its money where its mouth is on fighting climate change.

But then the DNC flipped.

Citing concerns that the ban ostracised workers in fossil fuel industries, the DNC executive voted 30-2 to reverse its earlier decision, professedly as a means of reaffirming ‘its unwavering and unconditional commitment to the workers, unions and forward-looking employers that power the American economy’.

To the Party’s progressive wing, this reversal amounted to the DNC ‘participating in its own form of climate denial’.

Amidst the daily tumult of the Trump White House, this clash has largely faded into obscurity. But it is worth reflecting on the window that this incident provides into several deep-seated tensions that will complicate any future Democratic climate action, and even the party’s efforts to present a cohesive platform going into the 2018 midterms.

The first of these tensions exists between organised labour, concerned over working-class job losses in fossil fuel industries, and climate advocates eager to see those industries rapidly wind down.

This opposition is not intractable—on both sides there is consensus on working toward a ‘just transition’ from fossil fuels. Several progressive Democrats have floated ideas such as a ‘Green New Deal’, under which the federal government would invest trillions to create sustainable renewable energy jobs. But for the moment at least, these remain just visions.

The second tension is one that has raged since the 2016 Clinton-Sanders presidential primary: that between the Party’s more progressive branch, represented in this case by the donations ban’s authors, and its more centrist wing—in this instance led by DNC Chair Tom Perez, sponsor of the ban’s reversal and former Obama-era Secretary of Labor.

As progressive candidates have claimed high-profile victoriesin primary elections throughout the country, this internal struggle has dragged Democrats to the left, most notably on health care. It remains to be seen whether the same will occur on climate policy.

But more broadly, the donations stoush shows that whilst progressives’ momentum seems to be soaring across the country, they have a long way to go to slacken the so-called establishment’s grasp over levers of formal institutional power within the Democratic Party.

Finally, this saga shows the difficulties of attempting to be a ‘big tent’ Party. In rescinding its ban on fossil fuel donations, the DNC’s stated aim was to not discourage any particular group from supporting Democrats. This is an admirable intention.

But it’s not one that should be pursued at the expense of strong convictions.

As evidenced in Donald Trump’s election and Bernie Sanders’ insurgent presidential campaign, firm beliefs and the appearance of authenticity, no matter how merited, are crucial at a time when the American public’s distrust of politicians is at historic lows.

Hedging on its level of commitment to climate action affords the Democratic Party neither of these qualities. As the midterm elections draw near and the Trump administration continues to make America pollute again, it’s time for the Democratic Party to make a decision: is it the Party of robust climate action, or just the one that talks about it?

Andrew Herrmann is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs

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