By Sharon Zhang for Truthout.
What’s climate change to a senatorial non-believer? The new Senate Climate Solutions Caucus might soon answer that question.
Formed late last month, the caucus’s aim is to hold hearings with climate experts, educate fellow senators and introduce unanimously agreed-upon legislation. The caucus’s founders — Delaware Democrat Christopher Coons and Indiana Republican Mike Braun — boast of the mandated bipartisanship of the caucus. For every Democrat, there must be a Republican, and vice versa.
Floridian Sen. Marco Rubio, a former hardline climate denier, is the group’s latest addition. He joins fellow Republicans Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney (a former climate waffler) and Lindsey Graham, who once said that greenhouse gas emissions are bad but probably don’t warm the planet all that much.
“In its current state, our national conversation on this issue is too polarized, toxic, and unproductive,” Braun and Coons said in an op-ed about the caucus for The Hill. “Our caucus seeks to take the politics out of this important issue.”
Setting aside that the climate conversation isn’t as polarized among voters as Coons and Braun might think — in fact, an overwhelming majority of voters agree that global warming is happening — it’s strange that they think that bipartisanship on climate can be apolitical. For the last couple of decades, the Republican Party has been nearly united on the climate change denial front, and, in the name of compromise, Democrats have largely been hesitant to move to the left on climate — or make any moves at all.
RL Miller, political director of Climate Hawks Vote, a grassroots climate super PAC, calls bipartisanship in the caucus “a joke.”
“Or, [it] would be a joke if the stakes weren’t so high and if the planet weren’t in danger,” Miller told Truthout. For the Republicans, it’s all optics. “The only reason that these Republicans are at all interested in this, is that they see government, and social pressure, moving people towards climate action.” Voters are increasingly demanding that their representatives make moves on climate, and savvy Republicans are picking up on that demand.
Unfortunately for them, bipartisanship on climate seems to be a weak draw. The House Climate Solutions Caucus, formed in 2016, was similarly structured to the new Senate version: one for one of each party. Following the midterm elections just two years after its founding, half of the Republicans in the caucus were either voted out or retired, leading Grist to declare that “the era of bipartisanship on climate is dead.”
But the biggest threat to any progress for the caucus isn’t necessarily the Republicans on it. The biggest threat may be the amount of fossil fuel money accepted by members on both sides of the aisle. Only one member so far has signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge: Colorado’s Michael Bennet, a Democratic presidential candidate, non-supporter of the Green New Deal, and recipient of over $320,000 worth of oil and gas money in his time in Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The other three Democrats in the caucus – Jeanne Shaheen, Angus King and Coons — have received over $200,000 combined. Meanwhile, the Republican members of the caucus have received over $9.5 million combined, $7 million of which went to Romney alone.
“Something that we’ve seen from the fossil fuel industry and other abusive industries is that inaction is what big polluter money can buy,” says Taylor Billings, press secretary for Corporate Accountability’s climate campaign. This dirty money, she says, “results in presenting this caucus as a viable solution to the climate crisis when, in reality, it seems to be anything but.”
A starting point for bipartisan legislation would be some sort of carbon fee — an idea legislators on both sides of the aisle have been bouncing around for a while –which environmental experts consider to be a bare minimum requirement for the path to net-zero emissions. Considering all of the members of the caucus have to agree on any policy they write, however, even a carbon fee will likely be an uphill battle. Rubio derides the idea of a carbon tax and conflates it with the Green New Deal in a recent op-ed for USA Today; Murkowski has refused to endorse a carbon tax; and Graham has supported one in the past, but reneged on that view earlier this year. Even Braun says that he doesn’t want a carbon fee to be a focus of the caucus.
To say that the country needs to act on climate and then reject the most basic policy to address climate change appears to be a new form of climate denial among centrists and the right — they may not outright deny the existence of climate change, but refuse to acknowledge the all-encompassing scale of the problem. In March, when a video clip of Sen. Dianne Feinstein shows her dismissing Sunrise Movement activists circulated, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that Feinstein was a “climate delayer.”
Other climate communicators have labeled centrist figures like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — who infamously referred to the Green New Deal as a “green dream or whatever they call it” — as climate deniers, or, at the very least, contributing to climate denial by rejecting the fact that it’s all-encompassing.
“One of the risks associated with this caucus, and I think with the House one as well,” says Billings, “is that everyone can assume that the box has been checked.” Climate delayers and deniers pay lip service to climate — in this case, refer to their membership in the caucus — in order to gain points among their supporters and on-the-fence voters. Meanwhile, they talk about “innovation” and “market mechanisms” without passing any policy.
Even if the caucus does produce legislation, “the very existence of something like this, with so many senators that have taken money from the fossil fuel industry — it risks locking us into inadequate policies,” Billings says. For instance, not only would a carbon tax alone be insufficient climate policy, but it may also contain covert fossil fuel riders. There’s a reason that ExxonMobil, BP and Shell have been pushing for the passage of a carbon tax; Exxon’s carbon tax proposal last year contained a liability waiver, granting the company immunity for any climate change lawsuits brought against it.
Most of the Republicans in the caucus and at least one of the Democrats have shown to be susceptible to fossil fuel industry messaging that’s disguised as “climate-friendly.” Climate plans with an emphasis on carbon capture are a dead giveaway on this. In the current political sphere, carbon capture primarily refers to a technology that, yes, captures carbon as it’s emitted, but also sequesters that carbon in depleted oil wells, helping the fossil fuel companies to extract more oil. Funding carbon capture research is bipartisan, too, but as its used currently, it’s as useful for the climate as using kerosene to put out a fire.
Some may hail the bipartisanship of this climate caucus as a step forward. But as long as the majority of the committee is taking fossil fuel money, any supposed progress is dubious at best, and stifling at worst. After all, there’s no way of telling what’s happening behind closed doors.