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US Climate Debate Changes Tune, Moves Left

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The US climate debate has shifted left, with emphasis building around a strategy that strives for environmental justice for poor and marginalized communities. In a sign of this, a group of left-leaning US environmental and social justice organizations recently laid out climate priorities for a Democratic president along these lines (related). This matches a trend that has been building since Democrats took control of the House of Representatives last year: Once-reticent Republican lawmakers have begun to acknowledge publicly the need to take action, and Democratic lawmakers have moved left as well, with high-profile social democrat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez promoting the far-reaching Green New Deal, alongside Sen. Ed Markey. This shift creates a strategic question for Democrats as they work to address climate concerns: whether to aim for a middle-of-the-road approach that could gain support across the aisle, or to push for more aggressive, equity-driven action that addresses broader goals of the progressive agenda but risks appealing to a narrower base. Calls for environmental justice appear to be getting a stronger voice during the administration of US President Donald Trump, itself plagued by allegations of racism. Organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Union of Concerned Scientists -- traditionally very focused on environmental issues -- and think tanks like the Center for American Progress signed on to the platform. "Many of these policies to date, including carbon pricing, have not been designed with equity in mind and failed to recognize that persistent racial and economic inequalities -- and the forces that cause them -- are embedded throughout our society [and] have concentrated polluters near and within communities of color, tribal communities and low-income communities," Angel Ledford Anderson, climate and energy program director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said. "Having the [environmental justice] leaders at the table when national climate policies are designed only makes sense." As the debate has shifted leftward, key Democratic lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee recently outlined a broad legislative plan targeting net-zero emissions by 2050 -- mirroring a slew of recent policy maneuvers in Europe and elsewhere (NE Aug.1'19). The 2050 target is in line with the finding from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, lawmakers stressed. Last year, the panel said that to limit global warming to a less risky 1.5°C, emissions must decline 45% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels, reaching net zero by 2050. Some Washington observers caution against reading too much into the platform document, saying it should be seen as a chance for public interest groups to delineate boundaries for debate ahead of the 2020 elections. In the event of a Democratic victory, a swift push for federal climate action is anticipated, cueing advocacy groups to begin staking out more concrete policy positions. Kevin Rennert, director of the Social Cost of Carbon Initiative at Resources for the Future, pointed out a similar dynamic ahead of negotiations over a 2009 cap-and-trade bill that would have established emissions trading but died in the US Senate. Stakeholders are beginning to etch out their positions now in anticipation of a big policy push, so that when compromise becomes necessary, it's clear what lines they aren't willing to cross. Even those on the leftmost side of the climate debate have avoided ruling out any one policy solution -- including carbon pricing, regardless of the skepticism over that policy's political viability. Earlier this year, Ocasio-Cortez suggested carbon pricing could be included in a suite of policies to implement the plan's net-zero emissions objective, even though it wasn't specified in the first drafts of the Green New Deal. The lawmakers proposing a 2050 net-zero carbon target this week were very conscious of the perception that differences with their more progressive colleagues could be intractable, with several saying they're considering every policy option. "The worst thing that can happen is we have a circular firing squad where those of us who believe climate change is real, who want to do something about the problem, fight with each other and nothing gets done," Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle said Tuesday. Emily Meredith and Bridget DiCosmo, Washington This story first appeared in sister publication Energy Compass.

Topics:
Security Risk , Carbon Capture (CCS), Low-Carbon Policy
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