Environmental groups dropped a record-breaking $80 million-plus in the midterms earlier this month, and that has produced a new breed of progressive Democrats itching to pass a Green New Deal, a bold, even radical, plan to get the nation completely off fossil fuels within a decade. But the Democrats' huge gains in the House have knocked off many of the Republicans who were moderates on the issue, leaving Congress even more divided on climate than before.
The informal Climate Solutions Caucus was comprised of an even mix of 90 members of both parties this year, but close to half of its GOP members were just ousted, including its co-founder, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican.
So while Democratic Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, and Bernie Sanders will be hosting a town hall on climate change on Monday, most Republicans at the Capitol are digging in for a fight. That’s in spite of the Trump administration’s own grim climate assessment released last week, which predicts dire consequences and a $500 billion-a-year tax on the economy by the end of the century if emissions are left unchecked.
“If you read it closely, what it says is that by the end of the century, the economic impact is tiny,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) told VICE News as he hopped on a tram that runs under the Capitol. “We’ve got to weigh the cost of mitigation against the lost economic output there may be, and the people who are very worried about this don’t think it’s very much.”
"They're all deniers"
Next week world leaders will convene in Poland to try to update the Paris Climate Accord, which former President Obama helped broker (only to have President Trump take the U.S. out of it). Even in the face of the federal government’s new report, infamous climate denier Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) laughed off the summit as a mere ruse for foreign officials to pop Champagne at their taxpayers' expense.
“Look these are great parties,” Inhofe told reporters just off the Senate floor this week. “The worst thing that ever happened – it might have been the Paris one – it’s when they ran out of caviar.”
Inhofe brushes aside the report, which predicts more devastating storms and wildfires in the coming decades, and Trump has said he doesn’t believe the findings of the nonpartisan scientists at the 13 federal agencies who are mandated by Congress to produce the document.
While Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia Republican, says she takes the report seriously, she comes from a coal state and wants Congress to put more money into researching the capture and storage of carbon from coal underground, not on ending the nation’s dependence on those dirty fossil fuels. And she says the U.S. can’t lower global temperatures on its own.
“It’s got to be a global response, for sure,” Capito told VICE News.
It’s not just rank and file Republicans. Party leaders have been hellbent on unwinding regulations since Trump entered the Oval Office, and many vow that nothing will be done on the issue while they’re in office. But the report is being taken seriously by Democrats who are preparing to take over the gavels on Capitol Hill in the new year, and they’re vowing to go to battle with the Republican-controlled Senate over energy issues.
“There’s no deniers in South Florida – for us, it’s life and death. Even the Republicans down there.”
“They’re all deniers. They’re all deniers,” Congresswoman-elect Donna Shalala, a Florida Democrat, bemoaned to VICE News about Republicans, with an exception: “There’s no deniers in South Florida – for us, it’s life and death. Even the Republicans down there.”
Wait for 2020?
While Ocasio-Cortez’s so-called Green New Deal, envisioning an America run on renewables, is picking up support, earlier this month she told VICE News the goal of the incoming Congress should be to get bold climate legislation teed up for action in 2020. That’s when she’s hoping Democrats can recapture the Senate, but waiting another two years isn’t good enough for Shalala.
“It’s not fine. That’s too political of a conclusion that I wouldn’t come to,” Shalala continued. “We’ve got to convince people that they put pressure on the Senate.”
Other Democrats are also demanding immediate action, and they say the GOP response shows willful ignorance or merely bowing to corporate interests.
“This is a cost factor to the federal government, and they know that because they’re seeing it on fires, on droughts, they’re seeing it on disasters,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said while walking into the Capitol. “So the question is whether they’re going to own up to the fact that they can do better things for the future.”
While Curbelo, the recently unseated co-chair of the Climate Caucus, tried to hold onto his South Florida seat by endorsing a tax on carbon in the leadup to the election, he ultimately lost. And only two other Republicans endorsed that bill.
One of them was Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) who will now be a lonely moderate voice inside an even more conservative Republican Party in Washington. He knows he's facing an uphill battle, but he says a part of his job is to sway his colleagues to try to get immediate action on the climate situation.
“It just tells me there’s a lot of work to be done,” Fitzpatrick said on his way over to the Capitol. “[For] anybody who doesn’t see the light on this yet, my job is to get them to see the light on it. Not just voting, but convincing people to do the right thing.”
But the environmentalists, scientists and superstorm victims have been trying to convince Republicans for years to take the science seriously, so hope of a big Green New Deal getting anywhere near passage in the GOP-controlled Senate is waning by the day, even as the planet looks to be getting warmer by the year.
Cover: Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., talks with reporters following a photo opportunity on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, with the freshman class. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)