What Will the New Congress Mean for the Environmental Agenda?

Dan Page


Yesterday the 112th Congress convened, and soon after the opening niceties Republicans and Democrats began butting heads. In the latest issue of Audubon, Bradford Plumer takes a look at what the new leadership will mean for the environment.

From “Bracing for a Blow”:

In November, 9.1 million Californians came out to vote on Proposition 23, an industry-funded ballot initiative that would have suspended the state’s landmark climate law. It was the first time in U.S. history that voters were asked to weigh in directly on a major clean-energy plan. And, by a 20-point margin, they chose to go forward with cutting greenhouse gases, even in the midst of a recession. The vote should have been a high point for green politics. But it was overshadowed by the national election: The Republican takeover of the House means that Congress will now have at least 45 new members who don’t believe in global warming. In Washington the environmental landscape is going to look drastically different during the next two years.

For starters, don’t expect Congress to curb carbon emissions anytime soon. “We’re not going to have cap and trade on the House floor,” incoming majority leader John Boehner promised over the summer. President Obama has suggested a compromise with the GOP on issues like natural gas, electric cars, and efficiency standards. But even smaller measures could bump up against Republican pledges to cut government spending, notes Daniel J. Weiss of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a progressive think tank. “Where’s the money going to come from?” Indeed, many of the clean-energy programs created by the 2009 stimulus bill could wither as well.
For their part, environmentalists will have to focus less on passing new legislation and more on defending existing programs. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson is pushing ahead with new regulations on greenhouse gases and other air pollutants under the Clean Air Act. But House Republicans have vowed to stop her—either by stripping away the EPA’s authority over carbon pollution or by slashing the agency’s budget. Can Obama prevent this from happening?

There’s some precedent here: Back in 1995, Republicans under Newt Gingrich attached riders to appropriations bills to block the EPA from enforcing various clean-air laws. But Bill Clinton vetoed these efforts and held firm in the face of a government shutdown. Republicans ended up losing the PR battle so badly that, the next year, they passed a safe drinking water bill to regain green cred with the public. Environmental protections, it turned out, are still quite popular.

Meanwhile, climatologists will face an onslaught of their own. Darrell Issa, the incoming head of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has already pledged to hold hearings on climate science. “I want to make sure the skeptics are heard,” Issa explained in September. While it’s extremely unlikely that Issa will debunk the evidence that humans are warming the planet, he could try to sway public opinion on the issue by depicting climate scientists as untrustworthy.

All told, most environmental progress over the next two years will have to come outside Washington. The Sierra Club, for one, is ramping up its campaign to shut down existing dirty coal plants. Other activists have suggested using the Montreal Protocol—the 1987 global treaty to protect the ozone layer—to eradicate hydrofluorocarbons, which are potent greenhouse gases. And a few states, including California and New York, will move ahead with their own comprehensive climate plans, though the ailing economy may hamper those efforts.

If these cases demonstrate how cleaning up the air can go hand in hand with economic growth, an argument that Obama has pressed, the politics of global warming could shift again—perhaps sooner than we think.

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