The Future of US Climate Politics

Leslie Vinjamuri speaks to Gitika Bhardwaj about the state of the climate debate in the US and how the new Democrat-controlled House of Representatives can change the conversation.

Interview Published 30 January 2019 Updated 23 July 2023 4 minute READ

Gitika Bhardwaj

Former Editor, Communications and Publishing

Given the partisan state of US politics, how can discussion on climate change be depoliticized, in particular, is there a path forward for bipartisan action on the climate without major changes in US politics?

Donald Trump has taken an active interest in combating the basic facts of climate science. But it hasn’t worked. Indeed, Trump’s rhetorical attacks on climate science appear to have backfired. The percentage of Americans that believe in climate science has increased 3 per cent since last March, bringing the total to roughly 73 per cent, with 7 in 10 Americans taking this issue personally.

Trump’s attacks on internationalism also seem to be failing at least when it comes to the environment. The public has not lined up behind Trump’s decision to exit the Paris deal. A significant majority – about 69 per cent – think international cooperation is critical and want the US to remain in the Paris Agreement.

Still, if his goal is to dent environmental progress, then Trump can still claim some success. He has certainly fostered the perception that environmentalism is costly and that the payoff isn’t worth the sticker shock. Leadership matters. At home, it is more difficult than it should be to get the backing of the public for environmentally-friendly policies – especially for taxes – and, in 2018 alone, US carbon dioxide emissions rose 3.4 per cent.

The opportunity-cost of the US ducking a leadership role internationally is also considerable. Persuading China and other emerging economies to follow through with key environmental policies is bound to be harder when the US president makes shirking on international environmental commitments acceptable.

Trump has rolled back 76 national environmental regulations since announcing his intention to withdraw from the global Paris Agreement in 2016. How might the newly Democratic-controlled House of Representatives challenge him on this issue?

Environmental issues won’t be invisible in the 116th US Congress. Already, Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has created a new Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and progressive Democrats in the House are championing a Green New Deal for America.

This ‘new deal’ is a strategy that is based on the idea that environmentalism can foster rather than impede job growth. It aims to help America transition to a zero-carbon economy by investing in things like smart public transportation which is good for the environment, good for people and good for jobs too.

Of course passing legislation won’t be easy so long as Republicans hold the Senate and continue to back the president. But the Democrats in this Congress are already changing the political discourse on climate issues, and importantly, they have control over some key committees like the Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Democrats and Republicans can now have conversations about climate issues in a public space which I think really matters.

State governments and municipalities, representing areas that account for almost $10 trillion in GDP, have committed to taking bold action on climate change, with New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, announcing a state plan for building a zero-carbon economy. How significant are Trump’s policies with such commitments at the state level?

It is true that cities, states, a number of influential individuals – Mike Bloomberg and John Kerry for example – state governors, university presidents and all sorts of organizations have gotten on board to push America to meet the targets that were negotiated in Paris in 2015. This has created a lot of positive momentum in states and cities. The corporate sector also understands the benefits of environmentalism and can see the growth potential in clean energy.

But it would be foolish to underestimate the influence of the president, for example, when it comes to deregulation. We’ve seen this administration roll back environmentally-friendly regulations and that has very significant consequences.

Some of these setbacks are temporary and can be reversed by the next US government, but it will take a lot of work, and time matters when it comes to the environment. Things do not stand still and there is a lot of potential for damage in the short term. Cities, states, universities and corporates are all part of the solution but, inevitably, if you don’t have everyone on the same page you’re pitching at a lower level.

The impacts of climate change will force more state governments, including those run by Republicans, to deal with the reality of its effects. Could this eventually change the conversation over climate change in the Republican party?

This must be the case, especially in states that experience extreme weather like wildfires and hurricanes, for example. Some of these states are already quite progressive on environmental matters. But the pressure to respond to extreme environmental effects that are so clearly linked to changes in the climate can’t be underestimated. The facts on the ground are becoming increasingly difficult to deny.

In many respects, the public is ahead of politicians when it comes to environmentalism, and when Americans witness a hurricane or wildfire or a change in the coastlines, this is a pretty serious counter to a climate denier in Washington.

The second volume of the 4th National Climate Assessment warns that the effects of climate change could cost America billions of dollars, damaging as much as 10 per cent of the US economy and disrupting trade significantly, by the end of the century. How prepared are US voters to have tough conversations around funding green solutions and is this likely to change as the effects of climate change increase?

The publication of the second volume of the 4th National Climate Assessment last year was resounding in its endorsement of the negative effects of carbon emissions. More than 300 experts and 13 federal departments and agencies contributed to the study. The effort to bury the results of this report were shocking. It was released on 23 November 2018, the day after Thanksgiving, which is America’s biggest holiday and when many Americans are still out shopping or on vacation. But it still got a lot of attention.

Still, the Trump administration continues to be a thorn in the side of progress on the environment. At last year’s UN climate negotiations in Poland, the US along with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait succeeded in watering down approval of the landmark IPCC report which made evident why the world needs to keep global warming to below 1.5C.

A lot of people in the US are living on limited resources. We have witnessed middle class wage stagnation since the early 1990s so it is hardly surprising that a lot of people are frightened by the idea that environmentalism might be expensive. There is a lot of creative thinking about how to square this circle but communicating this is difficult in the current political climate.

The idea behind the Green New Deal, or the idea that growth can be de-linked from resources, is compelling but these ideas sometimes gets lost when they are translated into concrete policies and shared with the public.

Climate action is becoming a Democratic talking point, following calls for a Green New Deal to be potentially funded by a tax on the rich, which has opened a debate between elite and progressive Democrats. Given that bold action will be needed in coastal cities to prepare for the changing climate, which include Democratic strongholds, what trade-offs will need to be made within the Democratic party to sufficiently address the climate crisis? 

There’s a general question for the Democratic party and then there’s one that plays out in the climate change arena. Can progressives, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and moderates, like Kirstin Gillibrand and Nancy Pelosi, unite around a common agenda with a vision that’s realistic but inspired and holds the party together? This is especially relevant when it comes to questions of climate change.

Taxing the wealthy at extremely high rates is always going to face a wall of resistance in the United States. But I am quite optimistic. There is a growing recognition of the scale of the problem and the political discourse in Washington is going to be different over the next two years.