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Six Lessons Learned about the Politics of Climate Change

Over the past few weeks, every Democratic candidate running for president has discussed climate change in a major speech and made climate solutions a central part of their platform. Republican candidates continue to use stock phrases like “I’m not a scientist,” but at least they are talking about climate change.

We’ve come a long way.

When I started working at the NRDC Action Fund in 2004, climate change barely registered on the political landscape. I was coming off of Capitol Hill and most of my time was spent on parks and water issues, which we were just starting to think of in terms of climate change.  Most voters were concerned about the war in Iraq, No Child Left Behind, and the latest episode of Desperate Housewives—it was before streaming, after all. Global warming, as we called it then, was the focus of policy wonks and researchers and few others.

Then something shifted: climate change started hitting home in painful and costly ways. Nine out of the 10 hottest years ever occurred since 2002. We witnessed the destructive power of storms like Katrina and Sandy and became accustomed to using the words “record-breaking” when we talk about everything from snowfalls to wildfires. People’s lives were turned upside down by climate impacts, and Americans began calling on leaders to do something about it.

Now that I have decided to leave the NRDC Action Fund to return to my roots to head up the Ohio Environmental Council and its Action Fund, I can’t help but reflect on the progress made by my amazing NRDC colleagues and the larger environmental movement.

Not only have we helped secure policies to limit carbon pollution from power plants and cut climate change pollution from new cars in half by 2025—saving drivers $80 billion a year at the pump, but we have also helped put climate change on the campaign map. Candidates hoping to win the White House, the governor’s mansion, or a Congressional seat in 2016 must discuss the climate threat.

It’s been an honor to be a small part of this transformation. It’s also been an incredible learning experience. It turns out, for instance, that PowerPoint Presentations can win Oscars, but voters still don’t want to hear about carbon wedges. And Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) can throw all the snowballs he wants on the Senate floor, but he can’t fool the majority of Americans into denying climate change.

Local Climate Stories Move Voters: When Gary Peters ran for Senate from Michigan, he didn’t talk about worldwide CO2 emissions or sea-level rise. He described how climate change was hurting the Great Lakes and other beloved people and places in Michigan. And he celebrated the 80,000 green goods and services jobs in the state. He also took on the Koch brothers, who were responsible for polluting waterways in the state and funding the opposition.  He won, and he confirmed the power of connecting the dots between global climate change, the fossil fuel cronies, and voters’ daily lives.

Running Clean Works: NRDC Action Fund research has confirmed that candidates who campaign on clean energy and climate action from the beginning win—including Senators Jon Tester (D-MT) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) in 2012 to Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) in 2014. Clean energy provides a positive, solutions-based narrative to talk about issues that matter most to Americans: jobs, the economy, and the health of their families.

Big Money Is Here to Stay: Political time can be measured in two epochs: before the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling spilled millions of unregulated dollars into political campaigns, and after. It’s a fact of life now that spending has reached staggering heights. Fossil fuel industry spent more than $721 million in the 2014 election cycle alone. But the last presidential election proved that even that much money can’t buy you love. Despite the Koch brothers’ best efforts, clean energy and climate champions won up and down the ticket.

The Fight Is Spreading to the States in an even Bigger Way: Now that the Clean Power Plan has established limits on carbon pollution from power plants, each state can figure out how it will achieve its reductions. This is a huge opportunity to create new jobs and save people money on energy bills. But it is also a chance for naysayers to try to delay and interfere at the state level. That’s one reason I am joining the Ohio Environmental Council: I want to help set the bar high for climate action and clean energy growth in the Midwest.

Time to Paint Climate Stonewalling as Extremism: Republicans in Congress are trying to block the Clean Power Plan, and every GOP presidential candidate has decried it. Yet not a single one has offered a plan for tackling what is the biggest environmental and public health threat of our time. Poll after poll after poll confirms the vast majority of Americans want leaders to address climate change. It’s time to point out the GOP’s failure for what it is: out-of-step extremism.

It Will be Tough for a Climate Denier to Win the White House: Extensive polling from red and blue and purple states reveals that climate change matters to the majority of voters. And it really matters to three voting blocs that will be key to winning in 2016: women, Latinos, and young people. Voters want a leader in the White House who will confront the big challenges, not ignore their existence.

This Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint: Creating major political change requires stamina. The average bill becoming a law takes eight years to get passed, and most bills die well before that. A complex challenge like climate change will demand many bills, policies and technological innovations, but we will keep running until we cross the finish line. I do it because of my faith and because I want to leave the planet in better shape for my children. They deserve it. Our communities and beautiful wild places deserve it. And even our opponents deserve it.

See you in Ohio.

Friends of Polluters Rack Up More Dirty Votes

Many citizens are outraged by how few days Congress is in session. Just last month, Congress took off a full week for Fourth of July and is now in recess for the entire month of August. Me? I am happy when Congress goes home as the Dirty Air Villains who run the place don’t seem to do anything good when they are there.

In the week after the Independence Day holiday, Dirty Air Villains brought forward the annual Interior-Environment Appropriations bill, which (under)funds the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Interior (DOI), among other things. While the bill was ultimately pulled from the floor over the confederate flag, pro-pollution Members of Congress had plenty of time to go on record against the environment and public health.

The base bill sent to the House floor was bad to begin with. The bill provided far too little funding for EPA to carry out its work of protecting the environment and public health — $718 million less than the 2015 enacted level and $1.17 billion less than the President’s budget request. The bill also included more than a dozen damaging anti-environment riders (i.e. policy provisions unrelated to the agency’s funding level). Among the worst riders were provisions to block both the Clean Power Plan and the Clean Water Rule.  As the bill evolved on the floor, it got even worse. Here are a few of the lowlights:

Funding Level

A series of amendments further reduced already-low funding for EPA by a total of about $100 million. The biggest hit to the agency budget came in an amendment from Rep. Paul Gosar that reduced the agency’s budget by more than $60 million and was adopted by voice vote.

Don’t Breathe

In addition to the rider blocking the Clean Power Plan in the base bill, a number of amendments  also targeted the Clean Air Act .

An amendment from Rep. Diane Black, adopted by voice vote, would weaken proposed standards to make medium- and heavy-duty trucks cleaner. The proposed standards would reduce carbon pollution by 1 billion metric tons and save vehicle owners about $170 billion in fuel costs over the lifetime of the vehicles.

Two amendments targeted efforts to reduce ground level ozone pollution, the principal component of smog. In arguing for his amendment, which was rejected by voice vote, Rep. Ted Yoho made the nonsensical argument that “Ozone by itself is not always bad because it is used industrially” and disputed settled science on the impacts of ozone, saying “Yes, there have been reports of it causing respiratory problems, but that is also associated with spores and molds and things like that.” An amendment from Rep. Donna Edwards would have stricken a rider that limited EPA’s ability to strengthen ozone standards; it was rejected 180-249.

An amendment from Rep. Bruce Poliquin would block EPA standards to reduce toxic pollution, including mercury, from industrial boilers. The standards are estimated to avoid up to 8,100 premature deaths, 5,100 heart attacks, and 52,000 asthma attacks. The amendment, blocking these benefits, was adopted by voice vote.

Drill, Baby, Drill

Several amendments addressed polluters’ desire to increase drilling and mining for fossil fuels — without a concomitant desire to address safety or fairness for taxpayers.

Rep. Lois Capps, responding to the recent 100,000-gallon oil spill in her district, offered an amendment to increase funding of inland oil spill cleanup. The amendment, which was offset by a reduction in spending for new offshore drilling, was rejected 184-243.

Rep. Raul Grijalva offered an amendment to block a rider aimed at allowing unfettered mountaintop removal mining and the water pollution that sullies nearby streams. The amendment was rejected 189-239. Similarly, an amendment from Rep. Don Beyer aimed to allow EPA to protect drinking water from mining companies that currently dump mining waste in rivers and streams. The Beyer amendment was rejected on voice vote. Rep. Brenda Lawrence offered an amendment that would have undone a rider that aimed to block new safeguards for hydraulic fracturing. The amendment was rejected 179-250.

Finally, two amendments aimed to allow dirty energy companies to continue paying below-market rates for fossil fuels extracted from public lands. An amendment from Rep. Steve Pearce would prohibit any increase in the royalty rates paid for oil and gas. The Pearce amendment was adopted 231-198. An amendment from Rep. Ryan Zinke would have similarly prohibited the closing of a loophole that allows for cheap coal extraction from public lands. If the loophole were to be closed, taxpayers in states like Montana would see millions of additional income. The amendment was not voted upon.

Let Them Go Extinct

A number of amendments targeted DOI’s work to protect endangered species. Reps. Kevin Yoder, Glenn Thompson, and Paul Gosar each offered amendments prohibiting DOI from protecting different threatened species, the lesser prairie chicken, the northern long-eared bat and the Sonoran desert tortoise, respectively. All were adopted by voice vote. Rep. Niki Tsongas offered an amendment to block both the new riders and a rider regarding wolves that was included in the underlying bill. Her amendment was rejected 186 – 243.

A Brief Reprieve

While the bill has been pulled from the floor for now, you can bet the Dirty Air Villain leadership is already on the lookout for their next opportunity to enact the Big Polluter Agenda. We’ll be watching for these provisions to be slipped into the upcoming continuing resolution or to be used as bargaining chips in the development of an omnibus appropriations bill. With Congress heading off for six weeks of recess, at least we know they can’t do any more damage now.

Fox News and the GOP Candidates Disappoint In First Debate

I came away from last night’s first televised Republican presidential debate feeling pretty disappointed in the lack of both questions and answers on climate change or clean energy. The closest anyone came to the topic was when Jeb Bush mentioned that Hillary Clinton doesn’t support the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. Despite the 7 in 10 conservative voters in early primary states (New Hampshire and South Carolina) who want the next president to have a clean energy plan, and the three-quarters of those same voters who want their state to submit a plan to comply with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, Fox News remains firmly in league with those who insist on continuing to deny both science and the will of the American people. Fox News provides a safe harbor for candidates who deny the science of climate change and gives them a microphone to spread inaccurate scare tactics about rising electricity prices and other myths.

I’m trying to look at it another way though. Many of the topics that were covered last night are indeed closely related to climate change.

At least one-third of the debate was devoted to issues of homeland security, terrorism, and the Middle East. But what Fox doesn’t want to admit is the fact climate change is a significant contributor to instability and conflict and therefore a major threat to our national security and the people whose duty it is to protect us. The Department of Defense and the CIA agree. Climate change is a factor in the rise of groups like ISIL; severe drought in Syria helped spur the civil war that led to the rise of terrorist Islamic State. I hope the candidates get asked about this at the next debate.

Ben Carson noted his background as a doctor and a neurosurgeon several times. And yet, he didn’t echo the message of the medical community, who are strongly in favor of limits on pollution from power plants because elevated ozone and particulate air pollution is linked to asthma attacks, cardiovascular disease, and premature death.

Donald Trump and John Kasich seemed to be the most willing to say things that are unconventional among fellow candidates. Trump gave a shout-out to Canada for their single-payer health care system (not exactly a conservative talking point!). Kasich defended his decision to go against some in his own party and increase Medicaid enrollment in Ohio. I hope they will both be willing to part from their party’s extremists and call for a future in clean energy and a move away from dirty fuels.

Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio spoke about their experience being a leader in the state of Florida. But you can’t truly do a good job leading a state with 1,350 miles of coastline and millions of people who live next to the rising sea (and the hurricanes and storm surges can come with it) if you aren’t willing to acknowledge that humans are contributing to the problem and need to be part of the solution.

At the end of the debate, most of the candidates spoke about their religious convictions. From Pope Francis, to the Episcopal Church, to the many religious Americans of all denominations who believe it’s morally imperative we care for our planet and the most vulnerable people on it, there are good examples out there for these candidates to follow.

Overall, Fox News did a disservice to its viewers and to the candidates by not asking questions about climate change and a clean energy future. Once these candidates step off the friendly Fox News stage and into the real world, they will be asked about it by the American people. And right now, the contrast between what voters want and what GOP leaders are offering them is quite large. I think they can all do better.

Is Scott Walker is Running for President or for BFF* with the Koch Brothers?

*BFF = Best Friends Forever

With candidates like Donald Trump in the race for the Republican nomination for president, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker might seem almost moderate. But avoiding Trump’s offensive gaffes hardly qualifies Walker as a moderate, especially when it comes to climate change and clean energy.

In fact, Walker’s positions have been extreme — and extremely aligned with the Koch brothers’ Big Polluter Agenda. Before Walker became a presidential candidate (officially on July 13th), the Koch brothers had already given him millions of dollars of support during his tenure as Governor through their organizations, Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners. These groups work to elect candidates who are climate deniers, and who want to protect the profits of Big Oil and Big Pollution at the expense of clean air, clean water, public health, and action against climate change.

Charles and David Koch plan to spend close to $900 million in the 2016 election, effectively acting as their own shadow political party.  Although the brothers claim to remain neutral, David Koch reportedly told a room full of donors that they think he should be the Republican nominee.

Though Walker is a relatively new national political figure, he’s made a splash on the national political scene since taking office in 2011 for his controversial actions regarding unions and abortion.  What about his record on energy and environmental issues?

According to the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters’ Executive Director: “He really has gone after every single piece of environmental protection: land, air, water — he’s left no stone unturned. It’s hard to imagine anyone has done worse.”

On climate change, Walker has declared that Wisconsin will not comply with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which aligns him directly with Senator Mitch McConnell’s dirty tactics. He’s pledged to “oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue.” Under Walker’s administration, the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands voted to ban its employees from working on global warming issues on state time.

On environmental protection more generally, Walker said in June that he wants to gut the EPA. He doubled down on this bad idea recently, saying that state environment departments should take charge and that EPA should be “limited to mediating interstate conflicts over, say, where a body of water or a piece of land goes through multiple states.” That’s not an encouraging proposition given his administration’s record: the state Department of Natural Resources, run by a Walker appointee who opposes environmental protection, has laid off staff in the face of the governor’s own budget cuts, delayed important rules and cut back on enforcing laws that protect state residents from pollution.

If you’re concerned about the Koch brothers’ using their Big Oil money to enact the Big Polluter Agenda, then the prospect of a Scott Walker presidency isn’t pretty. With seventy-eight percent of voters saying they think the government should limit global warming pollution, we’ll have to hope those voters’ opinions count for more than the Koch brothers’ millions.

Obama’s Got a Climate Plan, Where’s the GOP’s?

President Obama has developed a concrete and achievable plan for confronting the threat of climate change. In a powerful speech on Monday, he announced the first-ever national limits on carbon pollution from power plants and laid out how it will shield future generations from climate chaos, make the air safer to breathe and save Americans money on energy bills.

What plan have Republican leaders offered? Nothing. All we’ve heard are the same tired criticisms while Republican leaders in Congress work to block any and all action to attack climate change.

Their opposition to carbon pollution limits is to be expected: they’ve vowed to block them for months now. Several GOP presidential candidates used Monday’s announcement to pile on, with Senator Ted Cruz calling the Clean Power Plan “lawless and radical,” and Former Governor Jeb Bush implying that carbon pollution will take care of itself—no government action necessary.

Hearing GOP candidates attack a Democratic president’s policies is not surprising. What should be surprising—and alarming—is that not a single Republican leader has provided an alternative solution to the biggest environmental and humanitarian crisis of our time.

Some of these leaders, like Ted Cruz, are sticking with outright denial of the science. And they don’t seem to have noticed how far public opinion has moved.

I just got back from a family road trip through 15 states and a dozen national parks. Along the way, we met people from across the country. None of them talked about global climate change explicitly, but many spoke about personal concerns that explain where the support for climate action is coming from.

One family we ate with in Yellowstone was glued to their phones for updates about a wildfire approaching their home. A mom we met was in a panic because her son forgot his inhaler at the Bright Angel trail. Another family we spoke to in Minnesota feared they would lose their crops due to flooding. Others were worried about drought in their hometowns.

President Obama spoke about similar concerns in his speech on Monday. He focused on how climate change and air pollution can hit home—how people struggle to breathe during asthma attacks triggered by dirty air, how they worry about their cities flooding at high tide or during storms, and how they want to leave something better for their kids.

This is how most people talk about climate change. They express concern about what climate change means for their daily lives.

Candidates who want to win in 2016 must embrace climate action and explain how it will help real people in their daily lives.

Poll after poll shows that the vast majority of Americans want leaders to do something about those impacts. That includes a sizeable chunk of Republicans. A Yale University poll found that 56 percent of all GOP voters support limiting carbon pollution, with 54 percent of conservative Republicans and 74 percent of moderate Republicans especially likely to favor them. A late July poll commissioned by the NRDC Action Fund and League of Conservation Voters of likely GOP primary voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina showed that strong majorities say it is important that GOP candidates have a clean energy plan, and three quarters support their state submitting a plan to comply with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

In the midst of flooded streets and scorched homes, people look to leaders who envision a brighter future and offer a roadmap get there. President Obama has put forward a plan for addressing climate change, bringing good paying jobs to states across the nation and improving our families’ health.

The Republican Party has shown up empty-handed to the climate fight. That’s bad for our communities—and it’s bad for candidates who want to win in 2016.