GOP weaponizes Green New Deal, making climate change a cause célèbre


Weekly Climate Review Feb. 15, 2019, by the MacArthur Foundation:

The honeymoon was short for the much anticipated Green New Deal introduced by Democratic phenom U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and co-sponsor Senator Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts.

At last Thursday’s launch, the joint House and Senate resolution to catalyze a just and equitable 10-year transition to a U.S. economy run on clean energy, transportation and agriculture boasted backing from more than 70 Democrats in the House and 12 in the Senate. Some climate hawks were ecstatic, and news of the bold move made headlines around the world.

Then the other shoe dropped. And it wasn’t a “shoe” worn solely by Republicans.

“There is some consternation that [the Green New Deal is] conflating social justice, employment and health care goals into the climate framework,” said Paul Bledsoe, former communications director for the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Bill Clinton. “I keep hearing people say, ‘Enacting climate legislation is hard enough without also guaranteeing everyone a job.'”

E&E News questioned whether the Green New Deal could escape the fate of the 2009 cap-and-trade proposal that crashed and burned, taking the careers of some proponents with it. Mother Jones dinged the plan for glossing over America’s built-in addiction to automobiles, and Slate highlighted how it fell “short on its environmental justice promise.”

But the GOP seemed downright feverish in its hostility, dismissing the plan as every shade of dubious, from “kooky” to a “socialist manifesto.”

“The Green New Deal is nothing more than the latest job-killing, socialist wish list from the radical left obsessed with climate change, Medicare-for-all, free college and a total redistribution of wealth,” said David McIntosh, president of Club for Growth, a conservative group advocating tax cuts.

“I would like [Democrats] to push it as far as they can. I’d like to see it on the floor [of the Senate]. I’d like to see them actually have to vote on it. It’s crazy. It’s loony,” Representative Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican, toldPOLITICO. “I think this will be a piñata that Republicans will continue to hit and use to their advantage in the 2020 elections. It’s a policy piñata,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist.

“The Green New Deal is a religious document,” said Fox News host Tucker Carlson. “It punishes America for the sins of its prosperity. The only atonement it offers is turning over control of the entire U.S. economy to the Democratic Party.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s staff didn’t do the fledgling Green New Deal any favors last weekend, when they mistakenly posted“frequently asked questions” for an early draft of the concept that included some far-left language calling for economic security “for all who are unable or unwilling to work,” nixing nuclear power altogether and limiting air travel and livestock that passes methane-laced gas. Her chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, quickly clarified the error, but Republicans detractors, including President Donald Trump, seized the moment.

“Yesterday, we entered into the record the frequently asked questions and the overview that were posted and then deleted from Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’s website,” Representative Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, saidWednesday. “It’s very important the American people see and that there be transparency about what they’re pushing.”

“I think it is very important for the Democrats to press forward with their Green New Deal. It would be great for the so-called ‘Carbon Footprint’ to permanently eliminate all Planes, Cars, Cows, Oil, Gas & the Military—even if no other country would do the same. Brilliant!” Trump tweeted on Saturday. He told the audience at his Monday night rally in El Paso that supporters of the Green New Deal “want to take away your car, reduce the value of your home and put millions of Americans out of work.”

Cow flatulence rapidly became a favored GOP trope. “But this is the decades-long Republican playbook on climate change—mock and debase the debate in the face of an existential threat to humanity that could devastate millions and cost trillions. They mock flatulence to deflect from facts,” Senator Markey tweeted on Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would swiftly call for a vote on the resolution in the Senate to expose supporters of the Green New Deal to American voters. “We’re going to vote in the Senate and see how many Democrats want to end air travel and cow farts,” tweeted@TeamMitch, the “official account of Mitch McConnell for Senate.”

“This isn’t a new Republican trick. By rushing a vote on the #GreenNewDeal resolution, Republicans want to avoid a true national debate & kill our efforts to organize,” Markey tweeted. “We’re having the first national conversation on climate change in a decade. We can’t let Republicans sabotage it.”

“FDR [and his New Deal] faced exactly the kinds of criticisms and challenges that the Green New Deal faces today,” historian Steve Fraser told CBS News.

Still, some sympathetic experts warned that the Green New Deal, as proposed, could be unrealistic and scare away voters. “I’m afraid I just cannot see how we could possibly go to zero carbon in the 10-year time frame,” Ernest Moniz, secretary of energy under President Barack Obama, toldNPR. “It’s just impractical. And if we start putting out impractical targets, we may lose a lot of key constituencies who we need to bring along to have a real low-carbon solution on the most rapid time frame that we can achieve.”

Senator Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican bent on opening her state’s most pristine wilderness to oil and gas drilling, remarked on the opportunity the Green New Deal presents for reviving a comprehensive national energy reform bill that she co-authored. “There is a lot of discussion on this so-called Green New Deal. A lot of folks are saying there is no way we can figure things out in [the] energy space. I disagree,” she said Wednesday. “We can find some common ground here.”

And investors might just line up to back a Green New Deal, Bloomberg News reported. “Wall Street would take this seriously,” said Stephen Liberatore, a managing director at Nuveen, a New York-based multinational asset manager. “There are more and more investors who are interested in having exposure to green projects and green debt.”

Some among the growing number of Republicans who favor addressing climate change advised against rejecting the Green New Deal without proposing an alternative. “Republicans could point to the Green New Deal and say these people are socialists, it’s stupid and bad,” said Shane Skelton, an energy policy advisor to former GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan. “When you go into campaign season, it’s always better to say, ‘I have a better solution to your problem that will hurt you less and help you more’ than to say, ‘You don’t have a problem, and I don’t want to talk about it.'”

Furthermore, polls show more Republican voters are becoming concerned about climate change impacting them in the here and now. Overall, the number of Americans “alarmed” by climate change doubled from 2013 to 2018, according to the latest survey by Yale and George Mason universities. And those numbers could increase significantly by November 2020, depending on how climate change manifests itself across America.

“But seriously, what is the Republican plan for climate change?” U.S. Senator Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, tweeted on Tuesday.

“I’m guessing thoughts and prayers,” answered David Hogg, an activist survivor of last year’s shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Climate context

Polar bears—the poster animals of climate change—made headlines worldwide this week after more than 50 of them “invaded” residential areas in Russia’s Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, hunting en masse for food made scarce by the region’s meltdown. “They should be hunting seals on sea ice, but global warming is driving them to land,” tweeted journalist Alec Luhn, with a video of a polar bear sniffing around a baby stroller inside a building.

“The people are scared. They are frightened to leave homes, and their daily routines are broken. Parents are afraid to let the children go to school or kindergarten,” said the regional government in a statement after declaring an emergency. “There’s never been such a massive invasion of bears,” local official Vigansha Musin Head told the Interfax news agency.

One factor speeding Arctic melting is soot—also called black carbon—that drifts north from areas of dense human settlement to coat the polar region’s snow and ice, causing it to absorb more heat from the sun. A study published Wednesday in Science Advances concluded that most of that black carbon comes from fossil fuels burned in power plants, cars, trucks and factories. “Some people think it’s biofuels and wildfires, but our main takeaway is that fossil fuels are the main source of black carbon in the Arctic,” said lead author Patrik Winiger, a climate scientist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

In a bit of good news, NASA found that Earth became 5 percent greener in the past 20 years, thanks largely to China and India, according to a study published Monday in Nature Sustainability. The researchers attribute much of the increase in foliage to conservation and tree planting in China and to more irrigated agriculture in India. “When the greening of the Earth was first observed, we thought it was due to a warmer, wetter climate and fertilization from the added carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, leading to more leaf growth in northern forests, for instance,” said co-author Rama Nemani, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. “…[N]ow that we know direct human influence is a key driver of the greening Earth, we need to factor this into our climate models.”

Research published Tuesday in Nature Communicationspredicts what the climate will be like in 540 North American cities by 2080, with the results available to the public via an interactive map. “Within the lifetime of children living today, the climate of many regions is projected to change from the familiar to conditions unlike those experienced in the same place by their parents, grandparents, or perhaps any generation in millennia,” said senior author Matthew Fitzpatrick, an ecologist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “Many cities could experience climates with no modern equivalent in North America.”

Surprises

People in more countries see climate change as the greatest international threat, according to results of a 2018 survey across 26 countries released Sunday by the Pew Research Center. “Broadly speaking, people around the world agree that climate change poses a severe risk to their countries,” Pew said. “In 13 of these countries, people name climate change as the top international threat.”

In far more surprising news, an Australian court last Friday rejected construction of a new coal mine based on its potential exacerbation of climate change—a first for the world’s largest coal exporter. “In short, an open cut coal mine in this part of the Gloucester Valley would be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” wrote Chief Justice Brian Preston of the New South Wales Land and Environment Court in the landmark ruling. “Wrong place because an open cut coal mine in this scenic and cultural landscape, proximate to many people’s homes and farms, will cause significant planning, amenity, visual and social impacts. Wrong time because the [greenhouse gas (GHG)] emissions of the coal mine and its coal product will increase global total concentrations of GHGs at a time when what is now urgently needed, in order to meet generally agreed climate targets, is a rapid and deep decrease in GHG emissions.”

In a surprise admission, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS)—the trade association for a majority of the world’s merchant ship owners and operators—concludedthat its members cannot meet the International Maritime Organization’s target of cutting GHG emissions 50 percent by 2050 while continuing to use fossil fuels. “Over the next decade we are, therefore, going to require massive investment in research and development of zero CO2 emitting propulsion systems and other technologies which don’t yet exist in a form that can be readily applied to international shipping, especially in deep sea trades,” said ICS chair Esben Poulsson.

Stateside, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, DC, surprisingly found that scores of Green New Deal supporters in Congress have accepted money from “oil and gas, coal and pro-resource development groups.” Nine Democrats on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis were among the recipients, Bloomberg News reported.

United States

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar declared her bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination on Sunday, standing outdoors under a heavy snowfall and promising unabashedly to run on the need for climate action.

“The people are on our side when it comes to climate change. Why? Because like you and I, they believe in science,” she said. “That’s why in the first 100 days of my administration I will reinstate the clean power rules and the gas mileage standards and put forth sweeping legislation to invest in green jobs and infrastructure. And on day one, we will rejoin the [Paris] climate agreement.”

True to form, Trump used the occasion to wrongly imply that heavy snow belies global warming. “Amy Klobuchar announced that she is running for President, talking proudly of fighting global warming while standing in a virtual blizzard of snow, ice and freezing temperatures,” he tweeted. “Bad timing. By the end of her speech she looked like a Snowman (woman)!”

“Science is on my side, @realDonaldTrump,” Klobuchar tweeted in reply. “Looking forward to debating you about climate change (and many other issues).”

POLITICO reported that Klobuchar has numerous fans among Senate Republicans, and The Wall Street Journalsang her praises in an editorial that concluded, “She may be the Democrat best able to beat Mr. Trump.” However, the editors also warned that if she “feels the need to zag further left” by, perhaps, “running on a pledge to eliminate fossil fuels in 10 years,” she could blow it. As for her support of the Green New Deal, she told host Anderson Cooper on CNN, “I’m in favor of it simply because I see it as a framework to jump-start a discussion. … I don’t see… that we can get rid of all these industries or do this in a few years—that doesn’t make sense to me—or reduce air travel. But what does make sense to me is to start doing concrete things and put some aspirations out there on climate change.”

Meanwhile, Trump pressed the federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority to save a Kentucky coal-fired power plant supplied by coal mines owned by his donor Robert Murray, owner of Murray Energy and chief advocate of a federal bailout for uneconomic coal-fired plants. “Coal is an important part of our electricity generation mix and @TVAnews should give serious consideration to all factors before voting to close viable power plants, like Paradise #3 in Kentucky!” the president tweeted Monday ahead of a TVA board vote on the matter. But the utility’s board votedThursday to retire the 49-year-old power plant in Kentucky and another coal-fired plant near Knoxville, Tennessee. “Let me tell you what this decision is not about—it’s not about coal,” TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson told the board. “This decision is about economics.”

Despite the market forces dooming coal’s future in the United States, the Trump administration on Thursday announced approval of two new coal mining projects in Utah. “The war on coal is over, and the Trump administration is committed to facilitating much-needed job creation and energy production. In coal towns across this country, the American dream is alive and well,” Assistant Secretary of the Interior Joe Balash saidin a press release. “The Interior rhetoric is completely off base,” said Jeremy Nichols, director of the climate and energy program at New Mexico-based WildEarth Guardians. “There’s no war on coal. It’s just coal’s inability to compete with cleaner and more affordable ways to generate electricity.”

Trump’s tariffs on imported solar equipment caused thousands of job losses in the industry in 2018, for the second year in a row, the Solar Foundation said in a report released Tuesday. However, the bipartisan group predicted a 7-percent uptick in employment this year.

Three lawmakers in the House of Representatives—two Democrats and a Republican—introduced a bill Monday to stop the Trump administration from opening Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, although it is likely to be snuffed out in the Senate.

Committees and subcommittees now run by the House Democratic majority held more hearings on climate change this week. A Tuesday hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources focused on the transition to a more climate-friendly U.S. economy. “If we don’t pay attention to the economic hurt of [fossil fuel] extraction communities and invest in solutions that show there is a viable path forward, we’ll only deepen the division in our country,” said Brandon Dennison, founder and CEO of Coalfield Development Corporation, a West Virginia nonprofit helping workers adapt to the coal industry’s decline. “We in Appalachia need to know we are valued and the country needs to know we have more to offer than just coal. Too often when discussing economic transitions policymakers announce, ‘Well, we can just retrain those people.’ And I do need to say that that is always way easier said than done.”

Wisconsin on Tuesday became the 21st state to join the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group of states committed to doing their part to lower greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. “It’s time to lead our state in a new direction where we embrace science, where we discuss the very real implications of climate change, where we work to find solutions, and where we invest in renewable energy,” Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, said in a press release. While those 21 members make up only 42 percent of the 50 United States, they represent 49 percent of the American population and “over half of national GDP,” the alliance said.

Los Angeles on Tuesday announced plans to phase out 38 percent of its power generation capacity from natural gas by 2029, replacing it with renewables. “This is the beginning of the end of natural gas in Los Angeles,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement. “The climate crisis demands that we move more quickly to end dependence on fossil fuel, and that’s what today is all about.”

China

Juxtaposition sometimes says it all when it comes to news out of China.

The U.S.-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) published an op-ed Monday about Chinese investors backing more than a quarter of all new coal plants outside of China. “President Xi [Jinping] must swiftly reconcile rhetoric and reality,” wrote IEEFA energy finance analyst Simon Nicholas. “The consequences of a new generation of coal will be toxic for the environment, toxic for financial institutions involved and toxic for China’s reputation.”

On Monday evening, Reuters published an analysis of official government data showing air pollution rose 16 percent in 39 northern Chinese cities during January 2019 over January 2018. “The outsourcing of industrial output [to other locations] that took place last winter in order for Beijing to hit its air quality targets was reversed this winter, driving air pollution levels up in the region while the rest of the country has seen improvements,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, senior analyst in the Greenpeace Global Air Pollution Unit.

In what was not likely a coincidence, this headline came from the official Xinhua news agency on Tuesday: “China builds world’s largest clean coal power generation system.” The accompanying story claimed China had “established the world’s largest clean coal power generation system, setting a new milestone in cutting emissions and saving energy,” citing the National Energy Administration (NEA) as its source. “The NEA said it will continue to promote energy conservation and ultra-low emissions and speed up building a clean, efficient and sustainable coal power industry.” These assertions are particularly interesting given that there is, as yet, no such thing as “clean coal power generation.”

“Our main concern is that many of the plants that have spent a lot of money on retrofits should have been retired, given China’s overcapacity in coal-fired power,” Myllyvirta said.

Meanwhile, the government announced approval of a new coal mine in the northwestern Xinjiang region on Tuesday and, on Wednesday, revealed the go-ahead for another new coal mine in Inner Mongolia.

The NEA said Thursday it would block any new solar power development in Xinjiang and neighboring Gansu Province and Tibet, where the amount of unused solar power ranged as high as 16 percent last year.

India

India’s environment minister on Tuesday released a report touting the country’s climate accomplishments and aspirations.

“This publication not only highlights our achievements towards climate action but also our preparedness for the future,” Harsh Vardhan said during the unveiling. “In the last four years, many clean and green development initiatives taken at both the state and national level have significantly contributed to the adaptation and mitigation of climate change,” he also said.

Vardhan’s assessment may have been rose-colored, but the government of India could cancel 50 gigawatts of planned coal-fired power projects and quash another 46 gigawatts currently under construction, Bruno Brunetti, a managing director at S&P Global Platts told The Economic Times in an interview published Thursday. Plunging solar prices have put new coal-fired power projects “in a considerably more difficult position, especially given that the bottlenecks in the rail and infrastructure have led to fuel availability issues,” he said. “Therefore, it is likely solar installations will rebound. It is unclear the timing, though, as the drivers behind the soft additions [to India’s solar capacity] of 2018 may well persist and continue to impact additions in 2019.” Brunetti, like many other experts, expressed concern about the uncertainty of government policies.

The costs of solar and wind power in India look set to fall further, according to a report released Wednesday by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) headquartered in New Delhi and the San Francisco-based Climate Policy Initiative. “By contrast, we project the tariffs of new coal-fired electricity to rise due to [an] above-inflation increase in coal transport costs and [an] increase in coal plant capital costs to improve efficiencies and reduce local pollution,” said Ajay Mathur, TERI’s director general. “If I look at it very, very realistically, the last coal power plant in India has already been financed. We will not see any more financing. … We expect the coal power plants will largely retire by 2050, with only a very small tail existing by 2060. So, coal will essentially not be part of India’s electricity system by 2050-60.”

TERI and Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a partnership Tuesday aimed at helping India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change implement the country’s new National Clean Air Programme, including development of an “emission inventory database” to help document progress. “As of now, there is no database of emission[s] of air pollution,” said Sumit Sharma, associate director for climate change at TERI.

In breaking news today, Reuters reported that India’s Ministry of Power has proposed offering incentives valued at $12.4 billion over the next five years “to encourage power plants to install equipment to curb emissions and to develop infrastructure for electric vehicles.”

Looking forward

The U.S. Constitution gives control of the national purse to Congress, and President Donald Trump today made an end run around that authority by declaring a national emergency in order to grab money allocated elsewhere to build his wall along the border with Mexico.

“I think, at the end of the day, this is something Republicans will rue,” former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele told MSNBC host Chuck Todd. “If any aspect of this is allowed to stand, they have no credence, no authority to criticize any Democratic president who stands up and says, ‘There’s a national emergency on guns, and I’m hereby limiting the sale of future arms in this country.'”

“I think we know what the real national emergency is going to be if there’s a Democratic president,” Todd said. “It’s going to be in climate.”

In this way, Trump could inadvertently prove to be a game-changing asset to climate hawks.

Nearer term, builders of oil and gas pipelines want the Trump administration to invoke federal authority to stop states from blocking construction of interstate pipelines. Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation sent a letter this week criticizing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s efforts in this regard. Like the emergency declaration to fund a border wall, such a move could be tied up in the courts until Trump is out of office, setting precedents that might, in the end, help more than hurt climate change mitigation.

At the same time, the movement of European youth skipping school to take to the streets over adult inaction on climate change ballooned this week, with “thousands of schoolchildren across the U.K.” joining in some 60 protests today. “The future of our planet is looking really bleak, and all the politicians are asleep at the wheel. We have to wake them up, and I think thousands of kids on the streets will do just that,” 16-year-old Bonnie Morely, who planned to demonstrate in London, told The New York Times. “Seeing how slowly everything moves in politics, you think, ‘If not us, who?'” said Zoe Bonnet, a 14-year-old from Bristol, England.