By Jeremy Symons, Principal at Symons Public Affairs
The political winds are shifting on climate change.
Public concern about climate change has grown stronger in 2018 in the wake of a dozen disasters, including wildfires and hurricanes, that took lives and each created damages of one billion dollars or more.
Seventy-two percent of Americans now say that global warming is “personally important” to them, an increase of 16 percentage points since March 2015 and an increase of nine points since March 2018, according to tracking polls conducted by Yale and George Mason Universities.
The biggest shifts in views have occurred among Republicans. According to polling by Monmouth University, “nearly two-thirds of Republicans (64%) now believe in climate change, a 15 point jump from just under half (49%) three years ago.”
Despite repeated mocking tweets from the White House, many politicians are beginning to stir.
A bipartisan group of 17 governors representing 40% of Americans have formed the United States Climate Alliance, committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the goals of the Paris climate agreement (aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in each of their states by at least 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025).
The Alliance, founded by Democrats Jerry Brown of California, Andrew Cuomo of New York and Jay Inslee of Washington, now includes three Republican Governors: Larry Hogan (Maryland), Charlie Baker (Massachusetts) and Phil Scott (Vermont).
Even more surprising has been the unexpected pivots some newly elected Republican governors have made after their recent elections.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican who promised not to bow to “the church of the global warming leftists” during the campaign, has earned cautious early praise from surprised environmentalists as he has rejected fracking and offshore drilling and focused on Florida’s sea level rise crisis.
And the Idaho Statesman reports that newly elected Republican Governor Bard Little “shocked some at the Idaho Environmental Forum by declaring that climate change is real and will have to be dealt with.”
Meanwhile, the number of local governments tackling climate change continues to grow. 281 cities and counties representing more than 70 million Americans have taken the “We Are Still In” pledge after Trump turned his back on the Paris climate agreement.
Under the “American Cities Climate Challenge,” Bloomberg Philanthropies and partners have awarded $70 million to help 25 cities meet their carbon reduction goals.
A Unique Window of Opportunity for Businesses in 2019
As state and local elected officials begin to search for answers and solutions to climate after years of stale debate, the door is open for business leaders to help.
Many forward-looking businesses have been developing experience and expertise in implementing their own plans to cut emissions, boost energy efficiency, deploy clean energy and protect natural systems. After all, 2,162 businesses and investors also have taken the “We Are Still In” pledge. Now more than ever, that knowledge, technical support and affirmation can be put to use in the communities where businesses work, build and serve.
Congress is Stirring
It has been a decade since congress has worked on serious legislative proposals to tackle climate change. That work begins anew in 2019.
In her opening address of the new congress, Speaker Pelosi has named the climate crisis the “existential threat of our time.” Democrats have the opportunity in 2019 to lay the foundation for what could come following the next elections in 2020: a new national policy on climate change and re-establishment of America’s climate leadership on the global stage.
Setting this agenda will not be simple. Democrats will struggle with grassroots activists over what a worthy climate plan might look like.
The Green New Deal?
Shortly after the 2018 elections, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez championed a Green New Deal to transform the U.S economy off fossil fuels in the next decade and create millions of green jobs.
The Green New Deal has been proposed by the energized young activists of the surging Sunrise Movement. Speaker Pelosi declined their opening demands for a committee focused only on the Green New Deal. But they are not going away anytime soon. “
Ultimately, the matter of how to fill the current vacuum of climate policy platforms in Washington will be determined in large part by whomever emerges from the Democratic presidential nomination fight.
In the meantime, House Democrats will conduct oversight of Trump and pass measures – likely including a resolution supporting the Paris climate agreement – that could unite the caucus and might attract some Republicans.
Measures focused exclusively on climate change won’t become law with Trump in the White House, but Democrats have better prospects of bending bipartisan priorities toward climate action before the next election. The results could be significant. Speaker Pelosi has committed to passing a green infrastructure build to “rebuild America with clean energy, smart technology and resilient infrastructure.”
Top Republicans in the House are asking the President to renew his commitment to seeking infrastructure legislation. And in the Senate, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer recently sent a public message to Trump: “to earn Democratic support in the Senate, any infrastructure bill would have to include policies and funding that help transition our country to a clean-energy economy and mitigate the risks the United States already faces from climate change.”
At stake: billions of dollars of federal infrastructure dollars that could either help or hinder climate smart business investments.
With the government shut down and the political parties setting a sad record for dysfunction, it is smart to be skeptical about a grand infrastructure deal. But keep this in mind: just 24 hours before the government shutdown, Trump signed a bipartisan farm bill into law. Price tag: $867 billion.
Two Sleeping Giants
There are two sleeping giants in climate politics that could wreak havock with the gridlock that has persisted for years. The first is a public that is only now beginning to make climate change a voting issue with political consequences.
The other sleeping giant is the tremendous lobbying power of businesses inclined to do the right thing on climate change in their own operations but reluctant to put serious lobbying muscle behind pushing for action.
From 2017 and 2018, businesses spent $8 billion on federal lobbying and on political spending across all issues. That is four times as much as all other lobbying and political spending money combined. (source: calculations based on data from the Center for Responsive Politics).
Let’s face it. Little of this lobbying influence has been directed to climate change. When it has, the influence has too often been used to deter rather than accelerate government action – most often by trade associations.
Big Stakes for American Businesses
Sadly, according to FEMA, roughly 40-60 percent of small businesses never reopen their doors following a natural disaster. As more natural disaster have decidedly unnatural fingerprints from climate change, more businesses and workers will suffer.
And for big businesses who are looking for a stable regulatory environment, Trump has created instead a regulatory purgatory that will only get worse in 2019. Earlier this month, the president nominated coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to run the EPA and throw more sand in the gears of any and all climate programs and regulations.
Under Wheeler, Trump’s EPA will likely continue its record losing streak in court. The Trump Administration has lost or retreated from 28 of the 30 deregulatory actions that have made its way through the courts to date, according to tracking from the Institute for Policy Integrity. Trump’s EPA record: It has lost ten of eleven cases.
If the lobbying giants that have been passive in Washington and state houses got serious about putting lobbying muscle behind pushing for sensible climate action – and reset the positions of top trade associations – then we could make significant progress in cities and states this year and next and lay a strong foundation for a sane climate plan federally in 2021.
Jeremy Symons is the Principal at Symons Public Affairs, which provides strategy support and services to clients who seek to make progress on climate change, the environment and energy. Jeremy previously was Vice President for Political Affairs at Environmental Defense Fund, and Deputy Director for the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee.