In January, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stated that climate change is “the existential threat of our time” when announcing the formation of the new House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which was established to “spearhead Democrats’ work to develop innovative, effective solutions to prevent and reverse the climate crisis.”
Since then, the House has taken little action until this week: a bill passed Thursday directing President Trump to keep the U.S. in the Paris climate accord. As the first climate bill to pass the House in almost 10 years, it’s a largely symbolic gesture against Trump (especially since it will not pass in the Senate), but it does not elaborate any further climate policy domestically.
Meanwhile, this week, under pressure from activists, the U.K. became the first country in the world to declare an “environment and climate emergency.” While the motion doesn’t oblige specific action, it recognizes that climate change is a national priority and an issue of public concern. Both bills are steps in the right direction but underline the lack of a robust plan by governments to tackle climate change.
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In theory, it should be easy to galvanize the Democratic Party around the issue of climate change. Already, global warming has demonstrated its overwhelming impacts on both human lives and the U.S.’s bottom line. Extreme weather patterns have decimated both urban and rural areas and displaced thousands. The U.S. endured its three costliest natural disasters in 2018: the Camp Fire in Northern California that obliterated the town of Paradise cost $16.5 billion, while Hurricanes Michael and Florence cost $16 billion and $14 billion, respectively. Recent flooding across Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota has devastated farmlands and infrastructure, with the total damage cost already rising to $3 billion.
Democratic leaders could seize this moment to chart a course forward to not only help transform communities facing the loss of their livelihoods, but also to address the root causes of climate change. The Green New Deal resolution introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez provides a clear starting point. Instead, Democratic leaders have long dragged their feet and offered only piecemeal, market-based measures like a carbon tax that will fall short of confronting the looming catastrophe we face, already borne out in communities across the country.
For example, the Democratic leadership is in the midst of finalizing an infrastructure package with Trump. In a letter outlining their priorities, they gave lip service to the impact of climate change, stating that a “bold infrastructure package” must “include clean energy and resiliency priorities.” The bipartisan bill will almost certainly exclude any framework of climate insecurity, especially given the administration’s censorship of climate change-related language in federal agency reports and websites.
Meanwhile, three Congress members on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, along with the majority of freshman Democrats, recently introduced a letter pushing the House Committee on Appropriations to prioritize funding for climate science research. The letter came in response to the Trump administration’s proposed 2020 budget that would slash and eliminate programs in scientific and environmental agencies.
Many Democrats still shy away from bold climate policy, in part because the climate movement is now steered by the party’s progressive wing and its Green New Deal resolution. As Vox reported, a recent poll showed that Republicans are united against the Green New Deal, while Democrats remain divided. More remarkably, the poll found that Republicans have heard much more about the bill than Democrats have. (Of course, this information is largely lies and conspiracy theories.)
Many prominent presidential candidates have endorsed the Green New Deal to varying degrees. Sen. Bernie Sanders has based his climate strategy on the proposal but offered little substantiation. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has gone further, promising to reverse the Trump administration’s policies on drilling offshore and on public land on her first day in office. However, a lack of party unity around climate action is partly because of the hefty price tag that will accompany any climate change proposal. For example, Beto O’Rourke’s recently unveiled climate change plan, aimed primarily at investments and emissions caps, is estimated to cost $5 trillion over 10 years.
These politicians are acting in response to mass public demands to confront climate change. A new generation of youth movements has brought the fight to politicians’ doorsteps, unflappable in the face of patronizing indifference. Children all over the world are organizing youth climate strikes and also changing the environmental movement from within.
One youth leader is Isra Hirsi, the daughter of Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar. In addition to pushing for dramatic climate policy changes, Hirsi is using her platform to challenge the predominantly white environmental movement, bringing attention to racism which ignores the disproportionate impact of climate change on communities of color.
Simultaneously, civil society groups have launched innovative legal strategies to sustain their fight through institutional change. A wave of climate lawsuits in the U.S. is trying to compel climate action. And British barrister Polly Higgins, who sadly passed away last month, led a decade-long campaign to establish ecocide as a fifth international crime against peace by criminalizing the destruction of the environment.
Meanwhile, around the world, environmental activists have been carrying on the movement’s history of direct action. In the U.K., the declaration of “climate emergency” followed sustained grassroots pressure. The Extinction Rebellion movement has staged high-profile numerous acts of civil disobedience over the past year, and has been disrupting London over the last two weeks – though activists criticized their tactics of mass arrest and confrontations with the police for failing “to acknowledge the long history of police brutality against communities of color.”
All of these various global movements are increasingly forcing politicians to stop looking away. One of the Extinction Rebellion’s three demands is for the government to tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency. The U.K. Parliament acquiesced, declaring its emergency on Wednesday. U.S. Democratic leaders should follow the U.K.’s example.