You’re not imagining this – politicians in Washington are actually talking climate again

Nat Keohane

Editor's note: This post was updated on Aug. 6, 2019

I've been working on climate change for a long time, but I've never seen a moment like the one we're in now.

The surge in political energy across the country and on Capitol Hill, coupled with the leaps and bounds made in cleaner technology, gives me hope that, even with the daily reminders of the obstacles we face, we can solve this challenge. Here's why. 

  • As the 2020 presidential campaign shifts into high gear, the climate crisis is receiving much more attention than it has in the past.  Nearly every candidate has released their own plan to address this crisis, and climate change has been brought up by moderators at every primary debate. Beginning in September, Democratic candidates will start participating in specific climate change forums — another sign that climate change is a top-tier issues from voters in early primary states and across the country.
  • In the House, Rep. Donald McEachin will introduce legislation in September that puts our country on the path to a 100% clean economy by 2050. This bold plan is supported by a large and diverse coalition, and the push for 100% Clean is now a top priority for House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone.
  • Climate is also front and center in other forums on Capitol Hill. In the House, Rep. Kathy Castor is chairing the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, bringing together a diverse group of leaders to highlight the growing threat of the climate crisis and identify real climate solutions, even holding hearings outside of Washington, DC.  Across the Capitol, Sen. Brian Schatz is chairing the Senate Democrats' Special Committee on the Climate Crisis.
  • In addition to these committees, there have been a series of climate-related hearings since the new Congress took over in early January. There are also signs of a more constructive stance among some House Republicans, who have responded to those committee hearings by engaging on the substance and inviting serious witnesses to testify.
  • Florida Republican Francis Rooney is even sponsoring a bipartisan carbon tax bill, one of a series of carbon tax bills that have been introduced over the summer.
  • The Republican-controlled Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held its first hearing on climate change since 2012 where its leader, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, said that global warming is "directly impacting" the lives of her constituents. Other Senate Republicans are joining the debate about solutions to climate change.
  • And, of course, the proposed Green New Deal has given climate issues new visibility on the Hill. While we don't agree with everything in the Green New Deal resolution, its backers are bringing new ideas and needed ambition to the conversation.

It's clear that politicians are responding to pressure from home.

A spring poll by our partner organization EDF Action and other allies found an astonishing result: Climate change is cited as a top tier issue by more Democratic primary voters than any other issue in three of the five early primary states surveyed — California, New Hampshire and Iowa — and it places second in another, Nevada.

Nationally, a poll by Yale and George Mason universities indicates that the number of Americans who are "alarmed" about climate change is at an all-time high, 29%. This is "double that segment's size in 2013 and an eight-point increase since March 2018," the poll found. Overall, 59% of Americans are either alarmed or "concerned."

What's the cause? The foundation was laid over many years by the tireless work of activists and climate scientists.

But more immediately, I think it's a combination of anger at the backward policies of this White House, of recent reports on climate impacts from the U.S. government and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, of the bold ambition of a new wave of young activists led by groups like the Sunrise Movement, and of vivid images of impacts like the California wildfires and violent East Coast hurricanes.

To succeed, we must find solutions that address the scale of the challenge, while being politically sustainable over the long term. That is why the push for a 100% clean economy is quickly gaining momentum.

A 100% clean energy economy will inspire development and adoption of the technologies that will get us to net zero, meaning that we are producing no more carbon emissions than we can remove from the atmosphere.

Market forces must move in one direction

As consensus builds for climate action on Capitol Hill, a comprehensive policy package should center on putting enforceable limits on climate pollution and requiring companies to pay when they pollute. When companies must face the true costs of their pollution, and profit more from clean energy than from fossil fuels, we will spur a race to build a prosperous low-carbon economy.

What's more, everything else we need to do to meet the climate challenge, such as increasing energy efficiency in buildings and improving fuel economy in cars, will have even greater impact —because market forces will be pushing in the same direction as climate progress instead of against it.

We also need to invest in new ways to remove climate pollution from the atmosphere, whether through farm and forest practices that absorb more carbon, or stepped-up research and development into direct air capture technologies. It's going to take all the tools we have to meet this challenge.

With President Trump in the White House and signs of climate impacts all around us, we can't afford casual optimism. But the surge in political momentum gives me new hope that we can win this fight.

See 5 comments