Climate Politics: Trendspotting

May 28, 2020

You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. Although one of the more cynical phrases ever uttered by a politician, the pilfered phrase[i] of the former mayor of Chicago and Obama adviser are also among the most honest.

The COVID-19 contagion is proving no exception to the Emanuel rubric. Over the past several months, Republicans and Democrats have attempted to use the pandemic to political advantage—not just as it applies to healthcare but as it pertains to other issues of the day. Within their statements and acts can be found messages—some subtle, some not—of their intentions towards climate change in the post-pandemic period.

In what can only be called “remarkable,” a deeply divided Congress and antagonistic White House were able to come to agreements on four pandemic-related pieces of legislation—culminating with the CARES Act. A repeat of such cordial cooperation is unlikely going forward. With the national election less than six months away, the gloves and masks are coming off as old positions are being defended and contentious new ones staked.

The enmity between House Speaker Pelosi and President Trump has deepened considerably over the past several months. Communication between them has devolved to a series of baiting tweets and pokes about each other’s eating and drinking habits and mental acuity. The hostility between these principals is creating a toxic environment in which to conduct the affairs of state.

Beyond the pejorative, the policy differences between the parties have become more pronounced, and a hardening of positions appears to be taking place—in some cases, at the risk of party interests. For example, Senate Majority Leader McConnell has staked out his opposition to Democratic efforts to appropriate a trillion dollars in aid to state, local, tribal, and territorial governments.

State and local governments are facing huge deficits because of the pandemic. They have encountered massive emergency expenses in fighting the contagion, as well as having experienced lost tax revenues because of the lockdowns.

The deficits are forcing state and local governments to cancel programs including, planned spending on clean energy projects. Governor Gavin Newsom has presented a revised California budget that axes nearly $19 billion in overall state spending. The cuts include $250 million in contributions to a now-dead Climate Catalyst Fund, which was aimed at jump-starting investment in pollution technology.  Also sacked was $4.75 billion to prepare the state for climate-change disasters like sea-level rise that threaten coastal cities and devastating wildfires inland that have caused the loss of life and tens of thousands of buildings.

McConnell and Trump incorrectly believe that proposed aid would benefit only Democratic governments. The Majority Leader at one point suggested that states facing huge deficits should simply declare bankruptcy—a legal impossibility. Governor Cuomo called the remark “one of the saddest, really dumb comments of all time.” A sentiment seconded by Republican Representative Peter King (NY).

Republican resistance to aiding state and local governments could further jeopardize the chances of several sitting senators come November. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) are among those facing strong Democratic opponents. Democrats need a net gain of only three Senate seats with a Biden victory to flip the Senate their way. Four seats are needed should Trump be re-elected. Once thought a near impossibility, Trump’s pandemic performance is changing the math for the Democrats.

Trump has naturally found the contagion a convenient excuse to attempt yet another assault on existing environmental regulations. His most recent Executive Order directs agencies to address this [pandemic-induced] economic emergency by rescinding, modifying, waiving, or providing exemptions from regulations and other requirements that may inhibit economic recovery.

In advance of the Order, the White House reached out to groups like the Center for Energy and Environment, which is a part of the ultra-conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute. Myron Ebell, the Center’s director, said the Order would allow Trump to use the emergency powers of a procedural statute to quickly jettison regulations without being encumbered by the usual rulemaking process, which normally takes a year.

In reality, the Order is mostly Trumpian bluster. The government must still comply with the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), as well as the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). Two laws the administration has often summarily attempted to dismiss—often resulting in the courts ruling its actions illegal. It is not to say, however, that the administration hasn’t managed to throw up obstacles to clean energy nor to favor fossil fuels under the rubric of the pandemic.

What isn’t bluster is the administration giving preference to fossil fuels in a host of ways. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), for example, has acquiesced to industry requests to lower the royalty rates paid to lease public lands in places like Utah. The reductions are intended to aid oil companies fighting to survive the precipitous decline in fuel demand and the price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Dozens of Republican House members have been pressuring BLM to issue blanket relief for companies operating in all federal lands. To date, BLM has granted all 76 of the exceptions requested on a case basis.

While reducing royalties for fossil fuel companies, the Trump administration has ended a two-year rent holiday for solar and wind projects operating on federal lands. According to Reuters, the move represents a multi-million-dollar hit to an industry that has already seen installation projects canceled or delayed by the global health crisis, which has cut investment and dimmed the demand outlook for power.

The end of the rent holiday impacts an estimated 96 utility-scale solar, wind, and geothermal projects operating on federal lands. According to its web site, the Interior Department anticipates collecting $50 million in rent fees from wind and solar projects in 2020, up from $1.1 million in 2019 and $21.6 million in 2018. Part of the $50 million will come from Avangrid, the operator of a 131-megawatt wind project near San Diego. The company was recently presented with a bill for $3 million covering two years of past due rent.

The administration also seems to be pushing back against investors unwilling to risk funds on the future of oil and gas. Five of the six largest banks in the United States have said they would no longer finance oil and gas drilling in the Arctic. Following the announcements, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette equated the restrictions to redlining—a discriminatory practice by which banks, insurance companies, and even government agencies refused loans and other services to communities of color.

Banks are hardly the only institutions no longer willing to fund the fossil fuel economy. Investors on both Main Street and Wall Street are turning away from fossil fuels in large numbers preferring instead to bet on clean energy alternatives. Throughout the pandemic, major oil companies like BP and Shell have continued to announce their intentions to be net-zero emitters of greenhouse gases by 2050.

Telling too is the division of opinions over bailouts for small and medium oil and gas companies—particularly those largely operating in shale areas. The precipitous drop in demand and price for petroleum and natural gas has put the skids under many of these independent producers—including Harold Hamm, one of Trump’s most ardent supporters—because of having taken on more debt than was prudent. The possibility of bailout language in the CARES Act was opposed by the industry’s most powerful lobby—the American Petroleum Institute.

As the nation emerges from the contagion, there will be conflicting characterizations over the capacity and willingness of Americans to execute a 180-degree turn in the face of an existential threat. The relatively rapid response of the nation to lock itself down to contain and ultimately halt the spread of the contagion was nothing short of remarkable. Whether it bodes well for a similar reaction to the other great existential threat facing the nation—climate change—is another matter.

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Climate defenders will point to what has happened in the case of the pandemic as evidence of the nation’s ability to become a wartime economy when no visible enemies are at the gate. They will suggest an even greater willingness when confronted with the visible consequences of Earth’s warming, e.g., more frequent and intense floods and forest fires. As positive reinforcement of the benefits of combating climate change, defenders will reference the clarity of the air, the return of wildlife even to urban areas, and the documentable drop in harmful emissions that has occurred.

Climate deniers will point to the same drop in harmful carbon emissions and pair it with peer-reviewed research published in the journal Nature Climate Change that forecasts total emissions for 2020 will decline between 4 and 7 percent over last year. As reported by the Washington Postthe conclusions are striking because a landmark United Nations report released last fall said that emissions must begin falling by 7.6 percent each year, starting this year, to avert the worst consequences of climate change.

The message of the deniers—most probably including Trump—will be that even locking down the economy and incurring unemployment rates exceeding those of the Great Depression will not meet the targets of the Paris climate accords. Objectives that most climate activists readily admit are not strident enough. The pledges made in 2015 will only take the world to an estimated 3 degrees Celsius of heating above pre-industrial levels, far beyond the 2 degrees Celsius threshold set in the landmark Paris accord.

They will ask Americans between now and November whether they are willing to make such sacrifices in the name of science? The science, they will claim, is still unsettled.

Where climate change and novel coronavirus contagions overlap is at the crossroad of science and public policy.

For Trump and his supporters, the belief in scientific fact is optional—just as the wearing of masks in public is a matter of personal style. For most Democrats, climate science does more than identify a potentially existential threat; it points the way to an economic future safer and more secure than the present.

Whether the US will choose to follow a green recovery path consistent with the decisions of major private sector investors and the European Union and enact a science-based recovery package will depend upon the outcome of the November elections. In the meantime, the trend going forward will be a continuation of deeply partisan politics.

[i] The phrase was first used by Winston Churchill.

Lead image: Detail (fragment) from the painting Bull Baiting by Julius Caesar Ibbetson. Public Domain/Athenaeum.org/wikimedia

Joel Stronberg

Joel B. Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years of experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion (www.civilnotion.com) and has recently published the book Earth v. TrumpThe Climate Defenders' Guide to Washington Politics based on his commentaries. He has worked extensively in the clean energy fields for public and private sector clients at all levels of government and in Latin America. His specialties include: resiliency; distributed generation and storage; utility regulation; financing mechanisms; sustainable agriculture; and human behavior. Stronberg is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops.

Tags: American politics, climate change responses, coronavirus strategies, environmental regulations