The Timidity of the Powerful
The Paris Agreement was garbage from the beginning. Getting the world to agree on policy targets for something as all encompassing as climate change, a threat to both the natural world and global markets, is challenging. Getting the world to agree to an adequate response, so far, has been impossible.
In 2016 when the agreement was signed by 195 countries with the expressed goal of mitigating global temperature rise to no more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels’ by reducing carbon emissions worldwide by, literally, “as soon as possible” the terms were already well below what the scientific consensus at the time had stated and published were necessary to avert major sea level rise, mass extinctions, droughts, famine, storm frequency and intensity, conflicts, and migration. The agreement was non-binding and underwent several eleventh-hour revisions weakening “shalls” to “seek-tos”.
In the 2016 Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders routinely criticized the agreement for not going far enough to address the urgency and severity of climate change.
In the past four years the reality of what must be done to stave off the worst of this problem has become breathtakingly stark.
So why have House Democrats decided their first piece of climate legislation they would pass in only chamber they control is a pledge to remain in the feeble accord? Because it’s what Democrats have lived to do in the modern era: do nothing to say they’ve done something.
HR 9 passed in the house 231-190, a vote essentially on party lines. This bill is guaranteed to die in the Republican controlled Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell already said the bill “will go nowhere”. In the event it ever did pass, Trump,who less than two years ago pulled the US out of the agreement,would veto it. The point of this bill isn’t passage, it’s symbolism.
Opposition parties pass symbolic bills all the time, especially during elections. They’re designed to set the agenda of a party, create a conversation around policy and energize an electorate with ideas that inspire them to vote. HR 9 is about as inspiring an agenda as Tax Advantage Savings Accounts to help workers disaffected by neoliberal trade policy learn to code.
For decades, Democrats have been suffering incredible lossesbecause of an impulse to take no action that would disrupt a political status quo, offend corporate America or push powerful donors into the hands of the GOP. To properly address climate change, Democrats need to buck all three of those impulses and,presently, their leadership has no spine to do it.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a history of incredulous action on climate change. As recently as February she mocked The Green New Deal, Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s joint resolution to aggressively transform our infrastructure and economy to reach carbon neutrality by 2030, as “a green dream”. Back in 2007 just before Democrats controlled the House, Senate and Presidency with a filibuster proof supermajority in 2009, Pelosi convened a select committee on climate that, besides allocating part of the (also inadequate) 2009 stimulus for clean tech investment, produced nothing but amarket friendly cap and trade bill that only cleared the House. Yesterday during her press conference she claimed that climate was her flagship cause during this period.
Pelosi’s main role in the 116th congress seems less about fighting Trump and the Republicans than about fortifying the levee of her party’s left bank by kneecapping and publicly condemningthe progressives in her ranks.
Her approach on climate change mirrors her ambition on nearly every other progressive agenda including healthcare, foreign policy, and education, consistently favoring to protect inadequate legislation and monied interests over substantially better ideas—ideas that in this case may actually save the planet.
In response to the passage, Ocasio-Cortez tore into the scheme saying, “The idea that we can just reintroduce 2009 policies is not reflective of action that is necessary for now in the world of today.”
HR 9 is a bill designed to score political points and they’re bunting with the bases empty. But that’s the point. By passing this, Democratic leadership can claim they are taking climate change seriously, but like the Serious People they are, they’ll will solve the calamity with slow, tactical, technocratic modulation, not some pie in the sky socialist fantasy like the Green New Deal. Voters might not love it, especially the ones among us who will live to see the worst of it, but the party’sfinanciers will. And hey, they’re better than Trump so deal with it, hippies.