Barely had the derrieres of the members of the 112th Congress touched down on its prestigious benches before climate change felt the force of the latest brute in town. It was as if a prize fighter was warming up for a title shot by picking on Girl Scouts. The Tea Party juggernaut took little time to begin punching its way into the littler issues on the Congressional agenda, and climate change looks set to be one of the very first casualties.
The Republicans are putting forward three proposals that would seriously dent the significant if little-praised progress that President Obama and his once-friendly Congress had made beginning to address climate change.
The first proposal would declare greenhouse gas regulation outside the remit of the Clean Air Act; America’s principal bastion against air pollution. This would prevent the executive agency responsible for America’s environmental wellbeing, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), from doing anything about the ever-increasing national greenhouse gas emissions rate. The proposal was put forward by a Republican representative from Tennessee, Marsha Blackburn, in spite of a Supreme Court ruling in 2007 which decreed that in fact, constitutionally, the EPA can have such power.
The second proposal uses an economic stick to beat environmentalists. Proposed by Republican Ted Poe of Texas, it would block funding to any government agency associated with cap-and-trade. Given the relative ineffectiveness of cap-and-trade mechanisms for mitigating emissions thus far in the US, this would not necessarily be such a disaster. However, given cap-and-trade’s relatively popular status among politicians in comparison with other mechanisms, it would chronically blunt the policy-tool that was most likely to bring consensus.
Finally, the third proposal would see a two-year delay in EPA regulation of carbon dioxide and methane emissions. Introduced by Republican Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, it would seem extreme in isolation but in this context appears as the proverbial towel to throw into the ring before climate change is completely done-for.
The project of dismantling climate change regulation piece by piece sits particularly well with the new Tea Party incumbents since it fits with both their populist views on small government and deregulation, and more broadly with their committed suspicion of what they see as ‘liberal’ science flying in the face of their ‘traditional’ moral principles. It looks like the Southern slugger is set to give the lean strategist with nimble feat from the North-East a right old bruising. In particular, there are four reasons why - one way or another - the Republicans should win this particular fight:
Firstly, the effects of climate change are long-term, which to a short-termist movement like the Tea Party is a dream come true. It essentially means that whatever they do now won’t be properly felt by the current crop of voters. Or the next. Or the next. Or even the next. By which time they’ll either have taken America into the Promised Land of small government and traditional values with them, or collapsed in upon themselves with nothing remaining other than the sound of their empty rhetoric floating gently in the wind. The temptation of such an immediate political victory is no doubt too strong to resist for a movement that the world didn’t realise was a proper movement until November and now has its own Congressional caucus with an astonishing 52 members.
Add to this the fact that Republicans are generally ambivalent towards climate change as an issue (at best), and that plenty of Democrats are openly anti-climate change and there emerges a second reason that this fight won’t be strenuous for those 52; they have a pre-made bi-partisan smokescreen already in place. At a time where the Democrats are talking up bi-partisanship like it was a constitutional requirement, the Republicans can throw them a hollow bone by pointing to those names with a ‘D’ suffix in the ‘nay’ column of the most recent climate change failures in Congress. Unless those Blue Dog democrats speak out, the Tea Party will have their bi-partisan agreement. They won’t, of course. Not when it means surrendering the economic well being of their constituencies premised principally on mining coal.
The Republicans are safe from another political pitfall too; the allegation of being the ‘party of no’. This is simply because the proposals are well enough constructed that they don’t explicitly rule out the existence of climate change or deny Congress’ responsibility to deal with it. They simply say that now is not the right time to for government to be intervening on this issue. It’s not a case of ‘no, never’; more a case of ‘maybe later’. This is what is explicitly stated, anyhow, even if the implications of this position are considerably more intractable.
Given these three defences, the fight in the House should be all but won. However, in the event of the Democrats showing the grit and determination that Senator Barbara Boxer insists her colleagues in that particular Democrat-controlled chamber will, it is at best uncertain as to how many of them will actually show for battle. Ultimately, climate change is an issue which is easily judged not to be salient enough to risk getting one’s political lights knocked out over. If such calculations are made, it will leave Babs against the Caucus. And 52 on 1 seems likely to be fight that even this great Boxer can’t win.