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Dems use extreme weather to sell climate packages
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Dems use extreme weather to sell climate packages

Oregon wildfire.


On Sept. 2, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D.N.Y.), stood with top officials from the state and local governments in New York City amid the devastation caused by Hurricane Ida. The storm’s remnants had just swept through the region earlier that month, killing dozens.

“Woe is us if we don’t recognize these changes are due to climate change,” Schumer said during a news conference with New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), and Bill de Blasio, New York City Mayor (D). “Woe is us if we don’t do something about it quickly.”

It was a preview for the political message that would follow over the next two-months as Democrats tried to put together the most ambitious climate legislation in American history.

Democrats have attempted to sell climate part of their $1.7 trillion social expenditure package, with a heavy focus on storms, drought, and extreme wildfire, in the hope that it resonates among Americans who see climate change as a threat to their backyards.

This is often true rhetoric has overshadowed the clean energy and jobs-centric message that the party — particularly President Biden — has been laser-focused on for years. On Sept. 7, the president visited Ida-affected neighborhoods with New York leaders.

According to observers, environmental groups, and Democratic politicians, it is easier to highlight extreme weather now than it was 10 years ago when the party attempted major climate legislation.

“It has changed the politics of climate change,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), a senior Natural Resources member who chairs the Water, Oceans and Wildlife subcommittee. “Solid majorities of Americans consider it urgent and real.”

He stated, “This issue is no longer an abstract concern for many people.”

Even Republicans, who were skeptical about projections that climate policies would create millions green jobs, believe the extreme weather message is effective. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., called it “more intellectually honesty.”

“The thing about extreme weather is it’s a pretty good argument because it’s obvious to a lot of people,” Cramer said.

This rhetorical shift from Democrats has been influenced by advances in attribution science. In the past 10 years, researchers have been able to more directly link the risk factors of climate change — like more intense droughts and more extreme rainfall — to individual weather events (Climatewire, Oct. 21, 2019).

While hurricanes have always existed, for instance, studies in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which dumped record precipitation on Texas in 2017, found that the storm’s devastating rainfall was fueled by climate change.

Ida shared a similar story. The hurricane grew rapidly to a Category 4 hurricane in warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. This phenomenon is being linked to climate change. Newark, N.J. saw record rainfall as the storm moved northeast. It was near Schumer’s news conference.Greenwire, Sept. 2).

John Coequyt (director of government affairs at RMI), a nonpartisan clean energy organization, said, “Ten years back, there was a lot reticence within the environmental community in order to directly connect extreme weather with climate change.” “But now, the nightly news does it every time there’s an event. It’s just totally accepted science, and it’s reported on broadly.”

Politicians are looking to capitalize. After every major hurricane, Democrats have reaffirmed their calls for climate action. Since August, when they began debating and selling the massive reconciliation package known as the “Build Back Better Act,” the party has consistently emphasized the effects of climate change and individual extreme weather events.

“Over at least the last year, we’ve begun to see much more targeted references to specific climate-related events,” said Barry Rabe, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Michigan. “At one level, there’s always been that kind of link and connection. But I think we are in an entirely different world today than 2009-10 when it is time to talk about climate change being something that is real and has immediate impacts.

It remains an open question whether Democrats’ focus on extreme weather will convince Americans of the threat of human-caused climate change. While polling on the question has not been conducted yet, there are some indications suggesting that people would be open to more government action against climate change. However, polls reveal that there is a wide divide between the parties on whether humans are responsible for the problem.

Evolving rhetoric

Oregon wildfire.
Last year, wildfires destroyed homes in Oregon. | David Ryder/Getty Images

This message has evolved along with the way Democrats and environmentalists talk about climate change.

Shortly after taking back the House in 2007, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., formed a new Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. The committee was headed by Ed Markey (D.Mass.).).

Pelosi’s 2019 creation of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis reflects the growing urgency of the issue as well as the emerging consensus that the climate crisis is a problem to be faced.

Democrats often use the crisis language to link climate change to extreme weather, and other economically devastating effects that scientists believe are on the horizon.E&E Daily, July 10, 2019.

Markey, who is now a senator, stated that the possibility of climate change-driven extreme weather was brought up during discussions about the issue ten years ago. Markey stated that those warnings proved to be accurate, with storms, droughts, and wildfires now being one of the strongest arguments for curbing emissions. Markey said that hurricanes ravaging the Gulf Coast and wildfires in California have been featured in news stories in a way that was not possible ten years ago.

“Over the last 10 years, young people, especially, have been exposed to an incessant barrage of extreme weather events, and that’s helped to fuel the political revolution of the Sunrise Movement that has an IOU that they want to cash in this year — to make sure that they don’t live their lives with ever increasing extreme weather events,” Markey said.

Extreme weather was a key point of focus during House Energy and Commerce Committee markups in September on the reconciliation package. It has also played into the debate in unexpected ways.

House moderates concerned with other aspects of the bill’s price tag have said they believe climate change policy should not have to be fully paid for because traditional budget estimates do not account for the economic impact of unabated climate change.

“As it relates to climate provisions, I have a bit of tolerance for not requiring that to be paid for because I don’t believe the [Congressional Budget Office]”Estimations take into consideration the cost of inaction,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), who leads a centrist Blue Dog Coalition told reporters recently.

Coequyt stated that extreme weather concerns are far more persuasive now than they were ten years ago, when Congress tried to pass major climate legislation.

Coequyt stated that “the environmental community is no longer driving that narrative.” “It’s a well-understood public issue.”

‘Personal experience’

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.).
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, (R-La.). Francis Chung/E&E News | Francis Chung/E&E News

Biden for his part tends to focus on the economy in his messaging and often states, “When I think about climate change I think about jobs.”

When Democrats discuss the broader reconciliation package, they tend not to do so in terms that are more appealing to voters. They emphasize job creation and health care even though Pelosi often invokes the imperative “save the planet”

Overall, the messaging on climate action is “not one or the other,” said Felice Stadler, vice president for campaigns at the Environmental Defense Fund.

“I don’t think anyone’s arguing that we’re not having deadly and devastating extreme weather events,” Stadler said. “The argument among some in Congress is, ‘What’s the appropriate response to it?’”

Republicans, on the other hand, are not likely to link individual extreme weather phenomena to climate change. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., has questioned the connection between climate change and extreme weather events in recent weeks. He questioned any connection between climate changes and strong hurricanes (E&E Daily, Nov. 3).

Frank Maisano, a senior Principal at Bracewell LLP that represents energy clients, stated that environmentalists are focusing their attention on extreme weather because many of the climate policies they have adopted are not clear to them.

Democrats and environmental groups have been making the same extreme weather arguments for years, Maisano said, but he doesn’t think it will be a “game changer” in passing legislation.

“It’s difficult to explain why you need to change your lifestyle. It’s difficult to explain why you need to get a different kind of car, buy a different kind of stove or whatever because consumers aren’t that interested in that,” Maisano said, “So they’re trying to relate it to normal people in any way they can, and in using storms and fires and floods, they are trying to use symbolism to drive home their policy points.”

Democrats acknowledge the fact that they’re trying to reach different audiences. The effects of climate changes have an impact on daily life for many Americans. Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico pointed out that water reservoirs have fallen to record levels and that smoke from California’s wildfires has drifted eastward into New Mexico’s skies.

Heinrich stated that the green jobs argument is effective if you are employed in the clean energy sector, or know someone who is. However, extreme weather can still be compelling if you’re willing to spend hundreds of money on a filtration system to purify the air.

“It depends on people’s personal experience,” Heinrich said.

The effectiveness of the argument in passing the reconciliation bill will be determined over time. Major climate provisions have already been dropped, largely due to Joe Manchin (D.W.Va.), Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman. But the $550 billion in tax credits and climate spending would still be the nation’s largest-ever effort to combat global temperature rises and prepare for a warmer planet.

If all that climate cash does eventually become law, it’s possible that perceptions about the issue could change. Some argue that climate may finally be in line with environmental problems like polluted water and dirty rivers, after decades of uncertainty, squabbling and inaction.

“It fits the classic model of U.S. environmental policy adoption, where we would expect there to be a trigger event or a visible disaster that would prompt Congress to respond,” Rabe of University of Michigan said.

“It doesn’t mean that the economic messaging disappears,” Rabe added. “But in some ways, it’s sharing the stage with this very precise messaging in reference to very specific events.”

‘Don’t despair’

Schumer continued his focus on climate at a rally on Capitol Hill last month, saying he’s been warning constituents that without climate action, the years ahead could be even worse than the Covid-19 pandemic because of extreme weather events.

He was quick to point out that Americans should never lose heart.

“Don’t despair, world,” Schumer said. “Build Back Better tackles climate in bold and ambitious ways.”

However, climate change views remain strongly partisan among both the public and Capitol Hill. One Pew pollTwo-thirds of Americans believed that the government should do more to combat climate change last year.

Most Americans believe they are experiencing some effects of climate change in their communities. Most Americans believe that climate change is at least partially caused by human activity. Americans living near the coasts — and in the path of extreme weather — are even more likely to say their community is seeing the effects.

The survey revealed that the two political parties had vastly differing perspectives. Only 22 percent of Republicans agreed with this view, while 72 percent of Democrats stated that human activity was responsible for the planet’s warming. This is in line with overwhelming scientific evidence.

Unsurprisingly, Democrats hope to pass their spending bill without Republican support. However, the extreme weather argument may have limitations if climate advocates are determined to overcome the partisanship that has dominated the issue for many years.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), the Senate’s top Republican energy appropriator, said he isn’t buying the weather argument, even though he lost a garage when Ida first made landfall in Louisiana.

“Is the climate changing?” Yes. Can humans contribute to it? Yes. Do we have to do anything about it? Yes. It’s a discrete scientific problem,” Kennedy said. “But some of it is a religion for some of my colleagues.” They blame climate change for their broken shoelaces.


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