Trump's failure to mention climate change in his State of the Union address only underlines how political realities are shifting around the US President
To the surprise of precisely no-one, Donald Trump maintained his track record of failing to mention climate change, clean technology or the environment in his State of the Union address. A few months after deadly wildfires ravaged parts of California and a few weeks after new polling suggested record majorities of Americans are convinced global warming is happening and are increasingly worried by that fact, Trump simply ignored the environmental challenges and opportunities facing the US and the world.
Even Trump's customary lines about "beautiful, clean coal" and "crystal clear waters" were neutered, in favour of a brief paean to the "historic reductions in taxes and regulations" that the President claims have "unleashed a revolution in American energy". "The United States is now the number one producer of oil and natural gas in the world," he said. "And now, for the first time in 65 years, we are a net exporter of energy." It was a claim that interested the fact-checkers, who quickly noted that while US energy exports are rising the US Energy Information Administration reckons imports still exceed exports and the US is not set to become a net exporter until next year.
It was, then, a pretty standard Trump speech from an environmental perspective: a complete disregard for proven environmental risks, vague praise for fossil fuels and deregulation, and a casual untruth, all in the space of two lines. A distraction while the White House gets on with its standard operating procedure of appointing fossil fuel boosters to key environmental positions - EPA nominee and former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler and prospective World Bank president pick David Malpass providing the latest examples - and routinely axing or diluting any environmental regulation they can lay their hands on, openly inviting legal challenges in the process.
In previous years it would barely be worthy of comment, beyond the inevitable and justifiable howls of protest from environmental campaigners and climate scientists who rightly labelled yesterday's omission as "ignorant and irresponsible". But this year something has changed - and that change could have huge implications for US businesses and the global green economy.
Trump's failure to so much as mention climate change and renewables becomes even more glaring in the context of a week where Congress is about to stage its first two hearings on climate action in years, the finishing touches are being put to a bill on the proposed Green New Deal which is being promoted by a band of high profile Democrats, and political operatives are digesting polling showing Americans have never been more concerned about climate issues, nor more supportive of sweeping decarbonisation.
Later today the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives will stage hearings from the Energy and Commerce and Natural Resources committees focusing, respectively, on climate action and the impact of climate change on communities.
In a joint statement released last week, the Democrat chair and sub-committee chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Frank Pallone Jr. and Paul Tonko said it was "long past time for this committee to begin seriously examining how climate change is affecting our communities, environment and economy, and take action to reduce its harmful effects".
"The science has been indisputably clear for years now - climate change is real and caused by human activity including burning fossil fuels," they added. "We are committed to combating climate change and standing up for those left to suffer in its wake." They also suggested today's event would be "the first of many" hearings on climate change.
The timing of the hearings so early in the new Congress provides a clear signal the Democrats intend to push the topic up the political agenda in the run-up to the 2020 Presidential election. They also present a challenge to the Republican leadership as to how they push back against proposals for bolder climate action that are broadly popular with the public, including critical independent voters. Will they double down on Trump's climate scepticism or try and present a slightly more sophisticated argument centred on how businesses are already driving low carbon investment with minimal government intervention?
Either way, the GOP response will be forced under the microscope in the coming weeks by the imminent release of a draft Green New Deal bill from newly elected Democrat rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and veteran Senate climate hawk Ed Markey.
Draft legislation from Ocasio-Cortez could be unveiled before the House as early as this week, alongside an accompanying draft bill from Markey in the Senate. Reports over the weekend from both Bloomberg and Axios revealed Ocasio-Cortez had sent an update to colleagues detailing some of the measures that are set to be included in the bill and confirming the initial list of co-sponsors.
The emailed update confirmed the proposed Green New Deal would set clear targets to "achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers"; "Create millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all"; and "promote justice and equity by preventing current and repairing historic oppression to frontline and vulnerable communities".
"Next week, we plan to release a resolution that outlines the scope and scale of the Green New Deal," the letter states. "In it, we call for a national, social, industrial and economic mobilization at a scale not seen since World War II." It adds that the over-arching goals would be backed by a 10-year plan of industrial and infrastructure projects.
Interestingly, the reports implied that some of the more controversial and wide-ranging elements of the initial Green New Deal vision, such as plans to switch the US to 100 per cent renewable power, introduce a federal jobs guarantee, and ensure universal healthcare, were notable by their absence from the update. Consequently, speculation is growing that the initial draft legislation could seek to narrow the focus of the proposed Green New Deal on to low carbon infrastructure and the delivery of a net zero emission economy - an approach that could help to secure wider support from centrist Democrats even if it is unlikely to win over any GOP representatives.
The legislation is almost certainly doomed to failure as long as Republicans control any of the branches of government. Even if the Democrats were to take the White House and win majorities in the House and Senate next year, the prospect of a filibuster would remain a huge and potentially insurmountable challenge. But the Green New Deal plan, combined with the Democrats' renewed focus on environmental issues, has potentially huge implications for the US economy.
In publicly pursuing a net zero emission goal Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues are seeking to shift the 'Overton Window' in favour of rapid and sweeping decarbonisation policies. There are signs the gambit is already working, aided, no doubt, by ever more visible climate impacts.
Two new surveys from the Yale Program on Climate Communication found the percentage of Americans who say global warming is personally important is now at a record high of 72 per cent, up nine percentage points since March 2018; 69 per cent of Americans are worried about global warming, including 29 per cent who are "very worried", an eight point increase since March 2018; and nearly half think US citizens are being harmed "right now" by global warming.
"Global warming used to be viewed as a problem distant in time and space," said co-lead researcher Ed Maibach, Ph.D. of George Mason University. "But Americans increasingly understand that global warming is here and now and are growing concerned about the threat to themselves, their communities, and the nation."
Crucially, this concern is translating into policy stances that will provide a major fillip to both green businesses and those politicians seeking to advance the Green New Deal. Asked late last year if they supported the proposed plan 81 per cent of registered voters said that they did.
When presented with a brief description of the Green New Deal and the question "how much do you support or oppose this idea?" 40 per cent were strongly in favour, 41 per cent said they supported it and only 18 per cent said they opposed the idea. Support among Democrats hit 92 per cent, but crucially 88 per cent of Independents and 64 per cent of Republicans voiced support for the plan.
It remains to be seen if GOP voters would remain supportive of the plan if they were told it was pioneered by the Republican's new political nemesis Ocasio-Cortez, but the survey provided further evidence that support for bolder decarbonisation policies remains strong on both sides of the political debate. "Our surveys have long shown strong support across the political spectrum for clean energy production," said Maibach. "These new results further confirm that American voters see a clean energy future as a better future for America."
The polling, in combination with the social media savvy of Ocasio-Cortez and the new wave of Democrats on Capitol Hill, has already been noted by many of the prospective Democrat presidential candidates, many of whom are now making warm noises towards the Green New Deal concept.
The hope among green businesses and environmental campaigners the world over was always that a Trump presidency would stall, rather than derail US climate action, and provoke a backlash that would result in a Democrat running and winning on a bold, Paris Agreement-compatible, net zero emission strategy. Moreover, such a victory could prove so resounding that it might even force a new generation of GOP politicians to finally rediscover the party's interest in science and environmental responsibility.
Many leading US green businesses have been planning for just such a scenario and continuing to accelerate clean tech investments in the face of open hostility from the White House. The emergence of the Green New Deal caucus will encourage more businesses and investors to join them, even if the chance of a Trump re-election cannot be discounted.
And as for the President himself? His last comment on climate change prior to the State of the Union came in the form of a Tweet stating: "In the beautiful Midwest, windchill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees, the coldest ever recorded. In coming days, expected to get even colder. People can't last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Waming? Please come back fast, we need you!"
US political reality may finally be shifting more into line with the scientific reality of climate change, but sadly the President remains immune to both.
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