Sandy + election results = re-energized talk of action against climate change

LCV adBy Bill Dawson
Texas Climate News

It might seem that one of the congressional districts with the lowest population density – a vast expanse of West Texas including the endless vistas of the Big Bend country – could have nothing much in common with the super-dense, hyper-urbanized metro area of New York City and northern New Jersey.

Events in those disparate places – a narrow election victory Texas and the reaction to a devastating hurricane in the New York area – are just two of the recent signals, however, that climate change is being reinvigorated as a national issue for media attention and debate, especially on the question of ambitious new federal action.

One old policy idea that’s suddenly in the public spotlight again is a “carbon tax” – a direct federal levy aimed at cutting emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas produced by human activities. Such a tax – different from the failed cap-and-trade concept, which opponents criticized as a hidden tax – would have enormous ramifications for Texas, with its prodigious production and consumption of energy derived from coal, oil and natural gas, all fossil fuels that yield CO2.

It’s no coincidence that a carbon tax is being discussed anew by prominent national media outlets and at Washington think tanks, both liberal and conservative. The New York–New Jersey area is still struggling to recover from the immense battering it received from Hurricane Sandy last month. The storm and its aftermath prompted much talk about the possible links of extreme weather events to human-caused climate disruption and the need to address its causes and prepare for its consequences.

“I get it, I’ve seen this movie three times,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week, regarding Sandy and 2011′s Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, as he reiterated earlier calls for action. “Climate change is real,” he said, “it’s here, it’s going to happen again.”

Working to defeat a “climate-change denier” in Texas

In the case of Texas’ largely rural 23rd Congressional District, which stretches 500 miles between San Antonio and El Paso, it was the election of a new member of the House of Representatives last week that earned the celebratory attention of climate-action advocates. Democratic State Rep. Pete Gallego narrowly defeated the Republican incumbent, U.S. Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco, who was elected in 2010 with the support of Tea Party conservatives, a group noted for strong skepticism about climate science and hostility to government action to fight climate change.

The district was inundated with outside campaign financing this year, including hundreds of thousands of dollars interested in energy and environmental issues. In that realm, Gallego’s effort was supported by the national League of Conservation Voters (LCV) and the Sierra Club. Canseco’s re-election drive was backed by oil industry contributions, including Koch Industries, accused by environmentalists of of lavishly bankrolling climate-change skeptics.

A Bloomberg Businessweek article in October detailed the charges and counter-charges that flew: The National Republican Congressional Committee accused Gallego, a supporter of renewable energy in the Texas House, of receiving help from “radical environmentalists,” while LCV said Canseco was being aided by “polluters.”

Dubbing them the “Flat Earth Five,” the League targeted Canseco, accused of “extreme, anti-science views,” and four other “climate-change deniers” in the House for defeat. The others represented districts, likewise seen as competitive, in New York, Michigan, California and Illinois. The League spent $3 million on the program, deploying television ads, mail and billboards on the climate issue. In one example of its efforts in the Texas district, the group’s billboards had pictures of an ostrich and Canseco and the words, “When it comes to climate change, Congressman Francisco Canseco keeps his head in the sand.” Only the Michigan candidate opposed by the League was victorious.

“Our goal was to change the politics of climate, to show that it’s not acceptable to be against the scientific consensus on climate change, that you could defend action on climate change without losing at the ballot box and that it’s not a politically toxic issue,” Jeff Gohringer, the League’s national press secretary, told Texas Climate News.

The Texas race, he said, was “a good case study,” showing that a climate-action message can prevail even in a heavily Republican state.

The climate issue was hardly the only one that attracted outside campaign money to the district, however. And Larry Hufford, a political science professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, told the Texas Tribune in October that he thought turnout for the presidential race would determine the winner, not the various ads in the congressional race itself. (The 2008 presidential vote was extremely close in the district, with just 0.61 percent separating the Democratic and Republican contenders.)

Neither Canseco nor Gallego identified climate change or other environmental issues as paramount in interviews with Texas Public Radio, a three-station consortium serving San Antonio and the West Central Hill Country. Oil and gas are economically important industries in the district, where 55 percent of the residents are Hispanic.

Polls reveal possible opening for climate action

A national poll of Latino registered voters, commissioned by the Sierra Club and announced in August, suggested that the district, even with an important oil-and-gas component of its economy, was a likely place for environmentalists to support a candidate with arguments favoring climate action and renewable energy. The group announced in August that 77 percent of poll respondents said they believed climate change was already happening and another 15 percent said they expect it in the future. Eighty-six preferred government investment in renewable energy sources like wind and solar, while 11 percent favored investment in fossil fuels.

Other recent findings suggested that even before Sandy struck the East Coast, the public at large, not just Latinos, may have been been growing more open, at least, to the idea of action on climate change. If that is so, it would be consistent with the longstanding observation that support for initiatives to protect the environment tends to wax and wane with the health of the economy.

A national poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 67 percent of Americans, up from 57 percent in 2009, see “solid evidence” that the earth’s temperature has gotten warmer in recent decades, the organization announced in mid-October. Forty-two percent, up from a low of 34 percent in the same survey in 2010, thought this climate trend was mainly caused by human activities, such as the use of fossil fuels.

A national survey by researchers at Yale and George Mason universities revealed a similar opinion trajectory away from climate-change skepticism. That poll discovered that Americans’ “belief in the reality of global warming” had risen from 57 percent in January 2010 to 70 percent this past September, with 54 percent (up by 8 percentage points since March) saying human activities are the main cause.

The Yale-George Mason survey also found in September that 77 percent believed global warming should be a “very high” (18 percent), “high” (25 percent) or “medium” (34 percent) priority for the president and Congress. Ninety-two percent placed development of clean energy sources in one of those priority categories for federal officials.

This month, the Rasmussen polling organization released its own national findings from a survey taken the day before election day. Sixty-eight percent of U.S. voters said global warming was a “very serious” or “serious” problem – nearly a 50 percent jump from the 46 percent who said that in a 2009 Rasmussen survey.

The first two polls and the direction in public opinion they revealed came before Sandy hit the U.S. The Rasmussen poll came soon after the storm, reenergizing the national climate-change conversation. That was something the presidential campaign did not do in any significant way, except for a campaign by climate activists to get the candidates to talk about the issue and the presidential debate moderators to ask about it.

Post-election, renewed talk of climate change

President Barack Obama was largely silent on the issue during the campaign. The cap-and-trade plan that he had championed in his 2008 campaign barely passed the House but died in the Senate after Tea Party adherents and other Republicans waged a relentless campaign against it in the lead-up to the Republican take-over of the House in 2010. Abandoning a legislative approach, the administration moved ahead on its own with a variety of initiatives, including stricter miles-per-gallon standards for vehicles, aimed at cutting greenhouse emissions by cutting fuel use, and proposed emission regulations for new power plants.

The debate moderators never questioned the candidates about climate change, but MTV personality Sway Calloway did in an interview with the president, noting that the issue “has been pushed back on the back burner,” and asking whether Obama felt “we’re moving quickly enough on this issue” and “what will you do to make it a priority.”

Journalist Will Oremus, writing for the online magazine Slate, briefly paraphrased Obama’s longer response (broadcast by MTV as Sandy was approaching the U.S): “No, we’re not moving quickly enough. And no, I’m not really going to do anything in particular to make it a priority.”

For his part, Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s most memorable reference to climate change during his campaign was probably a line in his acceptance speech at his party’s national convention, in which he made light of Obama’s 2008 pledge to address sea-level rise caused by human influence on the climate. The remark drew appreciative laughter from the delegates.

Following Sandy’s devastation and then Obama’s victory in the presidential election on Nov. 6, the president mentioned climate change briefly in his acceptance speech and then the next day, the returning Senate majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, said he hoped Congress will take action on the issue.

Obama: “We want our children to live in an America … that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

Reid: “Climate change is an extremely important issue for me and I hope we can address it reasonably. It’s something, as we’ve seen with these storms that are overwhelming our country and the world, we need to do something about it.”

A predominant question hanging over any climate or climate-related proposal in the next Congress has to do with Republican attitudes and willingness to support such measures – specifically, whether enough Republicans in the Republican-controlled House would join enough Democrats in voting yes.

Beginning several years ago, rising skepticism reflected in many opinion polls about climate science and climate action cut across party lines, but was far more pronounced among self-described Republicans. That trend prompted some observers to note that doubt about, or outright rejection of, the idea of manmade climate change seemed to have become a central plank in the ideological and partisan identity of many conservatives.

In 2009 – a year before Republican candidates, including many strongly conservative freshmen with Tea Party backing, won control of the House – only eight Republicans voted for the American Clean Energy and Security Act when it passed by a narrow 219-212 vote. That bill, which failed in the Senate, would have created a regulatory cap-and-trade system to impose a declining cap on climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions and issue emission permits that holders could trade by buying and selling them. Forty-four Democrats were among the 212 members voting no.

The Tea Party-fueled seizure of the House majority by Republicans in 2010 left that chamber with a Republican delegation decidedly skeptical about climate change itself and about renewable energy measures that backers say would help reduce greenhouse gases. The outcome of the 2012 election was a slightly smaller but still-solid Republican majority in the House, which is expected to retain a highly conservative cast.

In the Senate, Democrats will have a slightly larger majority of 55 members next year, but supporters of a climate-action measure, depending on what it is, might need a filibuster-proof 60 votes.

A carbon tax to cut the deficit?

Still, with Reid’s expressed hope that the Congress will act on the issue, there has been a flurry of talk about a carbon tax in recent weeks, particularly in the context of deficit reduction.

Reuters, for instance, reported earlier this month:

“A potential tax on big polluters, a taboo subject in the United States in recent years, has come back into the spotlight as some sense potential for a revenue windfall at a time lawmakers look for ways to avoid the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ of tax rises and spending cuts due in early 2013.”

The same article added, however:

“Prospects for such a tax as a way to address pollution and climate are probably dim in a still deeply-divided Congress, but some analysts say the measure would be more attractive if positioned as a source of new revenue.”

The next day, The Hill, a Washington news outlet, quoted a White House spokesman as saying that Obama “has not proposed nor is planning to propose a carbon tax.”

Subsequently, at his first post-election press conference last week, the president was asked if he thinks “the political will exists in Washington to pass legislation that could include some kind of a tax on carbon.”

Amid more extensive comments on climate change, Obama replied that “we’ve got an obligation to future generations to do something” about manmade climate change, but added with regard to a carbon tax: “I don’t know what — what either Democrats or Republicans are prepared to do at this point, because, you know, this is one of those issues that’s not just a partisan issue. I also think there’s — there are regional differences.”

A carbon tax to erase greenhouse-gas regulations?

As reactions from what might expected to be like-minded parties to the idea of a carbon tax revealed, there are also differences within Texas, a single, fossil-fuel-dependent state whose top state leaders are avowed climate-change skeptics battling the Obama administration’s regulatory initiatives on climate in court.

For example, Exxon-Mobil, the Texas-based oil-and-gas giant, has spoken positively about a carbon tax in the past, and Bloomberg Businessweek reported last week, following Obama’s press conference, that the company “is part of a growing coalition backing a carbon tax as an alternative to costly regulation, giving newfound prominence to an idea once anathema in Washington.”

The same article quoted an Exxon spokeswoman:

“Combined with further advances in energy efficiency and new technologies spurred by market innovation, a well-designed carbon tax could play a significant role in addressing the challenge of rising emissions. A carbon tax should be made revenue neutral via tax offsets in other areas.”

The Bloomberg Businessweek reporter noted that Exxon is the nation’s largest producer of natural gas, and a carbon tax “could boost demand for natural gas in U.S. power plants, as gas emits half the carbon dioxide as coal when burned to make electricity.”

In contrast to Exxon’s reported reiteration of its positive view of a carbon tax was a blog post by a policy analyst at the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation, an influential conservative think tank that gets major support from fossil-fuel companies.

Citing a Washington Post report on an MIT study showing that other taxes couldn’t be cut by much with a carbon tax, the foundation analyst, Josiah Neeley, wrote:

“As the [“fiscal cliff”] crisis looms, a number of pundits, politicians, and policy wonks have begun advocating a ‘carbon tax swap’ as the basis for a possible compromise. The idea would be to institute a new tax on CO2 emissions and to use the increased revenues from this tax to offset reductions in income or capital gains taxes.

“The argument for a carbon tax swap is flawed for many reasons, not least of which is that the math behind it doesn’t add up.”

Bracewell & Giuliani, a Houston-based law firm with a major energy practice, issued a Post-Election Update from its Washington office on various pending issues, which assessed the broad climate-policy picture encompassing prospects for both legislation and the administration’s regulatory push, opposed by various parties including the state of Texas:

It is possible that there will be increasing attention paid to a potential carbon tax as part of a broad agreement on climate regulation. For that to happen, however, a carbon tax would have to be part of a climate “grand bargain” that would reduce or eliminate pending climate regulations.

On the regulatory front, you do have agency actions on climate that continue to be considered and compelled to final action by various consent decrees and court rulings. Of these regulations, the most important are the pending new source performance standards for greenhouse gas emissions from existing fossil fuel fired power plants and petroleum refineries. Both of these rules have been delayed over the past two years, largely due to the Obama Administration’s fears of an election backlash. With a second term, and no reelection campaign, the Obama [Environmental Protection Agency] will be free to release these rules albeit with likely significant congressional oversight by House Republicans and some Senate Democrats with coal and refinery interests in their regions.

Image credit: Courtesy League of Conservation Voters