Last Thursday, I attended an energy and climate policy summit at the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank. The event, co-hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, convened Republican congressional leaders, conservative think tank analysts, and a niche group of controversial climate scientists to cast doubt on the relationship between manmade emissions and climate change, and lay out the energy and climate policy agenda of the 115th Congress.
The event featured a who’s who of lawmakers known for their activism against policies related to climate change, including Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee that recently tweeted a false article disputing global warming, and Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who famously threw a snowball on the Senate floor to dispute global warming. Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), Chairman of the House Energy and Power Subcommittee, Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL), and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) also spoke.
The lawmakers laid out a multipronged legislative strategy to undermine climate science and roll back regulations on greenhouse gases. The following sections review the main policy levers that will be used by Republicans in Congress, and argues the environmental movement should shift its message to preserving regulations on greenhouse gas emissions to stay relevant.
Casting Doubt on the Legitimacy of Climate Science
Rep. Lamar Smith opened the event with a speech boasting that under his leadership the House Science, Space, and Technology committee issued a record 25 subpoenas soliciting records and information from former National Weather Service staff, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and a myriad of environmental organizations. Smith argued that the goal of the subpoenas is to bring transparency to climate science, but the nature of his requests — like his subpoena of NOAA scientists’ emails following their publication of a study in Science showing that the global warming hiatus touted by climate change skeptics never happened — demonstrates a clear agenda to undermine the findings of independent experts.
Smith laid out plans to continue his efforts to investigate and undermine the conventional role of science in regulation and policymaking in the next Congress. He touted his “Secret Science Reform Act” bill, saying it will be a “key priority for the Science Committee in the next Congress.” The bill would subject EPA’s scientific methods and findings to judicial review that the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) says would “[mire] the agency in litigation and [take] the review of scientific studies out of the hands of the scientific community and [place] that responsibility into the hands of a judge and jury.” Smith argues the bill is necessary because “regulations should be based on sound science, not science fiction.”
Rolling Back Regulations on Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Fossil Fuel Production
Beyond the efforts to dispute the scientific consensus on climate change, conservatives are lining up a suite of policy levers to undermine regulations related to greenhouse gas emissions. A principal goal mentioned by multiple panelists at the summit is to overturn the “Endangerment Finding,” a court decision ruling that greenhouse gas emissions can be regulated under the 1963 Clean Air Act. To overturn the finding, Director of the Cato Institute Center for the Study of Science Patrick J. Michaels argued that the problem lies “within science itself” and that there is a need to “take down those [climate] models” in order to overturn court findings on the risks of greenhouse gas emissions. Others argued that Congress should use its authority under a Trump presidency to amend the Clean Air Act and specifically exclude carbon dioxide as a pollutant — an action that could have policy ripple effects for decades to come.
On top of efforts to dispute EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, a number of tools to undermine executive regulatory authority were mentioned, including the Congressional Review Act, the proposed REINS Act, and the proposed Regulation Freedom Amendment, all of which give Congress the authority to reject regulations established by executive agencies. Congressional Republicans hope to use the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to reject regulations within 60 legislative days, to dismantle recent Obama administration regulations such as the rule regulating natural gas supply chain methane emissions, which can eliminate the climate benefits of natural gas over coal if left unchecked, and the Stream Protection Rule that regulates the impacts of coal surface mining on local waterways.
An Opportunity for the Environmental Movement to Shift Its Message
For the majority of Americans concerned about a changing climate, the conservative agenda to undermine climate science and gut emissions regulations is alarming. But the incoming Congress also presents a unique opportunity for the U.S. environmental movement to shift its focus.
During President Obama’s tenure, portions of the environmental movement took a sharp turn toward “keep it in the ground” advocacy, which aims to prevent the development of fossil fuel resources outright. While “keep it in the ground” fits nicely on a bumper sticker, experts in energy and environmental policy will tell you that stopping climate change is a lot more complicated than that. Dramatic protests over pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure play well with the environmental community and liberals, but they alienate moderates and conservatives — and likely do little to actually mitigate climate change. In short, the environmental movement needs a new message.
With a radical new energy and climate agenda in Congress, the environmental movement has an opportunity to embrace mainstream positions in support of basic regulations on greenhouse gas emissions that a huge majority of Americans support. If the environmental movement can bring mainstream American voters into the fold and present a united front against those that would gut climate change regulations, they might just have a chance at victory.
Update (12/16/2016): full-length videos and presentations from the summit are now available online.