House Democrats on Tuesday released an ambitious and wide-ranging climate crisis plan on par with what scientists say the world will have to do to avert catastrophic warming.
But the US government remains far from ready to seriously tackle the problem, and the action plan will be fodder for election-year attacks from Republicans who will frame it as economy-killing and a grab-bag of Democratic social policies.
The Democrat plan, the details of which the Guardian reported on Monday, endorses a goal of essentially eliminating US climate pollution by 2050. Some House Republicans, including the minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, have backed that general timeline in principle. That is where any significant overlap ends.
The two parties have long been locked in a culture war over how to address the escalating emergency, even as two-thirds of Americans think the government should do more on climate and a majority support a range of actions. Political observers see a blue wave in November – where Democrats regain the Senate and the White House – as the only shot at significant climate legislation any time soon. Even with a controlling interest in government, substantial policies would probably be hamstrung by moderates and lawmakers from states that depend on the fossil fuel industry.
Unveiling the proposals on Tuesday, the Democratic House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, nodded to the political divide over climate, saying: “I wish it weren’t a fight. I wish it were a coming together. But it will be a fight as long as it needs to be.”
Sarah Hunt, a conservative who works in clean energy policy and co-founded the non-partisan Rainey Center, said the plan “gives little reason to hope we will have a serious discussion about climate legislation in the near future”.
“The Democratic plan does not set the table for meaningful bipartisan conversation leading to actionable legislation. This table is not even in a restaurant congressional Republicans will enter,” she said, because it includes issues like support for labor unions and electoral reform that could benefit Democrats.
Republicans on the House select climate committee that wrote the plan quickly criticized the report, saying they were cut out from the process. The ranking Republican, Garret Graves, touted “policies rooted in innovation lower the cost of energy, drive economic growth, and cut emissions”, without “increasing costs on working families” or adding “burdensome regulations”. He praised a “renaissance” in natural gas – a climate change contributor – for boosting a shift away from burning coal. And he pointed to China and developing nations as the sources of most emissions growth.
The action plan outlines recommendations for zeroing out climate pollution from new buildings by 2030, from new vehicles by 2035 and from electricity by 2040.
Republicans, meanwhile, have offered little in the way of details about how they would achieve science-based climate goals. Many for years have denied the crisis is even happening or that it is manmade.
If the two sides could come to the table, other experts say there is some room for bipartisan agreement.
Leah Stokes, an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies climate policy, noted that the Democrat proposal emphasizes the need for negative emissions technologies to capture and store carbon dioxide, ideas that have been favored by Republicans in the Senate. It also shows an openness to nuclear energy, which is often a sticking point for environmental advocates who say the power source – although zero-carbon – is still extractive.
The 538-page document includes dozens of references to narrower climate proposals that have support from Republican lawmakers, including efforts to reduce the costs of wind energy, geothermal and hydropower.
“Republicans need to come to the table to negotiate on climate change, for their own children’s sake,” Stokes said. “Even if their children are in their 40s! Because climate change is happening now.”
Stokes said if the plan were enacted “we would have a hope of taking on the climate crisis at the scale and pace necessary”. At the same time, some advocates on the left began to criticize it as not serious enough.
“This is not an emergency response,” said Laura Berry, research director for The Climate Mobilization. Berry said the plan outlines a “leisurely, three-decade transition to a cleaner economy”.
Already, average global temperatures are more than 1C higher than before industrialization, and on track to rise 2C more. The effects are already being felt. A 3C hotter world would be devastating – within the century, major cities would be submerged by rising seas and coastal flooding, droughts that threaten food supplies would be widespread and heatwaves in many parts of the world would become insufferable.
The US is the biggest historical emitter of the pollution that has caused the problem, followed by China. It is set to withdraw from a landmark international agreement to start curbing emissions just after the election in November, even if Donald Trump is not re-elected. Trump has revoked US climate efforts and supported fossil fuels.
The Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, meanwhile, has pledged to pursue a timeline similar to what House Democrats have proposed.