Congress Ramps Up Climate Goals, Carmakers Break with Trump

As the nation’s capital baked in a 100-plus degree heat wave last weekend, the political world started warming up to action on climate.  

On and off Capitol Hill, here are the most notable signs of progress this week.

House leaders set new goal: 100 percent clean energy, net-zero climate pollution by 2050

Leaders of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee announced on Tuesday an ambitious goal to reach 100 percent clean energy and zero net climate pollution by 2050

Citing "historic flooding, raging wildfires, increasingly severe storms, extreme heat and persistent droughts," Chairman Frank Pallone and Subcommittee Chairmen Paul Tonko and Bobby Rush called the “100by50” target “necessary to avoid the most catastrophic effects of the climate crisis.” 

The new target of achieving net-zero climate pollution no later than 2050 reflects the added urgency of the science, underscored by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report last year on the extreme dangers of letting global average temperatures exceed 1.5 degree Celsius.

The leaders promised an inclusive process “to ensure that every affected community, industry and stakeholder has a seat at the table.”

They kicked off that process with a Wednesday hearing on “Building America's Clean Future: Pathways to Decarbonize the Economy.” Experts described clean energy technologies, policies, and investments that, by starting now, can get and keep us on the road to virtually eliminating dangerous climate-changing pollution while investing in communities’ economic future and resilience to climate impacts, creating new industries, and generating millions of good paying new jobs.

And at that hearing, Rep. Donald McEachin, joined by Reps. Deb Haaland, Debbie Dingell, Earl Blumenauer, and Paul Tonko, announced forthcoming 100x50 legislation. Their bill will direct federal agencies to use all existing legal authorities to put the nation on the path to meet the 100 percent clean energy economy goal no later than mid-century.

The bill will stress protecting and improving health and well-being in low-income and rural communities, communities of color, and tribal communities; creating jobs and ensuring an equitable transition for affected workers and communities; benefiting consumers, small businesses, and rural areas; and building community resilience to climate impacts. 

Aiming for the broadest possible co-sponsorship, the bill will likely be introduced after the August recess.

Carmakers break with Trump, make peace with California

Off the Hill, the big news Thursday was four automakers’ decision to break with the Trump administration on its plan to roll back clean car and fuel economy standards. Instead, Ford, Honda, VW, and BMW struck a deal with California that commits them to keep cutting climate pollution from the cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks that they sell nationwide. 

Analysts and insiders predicted other car makers will join the pact, further weakening the Trump team’s already weak legal hand. 

EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have proposed to flatline federal standards now set to rise steadily through 2025. They’re also seeking to block California from setting its own carbon emission standards—its right under the Clean Air Act for more than 50 years.

In June, 17 auto companies pleaded with President Trump to change course, because the rollback and preemption proposals will kick up a legal battle that will disrupt their markets for two years or more. The companies signed the Clean Car Peace Treaty in the Obama administration precisely to avoid such fights. That peace deal aligned the California and EPA emissions programs and the NHTSA fuel economy standards at steadily increasing levels—cutting carbon emissions in half and doubling fuel economy by 2025.

The White House spurned the 17 companies in June, and it sent EPA out to kick dirt in the four companies’ faces again yesterday. EPA’s spokesman called the deal with California “a PR stunt” that will have “no impact” on the agency’s plans.

EPA and NHTSA were already struggling to finish their rollback proposal, which NRDC’s Luke Tonachel yesterday called a “senseless and harmful plan that would make cars pollute more and cost drivers more at the pump.” We’ll see what happens as other companies peel away.

The California compromise would keep pushing vehicles’ climate pollution down, though not as fast as under the current standards.  In that sense, Trump’s assault on his predecessor’s landmark achievement will take its toll even if it is derailed by the automakers’ deal with the Golden State or when we take EPA and NHTSA to court.

But by recognizing California’s authority, the four companies are helping keep the door open for California to setting new and stronger standards for the next decade after 2025. California and the more than dozen other states that follow its standards have a vital role in keeping the transportation sector moving toward electric vehicles and the other zero emission technologies needed to meet the 100by50 target.

More climate bills

Back on Capitol Hill, more bills with climate and clean energy provisions were introduced or advanced towards passage. The House Natural Resources Committee held a legislative hearing on a bill to promote responsible wind and solar siting on public lands (H.R. 825). The House Science Committee sent three energy R&D bills (H.R. 3597, 3607, & 3609) to the floor. 

A bipartisan “Clean Industrial Technology Act” was introduced by Senators Whitehouse, Capito, Braun, Manchin, and Booker, and by Reps. Casten, McKinley, Amata, and Johnson.

Senators Coons and Feinstein and Rep. Panetta sponsored the “Carbon Action Rebate Act.” Their bill ups the ambition, compared prior carbon tax proposals, with a price rising as needed to cut carbon emissions 55 percent in the first 10 years and reach net-zero by 2050. 

The bill dedicates most of the revenue to monthly rebates to households earning less than $150,000 per year. The rest of the revenue is directed toward climate-resilient infrastructure, energy innovation, and vulnerable workers and communities. Unlike most other carbon tax proposals, this bill does not preempt or suspend the Clean Air Act or other existing climate action authorities.

Reps. Lipinski and Rooney introduced another pair of carbon tax and rebate proposals. These, though, would curb carbon pollution more slowly than needed to meet the 100by50 goal, and they contain problematic limitations on existing laws.

Change on the GOP side?

While some of these bills are bipartisan, it is evident that most of the climate leadership shown this week comes from the Democratic side of the aisle.  Yet pressure is building on the GOP.  Many Republicans, while continuing to oppose putting actual limits on carbon pollution, have dropped denialist rhetoric and are searching for something to be for. 

Many have embraced calls for “innovation” and some are supporting R&D and tax incentive proposals, for example.  Clean energy R&D and tax incentives are essential building blocks for climate progress, and we welcome efforts to enact such measures this Congress.  

At the same time, innovation and building blocks alone are not enough to stave off climate catastrophe. By themselves they will not achieve the deep decarbonization we need—100 percent clean energy and zero net carbon pollution.  

That brings us to perhaps the most interesting hearing of the week. Frank Luntz, a GOP pollster long known for helping Republicans deflect and deny climate change, told a Senate panel: “I’m here before you to say that I was wrong in 2001.” He told them: “[C]limate change matters more to Democrats and less to Republicans, but younger Republicans do care about it—a lot—and want something done in a bipartisan effort … now.” Other witnesses, representing millennial Republicans, underscored his message.

So, temperatures may have moderated this week in Washington. But it was 108.7 degrees in Paris on Thursday. We’re looking at a long, hot summer, with lots of hurricanes, wildfires, and flooding ahead.

Climate change is not going away. Americans of all ages, all regions, and both parties know it. And the heat will keep rising for both parties to act on climate to protect us from catastrophe. 

About the Authors

David Doniger

Senior Strategic Director, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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