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Why Even a Democratic Landslide in 2020 Won’t Guarantee Major Climate Action

Democratic presidential candidates are jousting over who best can save the planet. But even if one of them wins the White House, the Senate would threaten to scuttle any action to ease the effects of climate change.

If Democrats fail to win the Senate, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is expected to block even incremental steps to limit carbon emissions — forget the ambitious Green New Deal proposed this year that calls for eliminating fossil fuels by 2030.

Even so, Democratic candidates are forging ahead with their proposals because climate change is a top issue among primary voters and they hope to shift the national conversation in their direction. Yet some worry that the voters aren’t paying enough attention to congressional races that are critical to moving climate legislation.

The best-case scenario for Democrats is that they win a narrow Senate majority, which would still require some cooperation by Republicans to reach the 60 votes needed to pass legislation. And McConnell, who hails from Kentucky, a coal state, has signaled that won’t happen.

“People are really concerned about that,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for Justice Democrats, an activist group that supports the Green New Deal. “I can’t imagine a situation where there’s bipartisan climate legislation happening."

McConnell has shown no interest in taxing carbon or regulating climate emissions, saying the way to deal with global warming is through technology and innovation. “Not to shut down your economy, throw people out of work, make people reconstruct their homes, get out of their cars – you get the whole drift here, this is nonsense,” he told reporters this year.

It has caused concerns about the Senate among young voters.

Leah McClintock-Shapiro, a 20-year-old student in the Seattle area, said confronting climate change is “number one on my list” of priorities.

“Taking back the Senate is very important to get that done,” she said.

Because of a quirk in Senate rules, Democrats might be able to pass budget-related measures with a simple majority — spending on clean energy, tax incentives for green innovation and scrapping taxpayer subsidies for fossil fuel. They’d have to deal with Joe Manchin, a Democrat from another coal-state, West Virginia, who is currently the ranking member of the Energy Committee.

But regulatory measures like auto pollution limits would be subject to the 60-vote rule.

‘Drastic Steps’

Jamal Raad, a former Senate Democratic aide who recently worked on the climate-focused presidential campaign of Jay Inslee, said Republicans wouldn’t participate in any such efforts. The 60-vote rule is inconsistent with “the scope and drastic steps we need to take to solve climate change,” Raad said.

Democratic front-runner Joe Biden has pushed for a $1.7 trillion in federal spending to address climate change, while Elizabeth Warren has proposed to spend $2 trillion to bolster manufacturing, research and exports. Bernie Sanders has offered a sprawling plan with a price tag of $16.3 trillion.

“Even with a slim Senate majority, it will be impossible to enact anything like the Sanders plan, but a number of elements of the Biden or Warren proposals, for example, could become law,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former Senate Finance Committee and White House staff member under President Bill Clinton.

Bledsoe said a carbon tax would be a difficult pill for vulnerable Democrats to swallow, but that “programs supported by many candidates to bring to farm and rural economies revenue streams related to climate would also likely be popular in the Senate.”

Last weekend, the Democratic National Committee rejected a push by Sunrise Movement activists to hold a presidential debate just on climate change. But the major candidates are set to appear on CNN on Sept. 4 for a seven-hour town hall focused on the crisis.

Some Democrats, like Warren, have called for abolishing the Senate’s 60-vote threshold — which can be done with a simple majority — but Biden and Sanders have resisted that idea.

A Hostile Supreme Court?

A Democratic president could make executive actions -- for example, all of the major Democratic candidates want to halt oil and gas drilling on public lands. Sanders has called for ending all infrastructure permits for fossil fuels, and to use the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation to set rules aimed at de-carbonizing the transportation sector.

But any unilateral actions would probably face a skeptical Supreme Court, particularly after Anthony Kennedy was replaced last year by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who has a consistent record of siding against climate regulations as a judge.

President Barack Obama’s attempts to address climate change were hindered by a less conservative Supreme Court than the current one.

As an appeals court judge, Kavanaugh was resistant to EPA efforts to fight climate change without legislation to back it up. In 2012, he said the agency had overstepped its bounds by concluding that greenhouse gases are pollutants covered under the Clean Air Act. In a 2017 ruling, he wrote that Congress’s inaction on the issue “does not license an agency to take matters into its own hands.”

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