Senate Democrats want to build a climate coalition that can take on the Kochs

In March 2019, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer established the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis to examine the effects of climate change on the country and develop a strategy to address it. Over the past year, the committee has held 10 hearings and a dozen closed-door meetings, solicited input from several specific stakeholder groups, and reviewed thousands of public comments. On Tuesday, it released its big report: “The Case for Climate Action: Building a Clean Economy for the American People.”

This has been a year filled to the brim with climate plans, going back to the beginning of the Democratic presidential primary. Every candidate had one (Biden is on his second), several public interest groups and coalitions released their own, the Biden-Sanders unity committee had one, and the Democratic House special committee had one. Even the most committed climate wonks can be forgiven if they don’t relish the thought of diving into another one, especially one that clears 250 pages.

But the new Senate report is noteworthy for two reasons.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks during a news conference on March 27, 2019, as he unveils a new Special Committee on Climate Change.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

First, it fits quite snugly into the broad left-of-center policy alignment I’ve been describing as standards, investments, and justice (SIJ). The Senate is typically seen as one of the stodgier and more conservative Democratic institutions — it’s where the 2009 climate bill went to die — so its alignment with climate activists is no small thing.

Second, where the House committee report was technocratic, heavy on the nuts and bolts of policy, the Senate committee report is a much more political document. It is focused on the political barriers to action, getting allies on the same page, and overcoming well-funded opponents. It specifically addresses unions, environmental justice communities, and farmers, and recommends reforms to the financial system and dark money in politics.

To discuss the report, and the state of climate politics in the Senate, I called committee chair Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii. We talked about the extent of unity in the caucus, Democratic plans for next year, and his frustrations with the degraded state of the Senate — “I’m aware of no other significant legislative body on Earth that has so much power and does so little,” he said.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

David Roberts

Can you tell me a little bit about the process that produced this report?

Sen. Brian Schatz

The idea was to think through the structural challenges of climate action and to do the coalition-building necessary to actually win this thing. So we wanted it to be as deep and broad and diverse as possible. We didn’t fixate on getting the words exactly right, either from a messaging standpoint or even a bill-drafting standpoint, because neither of those are the reason we failed in the past. The reason we failed in the past is we were unable to build a broad and powerful enough coalition to overcome the Koch brothers and their friends.

So we did the work of listening. We started with labor. We went to the environmental justice community, to American Indian tribes, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. We talked to farmers, to both small and large businesses, and to financial services and insurance communities. We had hearings, but we also had avenues for public comment, and got thousands of individual comments from the public.

We want to enable everybody to prosper in the process of solving the problem. I think too much of the climate movement has been about preventing bad stuff from happening, as opposed to allowing people to imagine all the opportunities they will personally experience if we take climate action.

It’s the work of politics — getting to a coalition that can win. I don’t want to overstate the case, because we still have to win the Senate and the White House, but as a caucus, we feel united and ready to roll.

Oversight of the Securities and Exchange Commission

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI).
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

David Roberts

I’ve been writing about that the left-of-center coalition in the US has aligned around a set of climate policy priorities. Biden’s plan fits in that mold, the Democratic House Special Committee report fits, your report fits. But then I wake up yesterday to find out that the Democratic National Committee has struck language opposing fossil fuel subsidies from its party platform. That’s climate policy 101. Is the consensus shallower than I thought?

Sen. Brian Schatz

I am more interested in what’s in Joe Biden’s climate plan and the Senate Democrats’ climate climate plan, and Kamala Harris’s climate plan, than I am in what’s contained in the party platform.

I mean, I was the Democratic Party chairman in Hawaii. I would have loved it if policymakers actually implemented our platform. But the truth is that it is not the most important policy document as relates to climate action among Democrats. It probably doesn’t crack the top three or four.

We clearly have a united Democratic Party. I can’t tell you what happened in the platform committee, or the platform subcommittee on energy, but they will not carry the day.

David Roberts

Conventional wisdom among Democrats has been that voters are concerned about climate change, but it’s not a top-tier, make-or-break issue for them. Where do you think voters are on this right now?

Sen. Brian Schatz

As a political issue, climate has gone from a mixed bag that divides the Democratic caucus to a winner.

It very clearly motivates young people, who are predisposed to vote for Democrats but are also more likely than other groups not to show up if they’re not sufficiently motivated.

And it continues to be a powerful issue for swing and independent voters. In the context of the pandemic, part of what we’re finding is that people have a newfound and rather specific desire that their political leaders listen to scientific expertise.

We had been trying to make the case that if you’re a reasonable, middle-of-the-road person, you can’t vote for someone who supports climate denial. But that’s an abstract way of describing it. Now we see that ignoring science is causing mass preventable death. We don’t have to explain why ignoring science is dangerous anymore. Everyone is living it.

Seattle Hospital Treating Covid Patients Is Cleaned During Shift Change

A health care worker is overcome with emotion after visiting with a patient during a cleaning shift at Harborview Medical Center on August 20, 2020, in Seattle, Washington.
David Ryder/Getty Images

David Roberts

While it has generally fallen out of favor among climate wonks and activists, carbon pricing is still beloved by several of your colleagues. I know Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), for instance, is a big fan of a carbon tax. In your report, carbon pricing plays a peripheral role — you mention it as an option. Did you get pushback on that?

Sen. Brian Schatz

I’m a big fan, too. I still believe in a carbon price. But I think there are lots of ways to get this done. You could have a national renewable portfolio standard [RPS]. You could theoretically do it through statutory regulations under the Clean Air Act. You could do it by treaty.

I’m not particularly attached to the technique. What I like about a carbon tax is, it is big enough to solve the problem. What I’m wary about with other solutions is that test: Is it at scale and aggressive enough. I don’t think several hundred billion dollars going to the investment tax credits or the production tax credits for wind and solar are going to get us all the way home.

But Hawaii has arguably made more progress than any other state in moving toward clean energy, and we did it with an RPS. I’m absolutely open to whatever can get done that is equal to the task.

Even folks like me, who have been attached to a particular solution set, have to be nimble and have an open mind — likewise, those who are advocating for “keep it in the ground” or a Green New Deal or $7 trillion for clean energy infrastructure. Everybody has to be open. The main thing is to get to 51 [votes] with something that’s big enough to make the difference necessary, and not get attached to pride of authorship.

Environmental activists, including one wearing a polar bear costume, protest against the Obama administration’s plans to allow new fossil fuel drilling on public lands and oceans, during a demonstration held by the “Keep It in the Ground” coalition in front of the White House in Washington, DC, on September 15, 2015.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

David Roberts

Your report pegs the needed level of investment in clean energy at 2 percent of GDP [roughly $430 billion annually]. One of the ongoing fights on the left has to do with paying for stuff — how to pay for things, whether to pay for things, whether to address the issue at all. I’m curious where you come down on that question.

Sen. Brian Schatz

I personally don’t play the pay-for game anymore, because Republicans just never pay for the stuff that they prioritize. It’s gotten to the point where we don’t even ask them in any serious way how they’re going to pay for it, because everybody knows they’re not.

When it comes to climate action, the question is not whether we can afford to pay for it; it’s how much it will cost us if we don’t take action. I do not think it is credible any longer to imagine, after a $2 trillion tax cut and several trillion dollars spent in necessary Covid relief money, that we couldn’t come up with the money to solve a planetary crisis.

There’s a whole separate conversation, which I’m starting to be engaged in as a member of the Banking Committee, about Modern Monetary Theory.

David Roberts

I wanted to ask about that!

Sen. Brian Schatz

Here’s what I would say: I am intrigued by that particular conversation. I haven’t decided where I’ve landed on it, because I’m still learning about it.

But even in the worst case, even if the inflation hawks and worrywarts are right, you would have a situation where we solved a planetary crisis … and the trade-off was inflation. I’m prepared to deal with that potential negative externality. I’m not even sure it would materialize, but if it did, I think that’s a very fair trade.

David Roberts

Do you have any sociological or political explanation for why Democratic leadership in the House seems so attached to PAYGO [the self-imposed rule requiring any House bill to “pay for itself” in 10 years with tax hikes or money from other programs]? Why are they the last ones dying on this hill?

Sen. Brian Schatz

It’s a habit. It comes from serving many years in the Congress, and debt and deficit being a bludgeon that was used against Democrats in front-line districts. So Democrats in front-line districts have been told by operatives and other members to be deficit scolds, because that’s how you position yourself as a moderate.

David Roberts

There’s much more to say about that, but let’s move on.

Sen. Brian Schatz

Please. I’m gonna get myself in trouble.

House Leader Nancy Pelosi Holds Bill Enrollment For The Great American Outdoors Act

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD).
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

David Roberts

Opposition from unions, especially old-line trade unions, has impeded climate policy in the past. I know you deal with unions a lot — they’re a big force in Democratic politics. Where are they on climate policy right now?

Sen. Brian Schatz

I would leave it to them to describe where they are, but I can tell you that the conversations we’ve had have been extraordinarily productive. They started out rather blunt. There was a fair amount of folks describing how they’ve been treated over the years on this issue. But once they understood that we consider them central to this coalition, and we talked about the kind of policies we were envisioning, it became an extremely constructive conversation.

I think there’s an understanding now that we’re listening, that we’re not just going to do a bunch of hand-waving about job training opportunities. That sounds like you’re blaming the person whose job disappeared, making it a matter of them lacking skills to compete in the 21st century. That’s not really what’s happening. The folks in labor who work in energy are highly skilled individuals.

We have to be serious about investing. And we have to understand that even if our policies increase economic activity and prosperity in the bigger picture, those impacts are going to be extremely uneven. We need to think about the communities that are being harmed by the energy transition, and not think of this as a GDP question, but rather a community question. It’s got to be practical conversations about people.

David Roberts

Do you think it would help if more clean energy companies unionized?

Sen. Brian Schatz

Yes. It’s absolutely the case that we should be supporting unionization and union jobs and not just settle for vague promises or rhetorical flourishes, like the “jobs of the future” or whatever. We have to understand that if we’re really talking about taking care of workers, we don’t have to reinvent the public policy wheel. We already have it. It’s called collective bargaining.

House Democrats Discuss Protecting the Right To Organize Act

Richard Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, speaks during a press conference advocating for the passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act in the House of Representatives on February 5, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Samuel Corum/Getty Images

David Roberts

It seems that Democrats are becoming more aware of the danger the filibuster poses to their agenda. If Mitch McConnell can block anything, he will block anything. How likely is it that Democrats will be able to muster the votes to get rid of it?

Sen. Brian Schatz

I’m going to be a little overly precise here. My position on the filibuster, and any procedural reforms, is that the conversation needs to wait until after the election. I just have personal anxiety talking about all the great things we’re going to do, all the changes we’re going to make, and getting into those internal discussions about procedure before we’ve even taken the gavel out of Mitch McConnell’s hands. So I am cautious to weigh in on this.

I will say, more generally, that the most radical thing the United States Senate could do if it were run by Democrats next year is to allow all of the damage that Trump and McConnell have done to stay in place, and for us to work with a traditional Senate mindset, where we do one big bill per year. It would take 75 years to undo the damage.

By virtue of not taking action, or moving at a snail’s pace, we would be enshrining the destruction, allowing all of the damage Trump did to institutions and society in general to be made permanent.

David Roberts

Do you think the US Senate as currently constituted is capable of something like a blitz?

Sen. Brian Schatz

I don’t know the answer to that. But I think we’re in a time of tremendous change, and we need to recognize that the old Senate has died under Mitch McConnell. What we need to think through, as a Senate and as a society, is not how we can go back to the 1970s. Imagining that Teddy Kennedy and Orrin Hatch are going to pour a scotch and cut a deal is fantasy. Given polarization and the way politics operates nowadays, that Senate is gone, and the current Senate is broken.

So the question for us is, how do we make this place work again? I’m aware of no other significant legislative body on Earth that has so much power and does so little.

U.S.-WASHINGTON, D.C.-MITCH MCCONNELL-COVID-19-RELIEF NEGOTIATIONS

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (center).
Xinhua/via Getty Images

David Roberts

Assuming the filibuster is gone and you only need 51 votes, that’s still almost total unanimity, which means the right-most senators in the caucus will effectively have veto power over what passes. Where is the right-most edge of the Senate Democratic caucus on climate change these days?

Sen. Brian Schatz

I don’t think it’s time to do that work yet. I’m sequencing this thing with some intentionality, and I just don’t want to put the cart before the horse.

We’ve done very well to work with every member of the Democratic caucus on this report, and work with their staffs and their offices, so that everyone, to greater or lesser degrees, is comfortable with the work we’ve done. But we still have to continue to build a foundation and then win, and then do the legislative politics that comes next. Trying to do that now, or speculating on it now, would blow up in my face.

David Roberts

Fair enough; then you probably don’t want to answer this question either. But if the filibuster stays in place, the other great hope of all progressives is a budget reconciliation bill [which only requires a bare majority]. Are you thinking about what a climate package that has to squeeze through the reconciliation process might look like?

Sen. Brian Schatz

You’re asking all the good questions, and I’m trying not to be obtuse in answering them. I will just say, we’re evaluating every single legislative pathway, and reconciliation is among them. It depends what your policy preferences are. It’s easier to do a carbon fee that way, a little more difficult to do infrastructure investment. But yeah, every legislative pathway is being considered, because this is an emergency.

David Roberts

The other big question is about priorities. If Democrats win, they are going to be entering office amidst multiple, uh …

Sen. Brian Schatz

Cascading cataclysms.

David Roberts

Yes. The conventional wisdom is that a new majority and a new president have a very narrow window of political opportunity in which to act, so they can only do a couple of things. Where is climate change in the priority stack?

Sen. Brian Schatz

I am prepared to reject the premise that we ought to do one or two things, after Donald Trump has destroyed dozens of aspects of our society. The political risk is that we do too little, that we come in and do some sort of tax incentive for advanced manufacturing and bump up the minimum minimum wage by a buck, hoping not to offend anybody.

We certainly have to be disciplined, and do our politics right, and sequence things right, and communicate well with the public. But if we win, I will consider instructions from the voters to substantially undo what has been done, and try to make progress on the issues of the day. There’s just no way we can do health care one year and immigration the next, and climate the following. There’s just too much to be done to save the republic.

Senate Policy luncheons

Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) (left) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) talk on their phones in the Capitol’s Senate Reception Room on October 29, 2019.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

David Roberts

Most in the climate community have come around to the idea that Republicans just aren’t going to help and so you have to do what you can with the left. But if there’s one Democratic Party institution that forever holds out hope for bipartisanship, it’s the Senate. Do you think there’s any realistic prospect of Republican cooperation on climate change?

Sen. Brian Schatz

You always have to be of two strategic minds here. First, if we have the majority and the votes, that puts us in a position to write the bill that is necessary to solve this crisis. And because we will have the votes, there may be an opportunity to attract more Republicans, and turn this into a bipartisan enterprise. But nothing is possible if we’re short on the votes. So we have to get our own house in order.

Secondly, I continue to be engaged in constructive conversations with Republicans. But they’re just that — conversations. They’re not introducing legislation. They’re not even co-signing letters to agencies on climate. So they’re constructive and polite, and there are a number of members who are privately puzzling through when they can make a break for it, and I will continue to cultivate that possibility and hope for it to materialize, but that is not the foundation of my strategy.

David Roberts

People are always lamenting the power of the fossil fuel industry. Is there a force lobbying for clean energy policy that is anywhere near that coordinated and powerful?

Sen. Brian Schatz

The whole purpose of our effort is to get there. The goal is, in a couple of years’ time, to build the infrastructure necessary to actually win this thing, and not just make a living losing.

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