This spring, the man who was once almost president found himself more on the outside of the White House than ever. Ditching a suit for a polo shirt on an unseasonably hot Saturday, Al Gore was one of an estimated 200,000 to attend the Climate March in April outside the office where he served for eight years as vice president.
“I never thought I’d be marching on the White House,” Al Gore told a crowd of Washington dignitaries three months later, at an early screening of his new climate documentary at the Newseum. “That’s where we are, ladies and gentlemen.”
After the August release of his climate documentary, “An Inconvenient Sequel,” a follow-up to his Academy Award-winning 2006 film, Gore hopes such protest are just a preview of what’s to come.
The Indivisible coalition, an upstart activist network created in response to the 2016 election by former congressional aides to lobby their old bosses, is partnering with Gore and his nonprofit, Climate Reality Project, to stage protests at the town halls of members of Congress. (It’s “TBD” whether Gore will attend any town hall personally, said spokesperson Deb Greenspan.)
The groups see their opening during the August recess. With the debate over a health-care overhaul to be decided (likely today) and the effort to revamp the tax code yet to rev up, Indivisible organizers see Congress’s summer break as their best chance to turn up the heat on legislators they believe can be swayed on the climate change issue in ways President Trump has shown he can’t be.
“When the members of the House and Senate are back in their home areas over the August recess, people have access to them and can persuade them that this is an issue they need to take very seriously,” Gore said in an interview last week. “The message is that if they're going to be supportive, folks in their district who care about this issue will help them win. But if they're position is wrong on climate, they're gonna do everything they can to defeat them.”
In the Senate, Indivisible will target a dozen members, mostly moderate Republicans like Dean Heller of Nevada and middle-of-the-road Democrats like Claire McCaskill of Missouri who live in states where the network has a strong presence and where, of course, theaters are screening Gore's movie, which needed to be edited after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January once President Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accord.
“You’ll see that it’s really integrated into the end of the movie,” David Linde, chief executive of Participant Media, which produced the film, said of the Paris decision. “Because Al’s belief is very straightforward: If the government’s not going to do it, the people are going to do it.”
But half of those senators being targeted on climate change — Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) — have yet to hold a single in-person town hall in 2017, according to data collected by Legistorm, which researches congressional activity.
Increasingly, members of Congress are turning to tele-town halls or events through Facebook to field concerns from constituents, while depriving activists the chance of making a public spectacle. So organizers have, in turn, held “missing member” events, staging mock town halls with empty suits draped over chairs or, in the case of one Michigan Republican this winter, a live chicken in the place of the missing politician.
With health care, the goal was clear: Defeat Republican efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare. But with climate change, the levers of power to unwind regulation and withdraw from the Paris agreement lie in the Oval Office. Much of climate activists' effort seems to be to lay groundwork for a time when Trump is no longer president.
One measure of success for organizers is getting lawmakers to join the so-called Noah’s Ark Caucus, a bipartisan group of House members committed to addressing “the impacts, causes, and challenges of our changing climate.” True to its name, members of the caucus are only admitted in pairs — one Republican, one Democrat — at a time. In March, the caucus added ten representatives, bringing its membership total to 34.
Some House Republicans have bucked the party in recent climate votes. Earlier this month, 46 House Republicans voted against a measure that would have stopped the Pentagon from studying how bases will be affected by climate change.
But until the 2018 midterm elections — and of course the big kahuna, the 2020 presidential race — there's only so much the climate movement can do at the federal level.
"Our groups, they want to do more," said Angel Padilla, policy director at Indivisible. "And they're not just focused on federal issues. They can make an impact on the state level and on the local level." One policy ask: Getting mayors and governors to invest more in wind, solar and other renewable- energy sources.
But climate activists see — or perhaps, hope — that the growing ranks of the Noah's Ark Caucus are a sign that the view that climate change is fake science, which calcified within the GOP during Obama’s term in office, is beginning to crack.
“The new joiners to the Noah's Ark caucus give me hope also that maybe the partisan divide might be fading just a little bit,” Gore said. “There's a law of physics that sometimes becomes a cliche in politics: For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction.”
But there’s one Republican Gore is done engaging with.
In December, Gore visited Trump Tower in New York at the request of Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, to discuss climate change with the then-president-elect.
The former vice president returned to the ground floor, seemingly hopeful. "I had a lengthy and very productive session with the president-elect. It was a sincere search for areas of common ground," Gore told reporters at the time. "I found it an extremely interesting conversation, and to be continued"
That conversation indeed went on, Gore told me, between that meeting in December and the Rose Garden announcement in June that the United States would remove itself from the 195-nation agreement to voluntarily reduce emissions of planet-warming pollutants.
“I wasn't totally surprised, but I had come to the view that there was a better than even chance that he would come to his senses and stay in the Paris Agreement,” Gore said recently. “But I was wrong.”
Gore said he has not spoken with the president since that Rose Garden speech, and does not plan to “barring some unusual set of circumstances that I can't foresee.”
When visiting Paris itself this month, Trump suggested he may be willing to open talks to renegotiate the agreement so the United States could stay in the pact. “I mean, something could happen with respect to the Paris accord," Trump said at a joint news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron.
“Based on my experiences with him,” Gore said. “I'd tell people not to hold their breath.”
"I don't think there's much chance that he'll change his mind on it. I would love to be proven wrong."
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-- Whistle blown: Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee are urging the Interior Department’s inspector general to look into Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s move to reassign dozens of top officials.
The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports:
“In the letter to Interior deputy IG Mary Kendall, obtained by The Washington Post, and signed by all but three of the panel’s Democrats, the senators note that one of the reassigned Senior Executive Service officials — Joel Clement, the department’s top climate change official — has alleged he was punished for his work on the issue. Clement, who was reassigned to the department’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue, which collects royalty payments from oil, gas and mining firms, wrote an op-ed in The Post last week saying “I believe I was retaliated against for speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities.”
“Any suggestion that the Department is reassigning SES employees to force them to resign, silence their voices, or to punish them for the conscientious performance of their public duties is extremely troubling and calls for the closest examination,” wrote the senators, led by Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
-- Confirmed: The Senate approved Trump’s controversial pick to be the deputy secretary of the Interior on Monday on a largely party line 53-43 vote. Democrats called Bernhardt a “walking conflict of interest” for his previous lobbying work for energy interests, but Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) called the choice “excellent” because of his “extensive experience and knowledge of issues that are important to Alaskans and western states.”
More lobbying work comes to light: The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal News took a look at how a bill rolling back rules protecting salmon in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River estuary was “in part the secret handiwork of a Washington lobbyist" — Bernhardt, that is — "who soon might play a key role administering the nation’s environmental policies.” Read the entire report here.
-- Is the moment for environmental justice over? That’s the question ProPublica is asking in a story on proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice. Created two dozen years ago to help support populations that are more likely to be affected by pollution, the $2 million allotted to support the office is now at risk.
An EPA spokesperson suggested in a statement that the agency doesn’t need a special arm devoted to environmental justice to continue this work. "Environmental justice is an important role for all our program offices, in addition to being a requirement in all rules EPA issues," the statement said. "We will work with Congress to help develop and implement programs and continue to work within the Agency to evaluate new ideas to properly address environmental justice issues on an agency-wide basis."
Now, with the Office of Environmental Justice’s fate in doubt, it’s become achingly apparent that well before Trump, those who purported to champion environmental justice — primarily Democratic legislators and presidents — did little to codify the progress and programs related to it, even when they were best positioned politically to do so.”
-- Red team go: The EPA is lining up its "red team-blue team" to challenge the scientific consensus on climate change, according to reports in E&E News and the Washington Examiner. The man reportedly eyed to lead the red team is the same one who originally floated the idea in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: Steve Koonin, a former Energy Department official in the Obama administration.
-- Homeward bound: EPA chief Scott Pruitt spent nearly half of his days in March, April and May in his home state of Oklahoma, according to records obtained by the Environmental Integrity Project. The watchdog group said the flights cost taxpayers $12,000. "Administrator Pruitt works long hours and is available around the clock," an EPA spokesperson told Reuters.
-- Mr. Smith goes to Greenland: After Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), one of the most vocal critics of climate science in Congress, recently toured Greenland and Alaska and met with climate scientists there studying the melting Arctic, we finally know what impression that trip has left on him.
In an op-ed in the Daily Signal, Smith writes that the public needs to be informed of “both the negative and positive impacts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere." The latter, according to Smith, include greater food production and new Arctic shipping lanes.
"The benefits of a changing climate are often ignored and under-researched," Smith writes. "Our climate is too complex and the consequences of misguided policies too harsh to discount the positive effects of carbon enrichment."
-- Over the weekend, the White House delivered a muddled message on whether Trump has decided to sign into law sanctions against Russia that could deeply affect the U.S. oil and gas industry. “The administration is supportive of being tough on Russia, particularly in putting these sanctions in place,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said; "My guess is that he’s going to make that decision shortly,” communications director Anthony Scaramucci countered.
On Monday, Sanders gave clarity to the White House position... which is that it isn't clear at all what the president will do. Time magazine White House correspondent Zeke Miller tweeted:
Sanders seemingly backing off POTUS signing sanctions bill: “He’s going to study that legislation and see what the final product looks like”— Zeke Miller (@ZekeJMiller) July 24, 2017
-- The Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog group, has a new investigation out this morning about what electric utilities knew about climate change dating back to the 1960s. Among the more striking findings are that an industry trade groups' sponsorship in 1982 of the work of pioneering climate scientist Charles David Keeling and in 1988 of research into “the potential effects of climate change on electric utilities" specifically, which one industry group concluded may "significantly affect" the industry.
Why it matters: Some of those lobbying outfits, which represent coal-fired power plant operators, went on to fund groups that downplayed climate-change science in the 1990s.
The investigators' takeway: "It’s a story with striking parallels to the investigations into ExxonMobil’s early knowledge of climate change and later efforts to deceive investors, policymakers, and the public on the issue," The Energy and Policy Institute writes in a summary of its findings.
-- Coal CEO vs. HBO: Coal executive Robert Murray, the head of Murray Energy, has filed a restraining order to block HBO from rebroadcasting the June 18 episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, reports The Hollywood Reporter. And HBO filed opposing court documents last week, charging Murray with attempting to “chill constitutionally protected speech,” according to the report.
Murray Energy is suing Oliver and the writers of Last Week Tonight, HBO and Time Warner for defamation over the episode in which the host called Murray “geriatric Dr. Evil” and chided the mogul, saying he was working to weaken coal safety regulations.
The Hollywood Reporter noted that Murray, 77, reportedly said he doesn’t expect to live to see the end of the case.
-- Cruel and unusual heat: A federal judge in Houston cited a report on climate change in a ruling this week that called it "cruel and unusual" for Texas corrections facilities not to establish safety measures for prisoners exposed to extreme temperatures, reports Kamala Kelkar of PBS NewsHour. According to the report, "at least 23 men in Texas prisons have died from the heat in the last 20 years." U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison ordered that a prison in Texas help inmates in extreme heat conditions.
Why it matters: Texas, along with the Southwest and Florida, have already seen an increase in the number of extreme heat days.
-- We may have even less time to stop global warming than we thought: New research suggests keeping global temperatures from rising past 2 degrees Celsius (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels may be more difficult than initially thought.
The reason? Scientists' presumption that humans started warming the Earth in the 19th may be wrong. The research says "significant human influence was afoot by at least 1750," writes The Post's Chris Mooney.
-- New research has found that extreme El Niño events will happen more frequently with an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, reports Chelsea Harvey for The Post. Scientists believed that even if global temperatures are stabilized, the risk of such events, which can cause intense rainfall, flooding and other severe weather events in certain parts of the world, would stabilize as well.
But research published Monday in Natural Climate Change reveals "after we reach 1.5 degrees Celsius and stabilize world temperatures, the frequency of extreme El Niño continued to increase for another century,” Wenju Cai, a chief research scientist at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization and one of the study’s lead authors, told The Post.
- The Smart Electric Power Alliance hosts the Grid Evolution Summit with events starting today and continuing through Friday.
- The Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety holds a hearing on clean energy technologies.
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs holds an oversight hearing on “Assessing Current Conditions and Challenges at the Lyndon B. Johnson Tropical Medical Center in American Samoa."
- The House Natural Resources Committee meets to mark up legislation.
- The American Enterprise Institute hosts an event on carbon taxes with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) on Wednesday.
- The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy will hold a hearing on wholesale electricity markets on Wednesday.
- The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on the Hunting Heritage and Environmental Legacy Preservation for Wildlife Act on Wednesday.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining will hold a legislative hearingon various bills on Wednesday.
- The House Natural Resources Committee meets to mark up legislation on Wednesday.
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources hosts a legislative hearing on three bills on Thursday.
- The United States Energy Association hosts the 10th Annual Energy Supply Forum on Thursday.
- Energy Secretary Rick Perry will visit a uranium plant cleanup site in Ohio on July 31.
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