with Paulina Firozi


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi just missed an opportunity to get big concessions on climate change in the trade deal she negotiated with President Trump. That's the accusation by many of the Democrats’ strongest supporters in the environmental movement.

The activists especially wanted to see the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement force Trump to rejoin the Paris accord to reduce climate-warming emissions. And they worry House Democrats have squandered their leverage over Trump, who badly wants the ink to dry on the USMCA before the 2020 presidential election. 

Climate change is not mentioned at all in the new language House Democrats negotiated with the Trump administration. 

“They dropped the ball completely,” the Natural Resources Defense Council's Amanda Maxwell said of House leaders. “This just returns us to an inadequate status quo.”

Democrats, who have made climate change a priority since they took the House majority, did get certain environmental and labor concessions from Trump put into the draft of the replacement for the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement. 

They insist that they brokered the most pro-environment deal they could get the current political climate.

“This is going to be the best trade agreement for the environment,” Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) said Tuesday during an announcement of the deal with Trump. She was part of a working group charged with negotiating with the Trump administration.

Among the concessions House Democrats got are more rigorous monitoring of potential pollution violations in Mexico, which is designed to deter companies from moving factories south of the border to take advantage of laxer environmental enforcement. Democrats also tweaked language to allow for an eventual phaseout of a class of particularly potent greenhouse gases called hydrofluorocarbons.

And perhaps most crucially, the new language negotiated by Democrats would also require parties to adopt and implement seven multilateral environmental agreements.

Yet environmentalists say that just makes the absence of the 2015 Paris agreement more notable. 

Just before Democrats announced the trade deal on Tuesday, the NRDC joined with two other major environmental groups — the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club — to urge House lawmakers to oppose a renegotiated agreement that does not require the United States and its trading partners to be part of the Paris agreement.

“We cannot afford to lock ourselves into another multi-decade trade deal that is on the wrong side of our historic fight to tackle climate change and toxic pollution,” the leaders of the three green groups wrote in a letter.

But such a demand could have scuttled a trade deal sought by a small but influential group of freshman moderates whose reelection Pelosi needs keep her majority. And her office said Trump would have never agreed to stay in a climate accord that he has vigorously cast as a bad deal and repeatedly promised to nix.

“There’s only so far an Administration that doesn’t believe in the climate crisis or science will go, but the changes Democrats secured in USMCA put us on a firm footing for action when we have a President who brings us back into the Paris accord,’ Pelosi spokesman Henry Connell said in a statement. 

Now that compromise has put other Democratic lawmakers in a tough spot. Rep. Joe Kennedy was one of the more than 100 Democrats who signed a letter in September calling for the new trade deal to require the U.S. be part of the Paris accord. The Massachusetts Democrat says he is not ready to support the deal just yet.

“Although Speaker Pelosi secured significant progress on environmental provisions in this updated version of the USMCA, I remain concerned that the Trump Administration refused to include language committing to the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement,” said Kennedy, who is seeking to unseat Sen. Edward J. Markey (D), one of the biggest environmental advocates in the Senate.

“In the days ahead, I will closely scrutinize the impact this final version will have on our climate and our environment,” Kennedy added in his statement.

The compromise has left members of Pelosi’s leadership team open to criticism from the left.

“It’s just really disappointing. And it's just another example of how Democratic leadership has failed to actually speak in the interests of people,” said Mckayla Wilkes, a 29-year-old activist and candidate challenging House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), Pelosi’s top deputy.

Annaliese Davis, a spokeswoman for Hoyer, said the implementing legislation for the agreement has not been introduced yet "and Mr. Hoyer is still reviewing the agreement."

Democrats were able to appease one of their major constituencies: the labor movement. The updated USMCA won the enthusiastic support of Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest federation of unions, after Democrats scored a number of labor concessions in the deal. The AFL-CIO had withheld support of the deal until this week.

The worry more broadly among liberals is that Democrats are sending a muddled message about Trump before the 2020 election by working with him on his long-sought North American trade deal while also criticizing him as a climate denier and preparing to impeach him.

Pelosi has for months emphasized how crucial staying in the Paris agreement will be to address climate change.

Pelosi brought to the floor in May legislation designed to force Trump to keep the United States in the Paris accord. And on Monday — just one day before announcing the trade deal — she spoke in Madrid at a United Nations climate summit about how committed she is to staying.

“We’re here to say to all of you, on behalf of the House of Representatives and the Congress of the United States, we’re still in it,” Pelosi said. 


— This remote wilderness is facing catastrophic climate change: On Alaska’s North Slope, oil drilling has been a key source of prosperity for the village of Nuiqsut. The region is now “caught between a comfortable present and a frightening future,” as it begins to question how that reliance on fossil fuels has contributed to global warming. “Here at the edge of the North Slope, the annual temperature has risen 4 degrees Celsius,” The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports in this latest installment in The Post’s series on global hot spots. “It is, along with a sliver of Siberia and the Norwegian island of Svalbard, the fastest-warming spot of land on Earth. With global greenhouse gas emissions continuing to climb, and a new oil boom in Alaska on the horizon, there is no cure in sight.”

  • “The cold Arctic landscape once seemed eternal”: Now, sea ice coverage in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas has dropped to a record low of 270,000 square miles at the end of October. The result is warming winters, more open water, more moisture in the air, more rain and more snow. “All that water helps dissolve the ice wedges in frozen tundra known as permafrost, which has warmed between 3 and 4 degrees Celsius in the past three decades,” Eilperin writes. “Some 600 more lakes linked to thawing permafrost have appeared on the North Slope since 1955, according to UAF researcher Prajna Lindgren. And the oil industry itself is planting hundreds of refrigerated tubes into the permafrost to keep its infrastructure from sinking.” 
  • Notably, the region can’t quite quit Big Oil: “Climate change is not something people discuss much in Nuiqsut. Instead of talking about greenhouse gas emissions and the astonishing rate of local warming, Martha Itta and other opponents of more oil development emphasize drilling’s impact on the animals they hunt, and by extension, their cultural identity,” Eilperin writes. 

    Now what: Itta, the town’s 42-year-old tribal administrator, told The Post she believes the town must curb its dependence on fossil fuel extraction. But she “does not have an easy answer for what would sustain the town economically if the petroleum industry scaled back operations. She mentions a hardware store or an auto shop. Instead, she faults oil development for not providing more benefits.”

— Wood buildings are climbing skyward, with pluses for the planet: Builders, city planners, architects and environmentalists are excited about the use of “engineered wood,” which would help speed up construction, reduce housing shortages and help combat climate change. “The perceived environmental benefit is key to their enthusiasm, moving discussion of mass timber out of builders’ trade shows and into academic and governmental offices,” Doug Struck writes for The Post. “By utilizing wood, proponents argue, the carbon stored in it during tree growth is retained within floors and walls.” 

  • “It’s kind of amazing”: “That carbon, you put it in a building, it’s going to stay in the building. It’s not going to be released to the atmosphere,” said climate policy expert Nicole St. Clair Knobloch, who has a U.S. Forest Service grant to push mass timber in Massachusetts.

— What’s the greenest way to travel? The Post’s Sarah Kaplan has some hard truth for you: “There is almost no way to explore the planet without harming it.” The transportation sector has been the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions since 2017, and the record amount of driving, flying and cruising relies almost entirely on fossil fuels. 

  • Here’s what would cut down on emissions: “If Americans could slash our commercial aviation travel in half, we would avoid the equivalent of about 65 million metric tons of CO2; that’s as much annual savings as we’d get from replacing 2.5 billion conventional lightbulbs with energy-efficient LEDs,” she writes. 

— Here’s what invisible gas leaks look like: “Massive amounts of methane gas escape from oil and gas facilities — methane is loosely regulated, hard to detect and meanwhile contributing to the warming of the planet,” the New York Times reports. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has sought to ease regulations on the gas. “Scientists say that, in weakening the rules, the Trump administration underestimates methane’s global climate effects. It also disregards research that suggests methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure are far larger than previously estimated.” So the Times went to oil fields in West Texas with a highly specialized camera to photograph the methane. 

— Trump vs. Greta, continued: The president drew ire for his tweet mocking Greta Thunberg. Democrats accused Trump of bullying the teenage Swedish climate activist, who has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, in a tweet that “came just a week after Republicans cried foul when a university professor made a joke referencing Barron Trump, the president’s 13-year-old son, during impeachment testimony,” The Post’s David Nakamura and John Wagner write

  • What they said: Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat called on the president to “stop slinging insults at a teenager & start acting like an adult.” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) made a reference to Melania Trump’s anti-online bullying campaign in his tweet chiding the president:
  • Greta’s reaction: Meanwhile, the activist countered by changing her Twitter bio to reflect the criticism. Her profile now reads: “A teenager working on her anger management problem. Currently chilling and watching a good old fashioned movie with a friend.”

From Nakamura: 

— “The most vulnerable … already face death row”: At the Madrid climate talks, representatives from the most vulnerable corners of the world are being more explicit about their frustration with the slow pace of action to address climate change. They’re “arguing their very existence depends on the kind of meaningful action that big countries have so far avoided,” The Post’s Brady Dennis and Chico Harlan report. At the summit, the rift between developed countries and smaller, developing countries has been in focus this week. One participant, 21-year-old Tabita Kaitamakin Awira Awerika from the low-lying Pacific Island nation of Kiribati said a beach she visited three years ago “no longer exists,” and warned that without a dramatic curb in global emissions, her nation will be “erased from this planet.”

— Senate confirms new head of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: The chamber voted 53 to 29 to confirm Aurelia Skipwith to run the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Skipwith, who was serving as the deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, was formerly an executive at Monsanto.

  • The reaction: “Some Democrats as well as environmental groups argued Skipwith lacked enough experience in wildlife management to be qualified for the top Fish and Wildlife job. But Republicans said they hoped the she can bring an innovative approach to managing the agency,” per Bloomberg News. A group of 46 former Interior Department employees sent a letter to leaders of the Environment and Public Works Committee urging them not to approve of her nomination. In a statement, endangered species policy specialist Stephanie Kurose from the Center for Biological Diversity chided the Senate for confirming “the most unqualified director in Fish and Wildlife Service history … Skipwith’s abysmal record shows she’s ideologically opposed to the mission of the very agency she now leads.”
  • Notable: “Skipwith is also one of the few women or people of color now in top Senate-confirmed positions in the Trump administration,” Bloomberg reports.

— “We are deeply concerned”: The bipartisan leaders of the House Science Committee have called on the government watchdog to look into why federal agencies are at odds about how 5G communications will affect weather forecasting. Science Committee Chairman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) and the panel's top Republican Rep. Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.) sent a letter to the GAO this week asking the office to “look into the reasons for the discrepancies between the views of the Federal Communications Commission, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA regarding the potential for certain 5G technology to interfere with crucial weather data-gathering instruments aboard polar orbiting satellites,” The Post’s Andrew Freedman reports. “A GAO spokesperson said the office is reviewing the request.”


Coming Up 

  • The World Resources Institute holds an event on market designs for the clean energy transition on Dec. 16. 
  • Resources for the Future holds an event on the role of soil health in finding climate solutions on Dec. 17. 


— A dispatch from Monkey Island: There’s a colony of 66 quarantined chimpanzees the island in Liberia, “an increasingly costly burden and the enduring legacy of American scientists who set out to cure hepatitis B in 1974,” The Post’s Danielle Paquette writes in this wonderful piece. “They rely on money from a charity abroad and the devotion of men who’ve known them since they lived in steel cages.” Joseph Thomas has been the monkeys’ guardian for four decades. “I’ll be doing this,” he told Paquette, “until they die or I do.”

Liberia's “Monkey Island” is home to a colony of 63 chimpanzees who were injected with Hepatitis by American scientists and then left to starve. (The Washington Post)