The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Two GOP senators back tree planting as answer to climate change

with Alexandra Ellerbeck

Planting more trees. This is officially the hot new solution to climate change that Republicans are rallying around. 

Indiana’s two Republican senators, Mike Braun and Todd Young, are both backing a new bill encouraging the planting of forests around the world to suck planet-warming greenhouse gases out of the air. 

Democrats hope the legislation, to be introduced Wednesday, is a sign that congressional Republicans may be willing to strike deals on climate with President-elect Joe Biden after he takes office next month even as most GOP lawmakers in Washington refuse to acknowledge his victory. 

But planting one trillion trees is an idea that several GOP lawmakers – and even President Trump – have rallied behind, rapidly emerging as the ground floor of what can be done in Washington. A similar proposal in the House received a cool reception among some Democrats, who argued it was not enough to plant trees without more comprehensive and drastic action to address the crisis. 

Frankly, the easiest or the simplest to implement means of carbon sequestration is trees, Sen. Chris Coons (Del.), the leading Democratic sponsor on the bill, said in a recent interview.

The new bill takes baby steps at boosting efforts to lock carbon out of the atmosphere — and into forests.

The legislation, titled the Trillion Trees and Natural Carbon Storage Act, directs the U.S. Forest Service to set goals for how much carbon the forests, grasslands, wetlands and some coastal areas should sequester from the atmosphere. 

It also authorizes the Agriculture Department to spend more money on nurseries that grow saplings and to guarantee loans for projects seeking to sell credits into markets that aim to cap emissions.

In a statement, Braun called his bill a “common sense proposal to help improve our land, water, soil, and air, without imposing onerous Washington regulations.” Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, is a co-sponsor.

The proposal dovetails with a similar one backed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other Republicans.

Trump backed that support of an international effort to plant a trillion trees around the world, too, in an effort to rebrand himself as a “great environmentalist” after four years of rolling back environmental rules. 

But House Democrats accused the Trump administration simply offering a fig leaf of a climate solution while simultaneously proposing logging in virgin woodland, such as the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.  

“My friends across the aisle want to plant some trees, which is great, but they also want to roll back protections that will allow clear-cutting in places like the Tongass,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing in February.

Such a modest measure alone is not enough to curb emissions as fast as U.N. climate scientists say is necessary. 

It will also take substantial cuts in emissions from cars, power plants and other sectors this decade to halt dangerous levels of warming.

But Coons, a Biden confidant who represents the president-elect's home state, argues his party needs to work across the aisle to pass legislation and make a lasting impact on climate change and other issues.

“Any bill that is Democrats only, great,” Coons said. “Put it in your campaign brochures.”

The Senate bill sands some of the edge off the House proposal. It does not, for example, waive requirements for environmental review for some logging projects, like the House bill does. That provision drew the ire of some environmental groups.

“This scientifically robust bill puts the U.S. on a path to unlock the potential of nature-based climate solutions," said Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president of political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund. “It follows recommendations from climate scientists and nonprofit organizations to focus on measuring climate impact instead of number of trees planted.”

The forestry proposal is the first to emerge from the Climate Solutions Caucus, which Coons and Braun launched a little more than a year ago. The pair have also sponsored a bill aiming to help farmers cut their emissions, as well.

Republicans — especially young ones — increasingly see climate change as a problem.

The tree-planting initiative comes as polls show large numbers of young and suburban Republican voters are concerned about rising temperatures. 

According to a poll last year by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly 7 in 10 Republican adults under 45 said that human activity is causing climate change.

While Trump has mocked the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg after she was named Time’s Person of the Year, Braun has said he thinks she is inspirational.

“I would never want to diss someone like that,” Braun told our colleague Jacqueline Alemany earlier this year. “She’s talking about an issue that she ought to be sincerely concerned about because if we don’t, we’ll pay a consequence for it.”

Power plays

Biden is expected to name his secretaries of agriculture and housing and urban development.

Biden plans to nominate the Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, veteran lawmaker from Ohio, to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development and will tap former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary, our colleagues Annie Linskey, Matt Viser and Seung Min Kim.

Fudge, who declined to confirm the nomination, had publicly lobbied for the Secretary of Agriculture position last month, touting the backing of a coalition of progressive groups who argued that she would be willing to take on large agriculture corporations and push social justice concerns. Some of these same groups dismissed Vilsack as too close to corporate interests.

The HUD position will still place Fudge in a central role overseeing the administration’s efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change through programs related to disaster and climate resilience. 

Vilsack, who previously served as the agriculture secretary during the Obama administration, has pitched Biden on a vision of expanding the Democratic party’s outreach in rural areas.

But he has faced criticism, however, from some Black officials over his 2010 firing of Shirley Sherrod, a Black agriculture official, who was forced out after a conservative news site posted edited clips of a speech she made that appeared racist out of context. 

The fight over a leading contender for EPA chief is revealing divisions among Democrats and environmental groups.

Mary Nichols, the longtime head of the powerful California Air Resources Board, is considered a front-runner to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. She has won praise for pushing auto companies to increase fuel efficiency and capping pollution from power plants. She also has received endorsements from prominent political players, including former GOP governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), our colleagues Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin report.

“But environmental justice activists from her own state are now hoping to derail Nichols’s candidacy, lobbying the Biden transition team to choose among several candidates of color,” Mufson and Eilperin write. “The fight has exposed divisions within the Democratic Party over the best way to tackle two of the biggest issues facing President-elect Joe Biden: racial equity and climate change.”

One central point of contention is her achievement of California’s cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gas emissions. The program allows companies to offset harmful emissions by paying for forestation or other projects that decrease gases elsewhere. But opponents say it amounts to a license to pollute with poor and minority communities bearing the brunt of environmental harms.

Sage grouse and biomass emerge as a sticking point in omnibus spending bill negotiations.

Congress has moved to pass a bill funding the government for one week to avoid a Dec. 11 deadline for a government shutdown, as negotiations over a $1.4 trillion spending bill drag, our colleagues Mike DeBonis, Jeff Stein and Seung Min Kim report.

Although far from the only sticking points, two environmental issues related to sage grouse and the carbon neutrality of biomass have emerged as points of contention. 

This video was taken at the Mount Biedeman Wilderness Study Area in the Bodie Hills. The strutting grouse sound like coffee percolators. (Video: Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management, California)

Spending bills have repeatedly included a provision preventing the Interior Department from listing sage grouse as an endangered species, a move that stems from concerns that such a designation would massively disrupt oil and gas operations in the West. In October, however, a coalition of 59 House Democrats wrote a letter urging party leadership to exclude the sage grouse rider in the final spending bill.

Another rider directing the Environmental Protection Agency to count biomass as a carbon neutral energy source has also come under fire from some Democrats. Environmental groups and scientists have argued that burning biomass, including lumber and wood scraps, releases carbon dioxide while often removing trees that would suck CO2 out of the atmosphere.

More than 500 groups urged Biden to address plastic pollution.

The groups launched a campaign urging Biden to take a number of actions to curb plastics waste, including leveraging the purchasing power of the government to give preference to reusable products over single-use plastics. The plan also calls on Biden to suspend or deny permits for new plastic production projects and engage in multilateral agreements aimed at curbing global pollution.

Organizers say that the plan builds on a movement that spurred the introduction of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act earlier this year. The bill would force corporations to design and manage waste and recycling programs, and would ban certain single-use products.

Small farmers struggle with little safety net amid the pandemic.

In both the breadbasket towns of Moorefield, W.Va., in Appalachia, and Salinas in Central California, "the coronavirus has contributed layers of complexity to an already backbreaking professional path. Several years of historically poor planting conditions and retaliatory tariffs under the Trump administration have cut off potential for agricultural exports and left farmers with few reserves before the pandemic began to hopscotch across the country,” our colleague Laura Reiley.

Once the pandemic hit, small farmers, new farmers and farmers of color lacked the corporate safety net of big agriculture operations and were often ineligible for federal relief. 

“Many didn’t qualify for Paycheck Protection Program loans or the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program payments, which excludes those who rely on direct-to-consumer sales,” Reiley writes.

Thermometer

Global warming has profoundly transformed the Arctic, NOAA warns.

The 2020 Arctic Report Card, a report led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration involving 133 scientists from 15 countries, finds that the region has changed dramatically in the past 15 years.  

“The Arctic as we once knew it, an inhospitable, barely accessible and icebound place, is gone. Climate change has transformed it into a region that can heat up to 100 degrees, is beset by ferocious wildfires, and is covered in permafrost that is no longer permanent. The sea ice cover that has long defined the Far North is fast disappearing,” our colleague Andrew Freedman reports of a region where warming at three times the rate of the rest of the world.

In 2020, the Arctic saw its second-hottest year on record since 1900 as well as its second-lowest sea ice extent at the end of melt season. In Siberia, the wildfire season started early, lasted longer and thawed some of the world’s sensitive permafrost. 

The United Nations warns the world’s wealthiest need to reduce their carbon footprint by a factor of 30.

The new U.N. report finds that the world is “absolutely not” on track to bridging the gap between current practice and the changes needed to meet the goals of the 2015 climate accord. The global rich bear much of the blame.

“Currently, the emissions attributable to the richest 1 percent of the global population account for more than double those of the poorest 50 percent,” our colleagues Brady Dennis, Chris Mooney and Sarah Kaplan report. “Shifting that balance, researchers found, will require swift and substantial lifestyle changes, including decreases in air travel, a rapid embrace of renewable energy and electric vehicles, and better public planning to encourage walking, bicycle riding and public transit.”

Beyond individual changes, the report calls on nations to “roughly triple” their current emissions-cutting pledges to reach the aim of the Paris climate agreement, which seeks to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial average.

Many states with commitments to reduce emissions are not on track to meet their targets.

The finding comes from a report by the Environmental Defense Fund, which analyzed emissions data from the research firm Rhodium Group, Reuters reports. About 25 states have committed to meeting targets set out in the Paris climate agreement, but those states are projected to reduce their emissions by just 18 percent by 2025 instead of the 26 to 28 percent the Obama administration pledged under the 2015 international accord. 

“By 2030, those states will have reduced emissions by 11% from 2010 levels, the report found, below the 45% that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said is needed to reduce severe climate risks,” Reuters writes.

Extra mileage

Biologists spot the first live right whale calf of the season.

The baby whale was spotted by biologists with the Clearwater Aquarium off Georgia’s Cumberland Island on Dec. 4., according to NOAA Fisheries.

A second whale was spotted Monday swimming with bottlenose dolphins off Vilano Beach in Florida. Right whales are critically endangered, so scientists were thrilled by the news of two calfs, USA Today reports.

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