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Plastic recycling is broken. So why does Big Plastic want $1 billion to fix it?

As the coronavirus pandemic cripples the U.S. economy, corporate giants are turning to Congress for help. Polluting industries have been among the first in line: Congress has already bailed out airlines, and coal companies have snagged over $30 million in federal small-business loans. Big Plastic is next in line with what might seem a surprising request: $1 billion to help fix the country’s recycling.

A group of plastic industry and trade groups sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on April 16, asking Congress to allocate $1 billion to municipal and state recycling infrastructure in the next pandemic stimulus bill. It would be part of legislation known as the RECOVER Act, first introduced in Congress last November. Recycling sounds great, and has long been an environmental policy that almost everyone — Republicans and Democrats both — can get behind. To some environmentalists and advocates, however, the latest push is simply the plastic industry trying to get the federal government to clean up mountains of plastic waste in an attempt to burnish Big Plastic’s image.

“Plastic recycling has been a failure,” said Judith Enck, a former regional director for the Environmental Protection Agency and the founder of the organization Beyond Plastics. “And there’s no reason to try to spend federal tax dollars to try to prop up plastic recycling when it really hasn’t worked for the last 30 years anyway.”

Put simply, very little of your plastic recycling actually gets recycled. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, less than 10 percent of the plastic produced in the past four decades has been recycled; the rest has wound up in landfills or been incinerated. In 2017, the U.S. produced over 35 million tons of plastic, yet less than 3 million tons was made into new products.

Part of the problem is that some items are composed of different types of plastic and chemicals, making them difficult to melt down and process. Only plastics with a “1” or “2” symbol are commonly recycled, and even then, they are more often “downcycled” into different types of products. A container of laundry detergent or a plastic soda bottle might be used for a new carpet or outdoor decking, but rarely into a new bottle. And downcycling is one step closer to the landfill. “The logo of recycling is the arrow that goes around and around — but that’s never been the case with plastic,” said Enck.

Big plastic-producing companies also have little incentive to use recycled materials rather than virgin materials. Plastics are made from petroleum, and when the price of crude oil is as low as it is now, it costs more to manufacture goods from recycled polymers than from crude.

Some analysts say that the RECOVER Act doesn’t take on these larger issues. The act is aimed at the “curbside” aspect of recycling: funding city and state recycling collection, improving sorting at processing plants, and encouraging consumer education — teaching people what can (and cannot) go into recycling bins. (The legislation is also backed by the American Chemistry Council, which represents Dow Chemical and ExxonMobil, and has long fought against municipal plastic bag bans.)

There are some curbside problems with recycling. If plastic bags or containers covered with food waste get into recycling bins, they can contaminate other items and make sorting and reuse more difficult.

But Jonathan Krones, a professor of environmental studies at Boston College, said the real problem isn’t at the curb. It’s that “there aren’t robust, long-term resilient end markets for recycled material.” Even if cities manage to collect and sort more recycling, without markets all those perfectly processed plastics have nowhere to go.

For decades the U.S. solved part of the problem by selling hundreds of thousands of tons of used plastics to China. Then, in 2018, the Chinese government implemented its “National Sword” policy, forbidding the import of 24 types of waste in a campaign against foreign trash. The U.S. suddenly had lost the biggest market for its used plastics, and cities across the U.S. began burning recyclables or sending them to landfills. Some cities have stopped recycling plastic and paper altogether.

Piles of plastic and paper at a city recycling processing plant in Brooklyn, New York. Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis / Getty Images

So why is Big Plastic pushing the RECOVER Act? Some argue that petroleum companies are trying to paper over the failures of plastic recycling. If consumers realized that only 10 percent of their plastics are ultimately recycled, they might push for bans on plastic bags and other single-use items, or more stringent restrictions on packaging. Keeping the focus on recycling can distract public attention from the piles of plastic waste clogging up our landfills and oceans. And a recent investigation by NPR and Frontline revealed that since the 1970s the plastics industry has backed recycling programs to buttress its public image.

“Had this bill been proposed 10 years ago, I think I would have said it was a good idea,” Krones said, referring to the RECOVER Act. “But what has been revealed after National Sword is that this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a technology problem. It’s a consumption problem and a manufacturing problem.” He argues that any attempt to fix plastic recycling should come with constraints on the production of new materials — only manufacturing plastics that can be easily broken down and reused, for example, or mandating that companies include a certain percentage of recycled materials in their products.

There are other ways to deal with the plastic problem. In February, Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, a Democrat, introduced the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, which would phase out many single-use plastic items like utensils and straws and require big companies to pay for recycling and composting products — what’s known as “extended producer responsibility.” Other countries have similar laws on the books: Germany has required companies to take responsibility for their own packaging since 1991, and it’s been credited with dramatically reducing waste.

For now, plastic use is on the rise. According to Meidl, the pandemic is bringing piles of takeout boxes and plastic bags to landfills, as cities ban reusable bags and enforce social distancing. She thinks that the RECOVER Act could be helpful, but that it needs to be coupled with other interventions.

“No matter how much government funding is allocated towards recycling efforts, there first needs to be a significant paradigm in human behavior,” she said. “Where plastic is viewed as a resource, not a waste.”

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Plastic recycling is broken. So why does Big Plastic want $1 billion to fix it?

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Trump’s environmental rollbacks are deeply unpopular with swing voters

It may be hard to tell, but in between jabs at climate science, federal science agencies, and stalwart environmental regulations, President Trump has been trying to position himself as an environmentalist. The president’s efforts to green his image go back as far as 2017, when he told business leaders, and I quote, “I’m a very big person when it comes to the environment.” Do voters agree? New research shows they most certainly do not.

Swing voters in four key states — Florida, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Michigan — are squarely opposed to Trump’s environmental rollbacks. That’s the takeaway from a set of focus groups of dozens of swing voters — defined as those who switched their presidential vote from Democratic to Republican, or vice versa, between 2012 and 2016 — run by a non-partisan research groups Engagious and Focus Pointe Global.

Unlike polls, the focus groups don’t reflect the opinions of a representative sample of likely voters. Instead, they give us a glimpse into the minds of voters whose preferences could determine who will sit in the Oval Office come January. The participants were asked to rate their support for Trump’s environmental rollbacks on a scale of 1 to 10 twice: before seeing a list of 17 policies he’s gutted and after. (Those 17 policies were pulled from a comprehensive list of rollbacks compiled by the New York Times.) The groups’ ratings averaged 4.5 before seeing the rollbacks and 3.2 after.

In Florida, a state that’s particularly aware of the consequences of rising temperatures and seas, the average dropped to 2.6 after seeing the rollbacks enumerated. “Before seeing that list of rollbacks, my hand would have been up 100 percent for Trump,” one Florida focus group participant and 2016 Trump supporter said. “After seeing it, my hand was not up. I’m not 100 percent sold on him.” Another participant asked why she supported Trump less after seeing the list of rollbacks, said she didn’t know about half of those rollbacks before seeing them. “To me, it made a difference to actually see them and process it,” she said. Another participant said she didn’t expect or want Trump to roll back those regulations, despite voting for him in 2016. “He’s supposed to be protecting our country and our world,” she said. “He’s supposed to be a world leader.”

Trump’s environmental rollbacks might not be enough to prompt these swing-state voters to choose a Democrat in the voting booth — that first Florida participant who said he’s not 100 percent sold on Trump said he’s still “80 percent sold on Trump just because of a lot of the other things he stands for.” But the focus group results do show that Trump’s rollbacks are supremely unpopular with the people whose presidential votes count the most.

Other research supports the idea that climate change is an important consideration for bipartisan voters. In South Carolina, a state that votes for the Democratic nominee this Saturday, addressing climate change is a top issue. A January poll conducted by Conservation Voters of South Carolina and Audubon Action Fund found that 64 percent of all South Carolinians think climate change is a serious problem. Only 13 percent of folks surveyed for that poll self-identified as liberal, and only 31 percent said they were Democrats. It’s clear that rising temperatures aren’t just an issue for diehard Democrats anymore — other slices of the political spectrum are starting to get in on the climate action.

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Trump’s environmental rollbacks are deeply unpopular with swing voters

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The Sunrise Movement has a plan to force presidential candidates to address climate change

The Sunrise Movement has had a big year: The climate activist group staged a protest in Nancy Pelosi’s office, helped spur a standoff between kids and California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, and had a meeting with Beto O’Rourke that resulted in the candidate taking a pledge to eschew fossil fuel donations. Sunrise activists are known for coming in real hot and pushing the Green New Deal like their lives depend on it. The next piece of their climate plan is no different.

On Monday night, the group hosted a rally in Washington, D.C., featuring two of the patron saints of the current climate movement: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders. At that rally, between jabs at Joe Biden’s alleged “middle of the road” climate approach and stabs at the fossil fuel industry, Sunrise unveiled the next rung of a ladder that the group hopes will lead all the way to the White House.

Here’s how the group aims to center the 2020 presidential race around climate change, even though the main Republican contender has one of the most severe allergies to climate action doctors have ever seen.

Sunrise hopes to get Democratic candidates to accept their three key demands: Candidates must sign the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, make the Green New Deal a priority on day one in office, and call on the Democratic National Committee to host a climate debate. The group says it is in the process of mobilizing its network of thousands of volunteers across the nation to put pressure on the candidates to meet its demands.

Sunrise is also organizing a demonstration at the presidential debate in Detroit beginning on July 30, the deadline for candidates to accept the aforementioned three demands. The group says it will host a parallel event featuring speakers and stories from folks on the frontlines of the climate struggle.

Will 2020 candidates buckle under pressure? We’ll see. But it’s clear from the rapid-fire way Beto took the no fossil fuel money pledge that Sunrise’s tactics have left a serious impression on the presidential hopefuls: No one wants that awkward Feinstein moment.

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The Sunrise Movement has a plan to force presidential candidates to address climate change

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Green New Deal activists make first 2020 endorsement in wildfire-burned California

This story was originally published by HuffPost and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The Green New Dealers are making their first endorsement of the 2020 election.

At a rally on Saturday, Sunrise Movement, the youth-led grassroots group whose protests pushed the Green New Deal into the political mainstream, endorsed Audrey Denney, an agricultural educator running to replace Rebulican Representative Doug LaMalfa in California’s wildfire-scorched 1st congressional district.

“She’s spent her life working to help farmers and rural communities in the district put food on the table for their families and be part of environmental solutions,” Varshini Prakash, Sunrise Movement’s co-founder, said in a statement. “Representative LaMalfa’s constituents are dying because of climate change, yet he’s spent his career in Washington cozying up with the same oil and gas lobbyists who profited at the expense of his constituents’ lives.”

The rally, the latest stop on Sunrise Movement’s tour to promote the Green New Deal, took place in Chico, a northern California city with nearly 94,000 residents, which was hit repeatedly last year by deadly wildfires.

LaMalfa, who rejects what he calls the “bad science” behind climate change, beat Denney last November to win a fourth term.

But the Democrat faced extraordinary personal challenges in her debut bid for elected office. She advanced to the general election despite entering the primary race late. But midway through the campaign, she underwent surgery after her doctor diagnosed a football-sized tumor on her ovary. Eighteen hours after her procedure, she shot a video from her hospital bed reflecting on the limited healthcare access in her district.

She lost the race but managed to shrink LaMalfa’s usual 20 percent margin of victory to 9 percent. At the time, Sunrise Movement — then a much smaller operation working on just a handful of progressive campaigns, including that of New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez  — did not endorse her. But this time the group is betting that its newfound clout and the sobering climate realities that voters in California’s 1st now face will propel Denney to victory in 2020.

Already last summer, the Carr Fire ripped through the district, killing eight. But, days after the election, a utility equipment failure ignited the Camp Fire. By the time its final flames went out, the blaze killed 85, reduced the entire town of Paradise to ash and displaced thousands in the deadliest wildfire in California history. Though mostly spared, the Chico City Council declared a climate change emergency earlier this month.

“In 2018, 93 lives were lost in my district in the Carr and Camp Fires,” Denney said in a statement. “I’m running for Congress because we need a representative who is only beholden to their constituents, not to corporate interests and political gamesmanship.”

Denney pledged to reject money from fossil fuel companies and executives, and she vowed if elected to support Green New Deal legislation in Congress. That stands in stark contrast to LaMalfa, who’s received over $162,330 from energy and natural resource corporate political action committees and over $100,000 from the oil and gas lobby, according to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. A LaMalfa spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday.

Sunrise Movement is expected to play an expanded role in 2020. Last November, the group’s protests mainstreamed the Green New Deal, a movement for a sweeping national plan to zero out emissions and provide clean-energy and climate infrastructure jobs to millions. Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey released a joint resolution outlining the core values of a Green New Deal in February. With notable exceptions, including former Vice President Joe Biden, nearly every major contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination backed the plan.

The group is in the midst of a nationwide tour with roughly 250 events at churches, classrooms and town halls meant to drum up support for the Green New Deal.

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Green New Deal activists make first 2020 endorsement in wildfire-burned California

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Beto’s first major 2020 policy proposal is a $5 trillion climate plan

Not to be outdone by Elizabeth Warren’s public lands bill or Cory Booker’s environmental justice proposal, Beto O’Rourke announced a $5 trillion climate plan on Monday. The presidential hopeful unveiled what he called “the most ambitious climate plan in the history of the United States” in a 40-second Twitter video, gesticulating wildly on a backdrop of luscious flora in Yosemite Valley, California.

Beto’s first major policy proposal of the election season has four components: slash pollution, invest $5 trillion, reach net-zero by 2050, and protect communities on the frontlines of climate change. Each of those categories includes sub-agenda items, like re-entering the Paris climate agreement, phasing out the mega-pollutants hydrofluorocarbons, clamping down on methane leaks, creating a federal “buy clean” program for cement and steel, and halting the sale of new fossil fuel leases on federal lands. O’Rourke aims to accomplish at least part of this agenda by way of executive order.

The meatiest portion of the former Texas congressman’s plan is the investment bit. He plans to propose a bill that would invest $1.5 trillion in innovation, infrastructure, and “people and communities,” which will mobilize $5 trillion invested in climate change over the span of a decade. The money will be parceled out for different initiatives: tax incentives to bring existing green technologies to scale, researching and developing new ways to bring down greenhouse gases, housing and transportation grants for front-line communities, and more.

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How will he pay for it? Good question. The massive investment will be funded through changes to America’s tax code. Corporations and the nation’s wealthiest citizens will be expected to pay their “fair share,” and O’Rourke said he would put an end to the billions fossil fuel companies receive in tax breaks. The candidate promised that this would be the very first bill he’d send to Congress as president.

“Given the gravity of the work that lies ahead, this fight will require much more than a president signing executive orders,” O’Rourke wrote in his plan. But it’s unclear how the Texan expects his bill to pass a Congress that will surely remain at least relatively divided in 2020, even if Democrats manage to flip the Republican-controlled Senate.

Other climate-oriented 2020 candidates, like Washington Governor Jay Inslee, have advocated for eliminating the legislative filibuster, in addition to taking action through executive order. (The filibuster, a long-standing Senate rule that requires a supermajority to pass legislation, is a major obstacle between Democrats and their sweeping proposals to accomplish everything from climate to health care to gun reform.) O’Rourke makes no mention of the rule in his climate plan*.

Despite O’Rourke’s promise to make climate change a day-one priority, some climate activists weren’t entirely convinced by the Democrat’s enthusiastic unveiling. “Beto claims to support the Green New Deal,” climate activist group the Sunrise Movement said in a statement, “but his plan is out of line with the timeline it lays out and the scale of action scientists say is necessary.” The group wants O’Rourke to move his 2050 timeline up to 2030, and take the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, a vow not to take donations over $200 from the fossil fuel industry. O’Rourke was removed from the pledge last year when an investigation found that he had taken money from fossil fuel executives during his Texas Senate race.

But the more established League of Conservation Voters commended the candidate for taking an ambitious stand on climate. This is “the kind of leadership we need from our next president,” the group wrote in a press release.

*Update: In March, Beto told reporters he’d “seriously consider” ditching the filibuster. 

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Beto’s first major 2020 policy proposal is a $5 trillion climate plan

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Meet the 16-year-old who went viral after asking Dianne Feinstein to support a Green New Deal

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Isha Clarke, a junior at MetWest High School in Oakland, California, was one of about a dozen young people who confronted Senator Dianne Feinstein in an attempt to convince her to endorse the Green New Deal resolution proposed earlier this month by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, and Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts.

The group went into the meeting with high hopes. They emerged disappointed but armed with footage that enraged many in the online environmental community who believe the U.S. needs to remake its economy to tackle climate change.

An edited video of the encounter in the foyer of the California Democrat’s San Francisco office went viral on Twitter over the weekend. A longer version ends with the Senator promising Clarke an internship, a reflection that Feinstein, who has been in office for three decades, knows “how to play the game,” according to The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan.

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Clarke is a member of the climate group Youth vs. Apocalypse, a young people-led organization under the umbrella of the Bay Area’s chapter of the climate advocacy group 350.org. (Editor’s note: Grist board member Bill McKibben is 350.org’s founder.) She was invited to speak at a rally outside of Feinstein’s California office organized by the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate activist organization, and attended by social justice outfit Bay Area Earth Guardians. She then joined the Earth Guardians and Sunrise activists when they met with Feinstein in her office.

Grist caught up with Clarke on Monday to discuss the online reaction to the Feinstein meeting, the Green New Deal resolution, why she’s fighting for climate justice at the tender age of 16, and of course, the internship the Senator promised her. (This conversation has been edited for clarity.)

Q. What was your impression of Senator Feinstein’s reaction to your request?

A. Our feeling about the whole interaction was really bad. At the end of the day, it’s not about her, it’s not about her tone or her reaction, it’s about her vote. We’re focusing on the fact that we went there to ask her to vote yes on the Green New Deal because that is the most important thing. We’re not really concerned with all the other stuff. It’s sort of becoming a distraction, you know?

Q. Did you expect her to say, “Yes I support the version of the Green New Deal” when you confronted her?

A. Yes. We really just wanted her to say that she was in solidarity with us — and that when it comes to her time to vote she would vote yes. I didn’t know that she necessarily opposed it, but I knew that she hadn’t made up her mind yet. I was there to get her to be on the side of “yes.”

Q. Senator Feinstein handed out copies of what she referred to as her “own Green New Deal” during that meeting. What did you think of it?

A. It’s simply not bold enough, and it doesn’t align with science. It doesn’t talk about fracking or offshore drilling, green jobs, or transportation. I also don’t think it takes a bold enough stance on economic or racial justice. It’s really just a watered-down version of the Green New Deal.

Feinstein made the argument that she didn’t think that AOC’s Green New Deal would pass, but quite frankly, neither will her resolution. If we’re going to be offering something to Congress it needs to be something bold. Honestly, right now, it’s more about getting our politicians to take a serious public stance on the Green New Deal and start building the momentum so that when [Democrats] do take back the Senate, and we have more of a political force, we can go right into the Green New Deal. We know that it might not pass but it’s about solidarity.

Q. Did you ask Feinstein for the internship or did she offer it?

A. After the whole interaction, we were leaving and I wanted to bring it back to the purpose [of the meeting], and thank her for her time, because I recognize that she’s a busy lady. She said, ‘Thank you and I really want you to have an internship here so you can understand what it’s like and understand all of the nuance and things like that.’ And then she started to walk away, and I wanted to hold her to that. I mean she just offered me an internship, so I was the one who asked her how I would do that. And the cameras had started walking away so they only heard me asking for the internship. But she had actually brought it up, and I was just following through.

Q. Has her office reached out since Friday?

A. They haven’t reached out. I have their business card. I’m still debating on whether or not I’m going to take [the internship]. It’s a complex situation. The reason why I would take the internship is because I think it’s an incredible opportunity. To be blunt, you have to learn how to play the game to change it. So I think it is a super cool way to be able to do that, and to learn the ins and outs. And I think that it’s also important to have my voice be in the room.

But I wouldn’t take it for a couple of reasons. No. 1: I don’t know what the internship actually entails. Sometimes high school students just do paperwork, and that’s not what I’m interested in. But mostly it’s because I don’t want my having an internship with her to turn into a justification for the whole situation. It’s already kind of being used like that. People are saying, ‘There was a happy ending, and Senator Feinstein offered a girl an internship and whoopdeedoo.’ And I don’t want me having a position there to be a way to cover up everything that just happened.

Q.You have spoken out about gun reform in the past. Now you’re talking about climate. As a politically-active student with limited time, how do you decide which issues to fight for?

A. I am a young woman of color, so I feel drawn to a lot of issues. Part of the reason why I’m working on the Green New Deal right now is because I think it is the most intersectional plan that I’ve seen ever, and it really excites me that I can work for everything I believe in in this one deal. It encompasses economic justice, climate justice, racial justice, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, all of that can be part of the Green New Deal.

You can’t separate climate justice from any other justices because they’re all-in-one. So when I’m fighting for climate justice, I’m fighting for everything else, too.


Meet the 16-year-old who went viral after asking Dianne Feinstein to support a Green New Deal

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A bunch of kids confronted Senator Dianne Feinstein over the Green New Deal

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It’s becoming increasingly clear that kids, not grownups, are driving the global conversation around climate action. As you read this, young people in Europe and the United States are organizing marches, walk-outs, and sit-ins to protest the way their governments are handling (or ignoring) climate change. It’s not just a cute stunt, in many cases, these kiddos are getting serious results.

In the latest round of the kids v. adults showdown: A bunch of children and young folks stormed Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office to ask her to back the Green New Deal. And the California Democrat took the opportunity to publicly back the proposal! Just kidding.

The meeting was organized by the Sunrise Movement, the same climate group that staged a sit-in in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand she support the GND after the midterms. The kids, and at least one adult, presented Feinstein with a handwritten letter asking her to vote “yes” on the progressive climate plan.

Judging by the video, Feinstein appeared prepared to negotiate at first. “I’ll tell you what,” she said. “We have our own Green New Deal.” But after being interrupted multiple times, Feinstein got a little feisty, and things turned testy.

“Some scientists have said we have 12 years to turn this around,” a little girl told the senator. “Well, it’s not going to get turned around in 10 years,” Feinstein responded, which is the political equivalent of telling a kid that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist. Except maybe meaner.

Whether you’re on the side of the kids or the grandma (not an insult, Feinstein reports she has seven grandchildren), one lesson here is that telling a bunch of kids that you won your race by “a million vote plurality” isn’t the best way to endear yourself to an increasingly rambunctious climate movement.


A bunch of kids confronted Senator Dianne Feinstein over the Green New Deal

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Here’s where 2020 presidential candidate Julián Castro stands on the environment

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Last week, President Obama’s former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro announced he is running for president. Castro is well known in San Antonio, Texas, where he served as mayor from 2009 to 2014, but he’s not exactly a household name elsewhere in the country just yet. The Latino Democrat’s 2020 policy agenda includes progressive crowd-pleasers like universal pre-K and Medicare-for-all, but where does he stand on the environment?

We don’t have to speculate about Castro’s environmental intentions. During his announcement speech on Saturday, Castro swore to reaffirm America’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement and pass some version of a Green New Deal.

There’s reason to believe he isn’t just jumping on the climate change bandwagon because other (rumored and official) 2020 contenders — such as Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Washington state Governor Jay Inslee — have made climate change a central component of their platforms. While he was the mayor of San Antonio, Castro pushed the city’s public utility to close a 900-megawatt coal-powered plant, adopt a 20 percent renewable energy by 2020 pledge, and offer green jobs training. The city also launched a small car-sharing program and a bike-share system aimed at making transportation greener under his leadership.

But Castro’s environmental record isn’t blemish-free. In 2011, during his time as mayor, he touted the economic benefits of fracked gas for his district. “This is the kind of moment that only comes once a century,” he said of a proposed fracking project in the Eagle Ford Shale. And the native Texan has not yet taken the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge — a vow to eschew donations from Big Oil PACs that has only been taken by a few 2020 contenders thus far, including Warren and Inslee.

So as 2020 presidential candidates keep pushing each other further left, will Castro draw a clearer line in the sand when it comes to climate? We’ll keep you posted.

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Here’s where 2020 presidential candidate Julián Castro stands on the environment

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EPA nominee Andrew Wheeler wasn’t ready for the Senate’s questions on climate change

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This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

It was clear about halfway through Andrew Wheeler’s confirmation hearing to lead the Environmental Protection Agency that he wasn’t prepared for the number of questions he was getting on climate change.

Senator Ed Markey (a Democrat from Massachusetts) asked Wheeler on Wednesday whether he agreed with the fourth National Climate Assessment’s conclusions on how Americans will be affected by the world’s relative inaction on climate change, a report that was vetted by 13 federal agencies including the EPA.

Wheeler didn’t exactly answer, saying that he had not been fully briefed on the report because much of his agency’s staff isn’t working right now. “We’ve been shut down the last few weeks,” he said, explaining that he had only been briefed once by staff since the report was published in late November. He said his additional briefings were postponed; about 95 percent of his agency is furloughed.

The Republican majority gave Wheeler an unsurprising pass, defending his record as a lobbyist for an assortment of industries he now regulates, including his main old client, coal baron Bob Murray. But most of the Democratic members, which included several potential 2020 presidential contenders, grilled Wheeler on climate change.

Senator Bernie Sanders asked Wheeler if he considered climate change to be “one of the great crises that face our planet.”

“I would not call it the greatest crisis, no sir,” he answered. “I would call it a huge issue that needs to be addressed globally.”

When senators grilled him on climate change, Wheeler attempted to walk a fine line to sound more reasonable than the president’s talk of a “hoax,” but not go too far to suggest he would do much to crack down on rising greenhouse gas pollution.

“On a one to 10 scale, how concerned are you about the impact of climate change?” Senator Jeff Merkley (a Democrat from Oregon) asked Wheeler, saying that 10 would be an issue that keeps him “up at night.”

“I stay awake at night worrying about a lot of things at the agency,” Wheeler said, before volunteering an “eight or nine.”

Merkley didn’t hide his surprise. “Really?”

The senator challenged Wheeler on his go-to talking point that the EPA was taking action on pollution via its Affordable Clean Energy rule replacement for an Obama-era coal plant regulation and fuel efficiency standards. ACE doesn’t reduce carbon emissions from coal any more than market forces, and the EPA is weakening car standards and considering ending a waiver for California that implements more aggressive targets.

These policies already didn’t come close to the reductions needed to limit warming below a disastrous 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F). But reversing them risks even more. Last year, greenhouse emissions continued to rise globally, including by 3.4 percent in the United States.

There was an even sharper focus on climate change than in past Trump-era EPA hearings. The conversation around climate change has shifted quite a bit since Wheeler last appeared before the Senate in August, a few weeks after he took the helm of the agency. Now Trump officials face more questions from the opposing party that dig deeper than the usual “Do you believe in climate change?”

The three senators who are considering presidential bids, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sanders, and Merkley, all centered their questions around climate change. Since August, the issue has become a top item for the House Democratic majority, and progressives have talked of an ambitious “Green New Deal.” Meanwhile, the science has grown more alarming: In addition to the National Climate Assessment, an October report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change looked at the damaging effects from 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) of warming.

A protest interrupted Wheeler when he began on Wednesday, which never once mentioned the words “climate change,” as he ran through his greatest hits — deregulatory and otherwise — from his first year at the EPA.

The protests could still be heard faintly from the hallway when he continued his introductory remarks. “Shut down Wheeler! Not the EPA!”

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EPA nominee Andrew Wheeler wasn’t ready for the Senate’s questions on climate change

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CBO dismisses costs of global warming, posing hurdle for climate legislation

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This story was originally published by the HuffPost and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In a baffling repudiation of the federal government’s own scientists, the Congressional Budget Office last week said that climate change poses little economic risk to the United States in the next decade.

The statement, which went so far as to highlight dubiously positive effects of rising global temperatures, poses a potential hurdle for future legislation to curb surging greenhouse gas emissions, experts said, and amounts to textbook climate change denial.

Buried on page 292 of a 316-page report titled “Options for Reducing the Deficit: 2019 to 2028,” the CBO said: “Many estimates suggest that the effect of climate change on the nation’s economic output, and hence on federal tax revenues, will probably be small over the next 30 years and larger, but still modest, in the following few decades.”

“That’s just completely false,” Gary Yohe, an environmental economist at Wesleyan University, said by phone Wednesday. “There are no references to these ‘many estimates,’ and the following part of the paragraph cherry-picks.”

The report — first noted on Twitter by investigative reporter David Sirota — goes on to tout positive effects like “fewer deaths from cold weather” and “improvements in agricultural productivity” as some of “the more certain effects of climate change on humans over the next several decades.”

The stunning remarks directly contradict the National Climate Assessment, which found that, by 2100, crop damage, lost labor, and extreme weather will cost the U.S. economy upward of $500 billion a year. That’s “more than the current gross domestic product of many U.S. states,” according to the report, drafted by researchers at 13 federal agencies.

In October the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change determined that unabated global warming beyond 2.3 degrees F above preindustrial levels would cause $54 trillion in damage and that the world is likely to hit that average temperature increase unless world governments halve emissions by 2030.

In a lengthy statement to HuffPost, the CBO referred to three of its own past reports, including one that said, “Even under scenarios in which significant climate change is assumed, the projected long-term effects on GDP would tend to be modest relative to underlying economic growth.”

“Although CBO has not undertaken a full analysis of the budgetary costs stemming from climate change, it has recently analyzed the potential costs of future hurricane damage caused by climate change and coastal development,” read an excerpt from one report highlighted in the statement. “All told, CBO projects that the increase in the amount of hurricane damage attributable to coastal development and climate change will probably be less than 0.05 percent of GDP in the 2040s.”

The agency’s report attributed differing climate predictions to “the imperfect understanding of physical processes and of many aspects of the interacting components (land, air, water, ice, and all forms of life) that make up the Earth’s climate system.”

In an as-yet-unpublished study shared with HuffPost, Yohe calculated that hurricane damage alone totaled $2.9 trillion from 1998 to 2018. Of that, he found $2.25 trillion (about $107 billion per year) could be attributed to climate change. That sum is up from $900 billion ($45 billion per year) from 1978 to 1997.

The CBO finding could delay efforts to pass long-overdue climate legislation in the next few years and provide ammunition to combat any such measures for lawmakers who have long denied the scientific realities of global warming on ideological grounds.

“Anybody writing legislation is going to have to understand that using budgetary effects is not necessarily going to get you a long way to getting passage,” said Mark Harkins, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.

The CBO, established as Congress’ official budget scorekeeper in 1974, may be identifying a “difference between the impact on the budget and the economy,” said Stan Collender, a federal spending expert who runs the website The Budget Guy.

“If CBO said it, it’s serious and credible,” he said, adding that the assessment “decreases the political imperative” for sweeping climate policies like the Green New Deal that Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (a Democrat from New York) and more than 40 other Democrats have vowed to champion in the next Congress.

But some say the CBO increasingly poses an obstacle to policies needed to curb global warming and halt worsening poverty, in the name of misplaced concerns about the national deficit. Among them is Stephanie Kelton, an economist at Stony Brook University and a proponent of modern monetary theory, the concept that, under a currency like the dollar, a government can print as much money as it wants without fear of going bankrupt.

When the CBO found that Republican tax cuts to the rich and corporations would inflate the national deficit, the GOP attacked the nonpartisan agency, and the White House claimed the CBO’s math “doesn’t add up.” While objecting to the GOP’s tax cut for the wealthy in an era of climate crisis, Kelton lauded the political will to challenge the traditional debt calculus.

“Everyone’s got to stop being so freaking deferential to the CBO,” she said by phone. “Republicans weren’t afraid to call them out and say their numbers were wrong. They dismissed it. I just think Democrats need to stand up when it comes time.”

Federal efforts to combat climate change should be met with the kind of seemingly unlimited bipartisan support that exists for military spending to defend the country from foreign threats, Kelton said, calling the CBO report “out of step with what the scientific community and others are telling us.”

“You’ve got to figure out a way around the CBO,” she said. “If they’re going to become an obstacle, you either have to go around or through or you remove the obstacle.”

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CBO dismisses costs of global warming, posing hurdle for climate legislation

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