Senate Democrats released a long-awaited climate plan on Tuesday, continuing the seemingly endless flurry of recent climate reports released by Democratic party members in recent weeks. The new 255-page report is as comprehensive as it is disappointing.
Like the House’s Select Committee on the Climate Crisis report, the Biden-Sanders task force proposal, a new Biden plan, and the Democratic National Committee platform all released earlier this summer, the new Senate Democrats’ Climate Committee plan is far more ambitious than similar documents from previous years. These plans essentially lay the foundation for climate policy should Biden win the White House and Democrats retake the Senate while holding the House.
While proposals of yore were often just centered around carbon taxes, the new document includes language focused on clean energy expansion and protections for workers in the renewable sector. It calls to construct and retrofit energy efficient buildings, reform agriculture to promote climate resilience and create jobs. Senate Democrats also want to commit at least 2% of the country’s GDP to investing in these measures, of which at least 40% of would go toward “investments to help communities of color and low-income, deindustrialized and other disadvantaged communities.”
Importantly, it also acknowledges that since “market-based policies alone cannot ensure that all communities will reap the environmental benefits that come from clean electricity,” the U.S. needs federal policies to “ensure that national-level emission reductions directly relate to decreased pollution in individual communities.”
The plan also accurately notes the urgency of the climate crisis. “There is a closing window...to hold global temperature increase below catastrophic levels,” it says.
Yet it has a few shortcomings, including not setting a benchmarks for decarbonization in specific sectors. Even worse, though, is that like its contemporaries from the House, Democratic National Committee, and presidential nominee Joe Biden, the new plan does not a clear pathway for taking on the root cause of those terrifying impacts by phasing out the country’s extraction and use of fossil fuels.
“Given the real lack of any meaningful climate action to come out of the Senate, one could say, this is an improvement,” said Mitch Jones, Policy Director of Food and Water Action.“But unfortunately, the bar that needs to be met isn’t just surpassing past action or inaction. We need a plan that is capable of handing a habitable planet to future generations. And this plan doesn’t meet that bar.”
Even if the Senate climate committee didn’t want to go all out by setting a date to end oil, gas, and coal extraction and calling for a ban on any new fossil fuel infrastructure, the authors could have included incremental measures to at least begin the process of fossil fuel phase-out. But the senators failed to do so, despite the fact that leading climate scientists have warned policies to end fossil fuels must be enacted immediately.
The document doesn’t, for instance, include a recommendation to reinstate the crude oil export ban which was lifted toward the end of Obama’s second term, even though research shows that doing so would significantly reduce global carbon emissions. There’s also nothing in the plan about banning fracking—not even just on public lands, which former Vice President Joe Biden himself has endorsed. And there’s no proposal to end fossil fuel subsidies, either—another measure Biden says he’s committed to, despite being dropped from the DNC’s platform last week.
The plan does call for the expansion of carbon capture and sequestration technology to remove the atmospheric carbon emitted by the continued production of fossil fuels. The problem is, though many climate scientists’ models for minimizing global warming include the use of carbon capture, the scheme is also favored by oil and gas companies because it allows them to commit to reducing their emissions without changing their extraction-focused business models. There’s also no evidence that that these technologies actually work at the scale they’d be required, which could lock us into a dangerous path if fossil fuel expansion continues.
“Carbon capture is a sideshow that distract us from the main thing we have to do, which is ramp up rapid production and deployment of renewable energy like wind and solar coupled with energy storage, and at the same time, rapidly ramp down the extraction and burning of fossil fuels,” said Jones.
The plan’s failure to directly take on the fossil fuel industry is particularly disappointing because it correctly highlights the ways that industry has maintained its dangerous influence by pouring money into political campaigns to suppress dissent, spread misinformation, and block meaningful climate action.
Winding down the industry while holding polluting companies accountable for their massive role in the climate crisis is central to any worthy climate action plan. Oil companies have shown they’re not going to curb their emissions sufficiently by themselves—they’ll need to be forced into it with lawsuits and legislation. That will need to happen swiftly in order to avert the worst of the climate crisis.