If we needed a reminder of the importance of taking climate change seriously, the floods in Louisiana are providing a big one on a daily basis. When it comes to the big environmental issues, our country’s polarization is historically unusual, and it’s already gone way too far. That’s why the latest fight to break out in Washington over climate issues needs more attention.
On August 1st, the White House Council on Environmental Quality issued a non-binding suggestion, formally known as “guidance”, to federal agencies to think about climate change when making decisions under a law called the National Environmental Policy Act (Nepa). What should have produced a shrug (or, hopefully, a cheer) caused a panic on the right that’s only getting louder.
Under Nepa, federal agencies have to account for the environmental impacts of taking major actions such as approving a mine permit, constructing or removing a dam or allowing a road near a protected habitat. These decisions are made by trained scientists and public servants with years of expertise and involve an unparalleled level of public input. By and large, they are among the most rigorously footnoted and well-supported decisions the federal government makes, and Nepa is one of the best vehicles the public has to express concerns about federal impacts on homes and communities.
The recent guidance suggests that federal agencies account for climate change in the Nepa process. If an agency were to follow the guidance in assessing the impacts of a new coal mine, for example, both the climate impacts of the mining operation itself and the climate impacts of burning the coal from the mine would be factored into the final Nepa analysis.
If this strikes you less as an outrage and more as common sense, you’re not alone. But you won’t find many Washington Republicans agreeing with you. The chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rob Bishop, a Republican congressman from Utah, said of the document: “You can kiss energy independence goodbye.” Republican senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the leading climate denier in Washington, issued a statement refusing to accept the guidance’s validity, claiming in part: “[G]lobal climate change falls outside of the scope of Nepa so the guidance has no legal basis.” They were not alone.
This kind of all-hands-on-deck resistance to a non-binding suggestion that agencies acknowledge climate change is a sign of the times, but it’s also a sign that Republican leaders have made compromise on climate issues impossible. In throwing away a once proud environmental legacy, the party of Donald Trump – the party that makes oil drilling the centerpiece of its environmental agenda and insists that climate scientists are just ganging up on Exxon to enrich themselves – is forfeiting its seat at the table when climate policy is inevitably made down the line.
Setting the politics aside, Nepa is the perfect vehicle for considering climate impacts from both a policy and scientific standpoint. The guidance suggests that agencies look not just at what climate impacts a project will have, but what impacts climate change will have on the project. If we know that climate change is making a coastal area more susceptible to devastating floods or combining with pollutants to worsen asthma in urban areas, the guidance says a federal agency should take that into consideration when planning for the future.
That’s not just sensible – it’s necessary. Taxpayers of every political stripe want government agencies to consider all the facts, not just a politically approved subset of information, when deciding how federal money will be spent and which programs are working in the public interest. Pretending that climate change isn’t real was politically expedient in the past. Today it’s dangerous for millions of Americans, and it dooms the Republican Party to irrelevance in climate discussions.
Willful ignorance serves no one in the real world. That’s the world the guidance to federal agencies is about: the world where our nation’s fishermen are finding their livelihoods upended by climate change, where whole states like California are facing historical levels of drought, where major wildfires are now standard front-page news. That’s the world the American people live in. It’s the world our government’s decisions should reflect.
Raúl Grijalva is the U.S. Representative for Arizona’s 7th congressional district, which includes Yuma, Nogales, and parts of metro Phoenix and Tucson.