WASHINGTON — During his inaugural address last month, President Barack Obama vowed firmly and explicitly to make tackling climate change a top priority in his second term.
But if he does, it will likely be without the help of Congress.
Interviews with a range of Congressional sources revealed little appetite on Capitol Hill for serious action on the issue. In the House, many members of the Republican majority don’t even agree with scientists on the root causes of climate change. And in the Democrat-controlled Senate, there is scant incentive to act on such a politically dicey issue — particularly when a host of moderate Democrats will face reelection battles during the 2014 cycle.
A bipartisan consensus has emerged that the only progress on climate change in the next two years will come directly from the White House, where Obama will have to act unilaterally via executive orders and the Environmental Protection Agency — circumventing the legislative process entirely.
“The president hasn’t ever done anything on this issue for a good reason: Senate Democrats want to deal with it about as much as they want to poke themselves repeatedly in the eye with a No. 2 pencil,” one House Republican aide mused.
Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid did not include climate change legislation among his priority measures for the coming Congress. And a Senate Republican aide confirmed that work is not currently being done on the committee level to address climate change, and that there is a widespread expectation that the president will act alone and on his own terms.
Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, who heads up the House Science Committee, will hold a hearing within the next few weeks “on the current state of the environment,” his office said — which will likely include climate change.
Smith’s own views on the issue don’t imply a sense of urgency.
“I believe climate change is due to a combination of factors, including natural cycles and human activity,” Smith said in a statement. “But scientists still don’t know for certain how much each of these factors contributes to the overall climate change that the Earth is experiencing. It is the role of the Science Committee to create a forum for discussion so Congress and the American people can hear from experts and draw reasoned conclusions. During this process, we should focus on the facts rather than on a partisan agenda.”
Nor does the speaker intend to move swiftly on the issue, if at all.
“We will be happy to take a look at any proposal the president puts forward — but a national energy tax that raises costs, increases our dependence on foreign oil, and destroys American jobs seems like the last thing we need right now,” said Michael Steel, a spokesperson for House Speaker John Boehner.
Recent efforts to enact climate change legislation have been fraught with complications. Democrats in the House ferried a cap-and-trade bill to passage in 2009, but a similar measure later stalled in the Senate.
Among the persistent holdups: Lawmakers of both parties, but Republicans in particular, are acutely aware of the high political risk associated with taking on climate issues and, by extension, the powerful energy lobby.
During the 2010 midterm cycle, former Republican Rep. Bob Inglis lost a primary battle to Rep. Trey Gowdy in a safely Republican district — in part, Inglis said, because he had publicly urged his Republican colleagues to engage in the climate change debate.
“My most enduring heresy was just saying climate change is real,” Inglis told BuzzFeed. “It was seen as a treachery to the tribe.”
Now, Inglis, who said he once rejected the notion of climate change as a legitimate crisis, devotes his time to the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, through which he hopes to stake a claim for conservatives on the topic of climate change.
He said he is encouraged by early signs of shifting sentiment within his party — but he worries that, without urgency to tackle the issue among conservative constituents, Republican lawmakers will have little incentive to act.
“Politically, I think it’s one of several issues where we’re just out of step with where the world is going, and unless we want to be some anachronistic throwback and slump to just the ‘Grumpy Old Party,’ we really need to get with it,” Inglis said. “I think one of those key issues is scientific denial. It’s not very becoming. It just makes us look like we’re not about the future, we’re afraid of the future, we’re trying to hold on to what was. That’s not just offensive to young people, that’s offensive to the DNA of America.”
For the time being, Sens. Barbara Boxer and David Vitter, who lead the Senate Environment Committee, are focused on hashing out a Water Resources Development Act — and, the Senate aide said, “I can’t imagine (Boxer) would halt that for any kind of global warming stuff.”
The issue did receive a small push recently from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman, both Democrats, when they launched a task force and entreated the president to act.
But even if the Senate were to pass a large-scale bill addressing climate change in some manner, the Republican-controlled House would present its own insurmountable legislative obstacle.
As one House GOP aide explained, “House Republican priorities are job creation and dealing with America’s out-of-control spending, issues that the American people are concerned about.”
Navin Nayak, of the League of Conservation Voters, has been heartened by “small changes” in the tone among lawmakers — but said the shift is coming too slowly for any substantial progress to be made soon.
“The encouraging thing is that there are a lot of Tea Party members who are no longer in office, but it’s not happening fast enough for us to be excited,” Nayak said. “So many members of Congress continue to rail against the EPA and rail against the science.”
Ruby Cramer contributed to this report.