COVID-19 Has Delayed The Climate Change Debate

May 1, 2020

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Coronavirus hasn't just upended most of our lives - the global pandemic has upended entire industries. And the oil and gas sector is getting pummeled from multiple fronts: Besides losing workers to quarantining and some who've contracted the virus, the industry's had to watch the price of its products plummet because Saudi Arabia and Russia were locked in a high stakes game of chicken over the price of oil. But to be fair prices have also fallen because fewer people are on the roads or in the skies. Wyoming U.S. Senator John Barrasso says they're bracing.

"There is a direct and long-term impact. Ultimately, we'll get through this we are a strong and resilient state. And this is a state built on people with drive and determine nation, our best days are still ahead," Barrasso said.

The pandemic also upended Washington politics. After Democrats recaptured the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms, many top GOP leaders recognized a massive flaw in their strategy: Polls show younger Independents and Republicans care about combating climate change, which doesn't quite mesh with the more than 90 environmental regulations President Trump and Republicans rolled back. Barrasso's a part of GOP leadership in the Senate and knows the party's been walking a tightrope since the midterms.

"As a senator from Wyoming where oil and gas is our bread and butter. And as somebody who believes in the science of climate, I'm focused on finding ways through innovation, that we can address the climate challenges that are that our world is facing without taxation and penalization," Barrasso said.

While House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has recognized the peril facing the GOP unless they win over those who care about climate-change, one of his top generals in his leadership ranks - Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney - isn't quite there.

"So when you talk about, you know, what you want to be able to do in an effort to combat climate change, we feel it's very important that that be based on facts, not be based on a continuation of the Obama era war on fossil fuels," Cheney said.

In his State of the Union Address President Trump endorsed an international proposal to plant a trillion trees to help capture carbon. But that doesn't go far enough for environmentalists and most Democrats. Still, Senator Barrasso helped kill a bipartisan energy bill that proponents called a "down payment" on combatting climate change. Louisiana Republican John Kennedy and Delaware Democrat Tom Carper tried to use that bill to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, that are currently in many refrigerators and A-C units. Carper says it's a no-brainer.

"There are 16 Republican co-sponsors, we're about 16 Democrats, and it has $3.7 billion worth of benefits for consumers. It's worth a half degree Celsius in this century in terms of climate change," Carper said.

Even though the Senate energy legislation included more than 50 bills from more than 60 senators, Barrasso and other GOP leaders helped drive a stake in the legislation which ultimately failed last month. Carper says it's incomprehensible because even GOP-friendly organizations like the Chamber of Commerce support the effort.

"There's a lot of reasons to vote for it. The Chamber is for it. The Nationa Association of Manufacturers are for it. The environmental support it, and why can't we find a way to Yes on a proposal that's good for jobs?" Carper said.

Barrasso, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others in the GOP opposed the measure because they want to slash even more regulations; not ban commonly used household appliances. Barrasso says caring for the environment and American manufacturers aren't mutually exclusive.

"You need energy security, economic growth, environmental stewardship," Barrasso said.

Still, a growing number of Republicans are now calling to address the long-term threats climate change poses to the environment, including former Republican Presidential Nominee Mitt Romney.

"Long term to deal with our global climate issues, we're going to have do something even more expansive," Romney said.

Barrasso says moderate Republicans and progressives alike are making the perfect the enemy of the good.

"It's always interesting when people say, well, I'm going to vote against something because it doesn't go far enough. I'm one of these folks, I see if something is moving in the direction that I think we ought to move in, then I tend to support those things unless it holds includes areas that really are harmful," Barrasso said.

Even before coronavirus shuttered many local economies and grounded many airplanes, Congresswoman Liz Cheney dismissed calls to clean the nation's air from her fellow Republicans. She says sweeping proposals, like progressive's Green New Deal are unrealistic.

"I think we reflect the vast majority of the American people's viewpoint, which is recognizing that those sorts of solutions, eliminating air travel, you know, eliminating the use of all fossil fuels is just, you know, simply fantasy and wrong," Cheney said.

Fantasy or not, for now it feels like many of us are quarantined in another world. And scientists and environmentalists keep warning that unless Congress acts swiftly, we all may soon be facing a new globe - one with more floods, wildfires and intense storms.