Congress predictably on the side of dirty air

Published 9:24 am Friday, December 5, 2014

by Jason Stanford

Unlike Barack Obama, I am not a father to teenage girls, but it must be something like being President with this obstructionist congress. No good deed for Obama goes unpunished by Republicans in Washington, and the recent climate agreement with China is a good example.

America showing world leadership? Finding progress where there was once was only problems? Reaching the most important international climate deal in the history of the world. I can’t even, mutters congress, it’s eyes fixed on the glowing screen, thumbs furiously typing up articles of impeachment or begging for a booking on Fox News. That is literally the greatest thing, said no one ever. Sorry not sorry.

This deal should be an easy sell. The U.S. and China have the two biggest economies in the world and produce the most pollution. China, in particular, is out of control. It finishes a new coal plant about every 10 days and is responsible for 60 percent of the growth in global carbon emissions over the past 15 years. No country produces more greenhouse gases than China, which until now refused to do much about it.

But one downfall of China’s growing economy is that it created a middle class as big as the entire population of the United States, and it likes to breathe. So China agreed to boost its share of non-fossil fuel energy to around 20 percent by 2030.

That is a staggering goal. Right now, coal fuels China’s economic growth. Giving up coal isn’t easy —for one, it’s really cheap — and 20 percent of China’s energy portfolio by 2030 is expected to be 1,000 gigawatts. To put that in perspective, that’s about as much as all the electricity produced in the United States.

And what does it cost the United States? Do we have to give them Guam and a territory to be named later? Nope. We need to accelerate our carbon pollution reductions from 17 percent by 2020 to 26-28 percent. This is ambitious, will require massive innovation and investment in new energy, and shows the kind of leadership that the United States used to show in the world all the time.

So of course congress hates it.

Because cutting carbon emissions by that much will force us to finally cut coal out of our energy diet, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who hails from coal-rich Kentucky, hates the deal. He said, “It requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years, while these carbon emission regulations are creating havoc in my state and other states across the country,” a statement Politifact rated as “mostly false.”

Speaker John Boehner provided the smoky baritone to his duet with McConnell, saying the agreement showed that the President “intends to double down on his job-crushing policies no matter how devastating the impact.”

There is no problem so large that this congress can’t ignore it. They have redefined immigration reform to mean everything but actually reforming immigration — and then done nothing. They responded to a jobs crisis by refusing to pass a jobs bill. There have been so many school shootings since Newton that we’ve lost count, and congress has not done a thing about gun safety.

And on global warming, congress has done worse than nothing by making a virtue of their feigned ignorance. When it comes to climate change, one thing that McConnell and Boehner can agree on is that they are not scientists. Well guys, you’re not passing any legislation, so you’re not really legislators either.

While congressional leaders drag their feet while the planet cooks, Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping are acting like grownups. Even if China and the U.S. meet their goals, it won’t solve global warming. But the rest of the world wasn’t going to help if we didn’t lead. Now real progress is possible, no thanks to congress.

Some might think it unfair to compare this intransigent congress to snotty teenagers, and they have a point. Teenagers grow up. Partisan tantrums have no place in foreign policy, especially on something that could literally save the world.

JASON STANFORD is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.