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The House just passed its first climate bill in a decade

Nancy Pelosi is trying to force Trump to return the US to the Paris climate agreement.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced HR 9 on Wednesday, a bill that would keep the United States in the Paris Climate Agreement.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced HR 9 in March, a bill that would keep the United States in the Paris climate agreement.
House Speaker’s Office/Facebook
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Update, May 2: The House passed the Climate Action Now Act in a 231-190 vote on Thursday, making it the first climate bill to pass the House in a decade. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the bill would “go nowhere,” so it’s unlikely to come up for a vote in the Senate. Read more about the bill in the story below, first published on March 27 when it was introduced.

After a raucous day of Senate Republicans trolling Democrats on a Green New Deal vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday morning stepped up with a clear message: Climate change is a pillar of House Democrats’ legislative agenda in the new Congress.

In a press conference, Pelosi announced that House Democrats were introducing HR 9, the Climate Action Now Act, which aims to keep the United States in the 2015 Paris climate agreement. It’s one of the first 10 bills introduced by the new House majority and will likely come to a vote this year.

The suite of proposals from congressional Democrats to fight climate change range from pricing carbon dioxide to the expansive Green New Deal resolution. But HR 9 is the first actual climate bill — the others are proposals and resolutions — and Democrats say the fact that it’s one of the first bills of the new Congress shows how serious they are about fighting climate change.

“Our caucus has made [climate change] a caucus-wide priority,” Pelosi said. “This bill is only step one.”

While Republicans still hold the White House and the Senate and are unlikely to pass any climate legislation, House Democrats are signaling to their base that they are serious about action. And with HR 9, they’re also trying to tell the rest of the world that people in the United States still want to uphold their obligations to cut greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris accord.

The nonbinding agreement, which aims to limit global warming this century to 2 degrees Celsius, was a seminal achievement of international cooperation and moral leadership. In signing it, the Obama administration pledged to cut emissions to 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

But in June 2017, Trump announced that the US would withdraw from the accord (though it can’t formally do so until 2020). Since the accord didn’t pass the Senate as a treaty, the president has unilateral authority to pull out. The decision to withdraw was widely decried; economist Lawrence Summers called it “probably our most consequential error since the Iraq War,” and critics predicted it would have severe economic and national security consequences.

Pelosi framed rejoining the Paris agreement as a moral obligation; the bill, she said, is also “about jobs, good-paying, green jobs,” cleaner air and water, and improved public health.

Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), the chair of the newly formed House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and a co-sponsor of the bill, said that HR 9 would undergo markups in the relevant committees in the coming weeks and will be brought to the floor for a vote.

“I would not be surprised if every single Democrat [in the House] votes for this bill,” said Aliya Haq, director of the federal policy group in the climate change and clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Andrew Light, who served as a senior climate negotiator at the US State Department under the Obama administration, noted that the bill not only brings the US back to the Paris agreement but also pushes for increasingly ambitious targets to cut emissions.

“These commitments are not one-off things,” said Light, now a distinguished senior fellow at the World Resources Institute and a professor at George Mason University. He pointed out that the Paris agreement was designed to strengthen over time.

The language in the new bill also addresses one of Trump’s biggest objections to the Paris agreement: that countries like India and China were not pulling their weight. HR 9 has a provision for verifying what other countries are up to. Specifically, it says that “the United States will use the Paris Agreement’s transparency provisions to confirm that other parties to the Agreement with major economies are fulfilling their announced contributions to the Agreement.”

“Truth be told, it’s only an institution like the Paris agreement that allows us to hold other countries to their commitments,” Light said.

HR 9 is the first of many Democratic legislative efforts to fight climate change

Meanwhile, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) plan to announce the Healthy Climate and Family Security Act this week. The bill would price carbon dioxide via a cap-and-dividend model.

House Democrats have also already held numerous hearings about climate change’s impacts on the environment and health, and are planning more hearings on climate change’s impacts on national security. On Thursday, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis will have its first meeting.

Senate Democrats also announced their own select committee on climate change on Wednesday.

But the Senate and White House remain in Republican hands, which is likely to thwart any action.

Just this week, the Green New Deal resolution introduced by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) failed a procedural motion in the Senate by 57 votes, including from four senators who caucus with Democrats. No one voted in favor of the resolution, as Democrats decried the vote as a stunt.

However, environmental advocates say such measures are still worthwhile since they signal to the rest of the country — and the world — that Americans are trying to fight climate change. “Obviously, if we’re only going to do things that will pass the Senate, then everyone should just go home,” Haq said. “It at least shows we have leadership that is ready to act in Washington.”

Some Republicans are starting to come up with their own counterproposals on climate policy. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) told Politico he is drafting a “Green Real Deal” to fight climate change. And Senate Republicans are leaning into innovation and research as a tactic to limit greenhouse gases.

But, again, these proposals would still have to gain President Trump’s signature, which seems ... unlikely. Where these climate proposals are already having an effect is in distinguishing Democratic 2020 presidential contenders in a crowded field. Some have already come out in favor of the Green New Deal while others have staked out less ambitious policies. But none can ignore climate change.

“We’re laying the foundation for the next Congress to move on climate, which, of course, will be impacted by the next election,” said Andrea McGimsey, the senior director for global warming solutions at Environment America.

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