Michael Grunwald is a senior staff writer for .
Elissa Slotkin has learned that climate change is both a national emergency and a political opportunity. As an assistant secretary of defense under President Barack Obama, she helped lead the Pentagon’s first study of how climate change threatens U.S. military bases. Then as a Democratic candidate for Congress in 2018, she attacked her Republican opponent for questioning the scientific consensus on climate change—and that’s one reason she’s now a Democratic member of Congress.
“We talk about the weather all the time in Michigan, and we all know it’s getting weird,” she says. “To most people, straight-out denial feels extreme.”
But even though Slotkin has shown how the climate crisis can be a winning issue, she’s not on board with the most prominent progressive effort to make it a national issue, the Green New Deal, backed by her more famous House classmate Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She thinks it’s too radical, too polarizing, a gift to President Donald Trump and other Republicans who want to portray Democrats as socialists. “My district is very worried that Democrats are lurching to the left,” she says. “I know AOC’s face will be on every ad against me in 2020.”
Slotkin doesn’t see why a plan to fix the climate needs to promise universal health care and a federal job guarantee, and she doubts a lefty wish list disguised as an emergency response will play well in her suburban Michigan swing district, which Trump won by seven points.
“I’m a pragmatist, and I represent a lot of pragmatic people,” says Slotkin. “Why say we need massive social change to reduce emissions? How does that build consensus?”
The politics of climate change are changing fast, partly because global heat waves, fires in California and the Amazon, Midwestern floods and increasingly brutal storms keep focusing attention on its nasty consequences, and partly because the Green New Deal has thrust it to the center of the national conversation. Polls suggest climate change has emerged as one of the top two policy priorities for Democratic voters, rivaled only by health care. The party’s presidential candidates are releasing remarkably aggressive plans to wean America off fossil fuels, which they discussed briefly during each Democratic primary debate in Miami and Detroit this summer, and will debate in more detail at forums devoted exclusively to climate on CNN and MSNBC in September.
Meanwhile, even though Trump is an unapologetic climate-science denier and fossil-fuel promoter who has claimed that wind turbines cause cancer, other Republicans are retreating to more nuanced and factually defensible positions, acknowledging that greenhouse-gas emissions are a problem while calling for “innovation” and “adaptation” (as opposed to Green New Deal-style economic transformation) to deal with them. Corporate America is evolving, too. Dozens of big companies—including oil majors like BP and Shell—descended on Capitol Hill this spring to lobby for modest carbon taxes, responding to pressure from their shareholders and the public to support some kind of climate action.
As a rift builds between Republicans who do or don’t want to acknowledge climate change as a problem, another wedge is growing between Democrats who support radical solutions and those, like Slotkin, who want somewhat less radical solutions. It is mainly playing out through the internal battle over the Green New Deal, which so far is more of a call for dramatic action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions than a specific legislative agenda, but has been effectively branded by conservative outlets like Fox News as a leftist crusade to ban meat and air travel.
It’s not a coincidence that Trump has vowed to run for re-election against the Green New Deal, or that Senate Republicans gleefully forced a vote on it, or that no Senate Democrats dared to vote yes. Even liberal House speaker Nancy Pelosi, while supporting deep emissions cuts and denouncing Trump’s efforts to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord, has declined to endorse “the green dream or whatever.”
Activists often say climate change shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but in the U.S. it still is. Democratic-controlled states like New York, California, Washington, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada and Maine have all passed sweeping bills requiring economy-wide climate neutrality by 2050 or earlier. States where Republicans hold power haven’t passed legislation like that, and the Republican Senate minority in blue Oregon managed to block a similar bill by fleeing the state to avoid a quorum. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, who chairs a new Democratic committee on the climate crisis, devoted an entire hearing in July to conservatives who support climate action, and he’s hopeful about some modest bipartisan efforts to promote clean energy infrastructure and research. But Schatz says it’s far more important for the health of the planet for Democrats to defeat Trump in 2020 and take full control of Congress.