With special thanks to Tara Ritter, Karen Hansen-Kuhn and Steve Suppan, who contributed to this article.
The long-awaited report from the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, issued earlier this month, charts a policy path for 2021. The first-of-its-kind, 500-plus page report presents an avalanche of policy options (many based on bills already introduced) that sometimes hit the mark and sometimes miss, and on several crucial issues, is surprisingly silent.
The report, issued by the Democrats on the House Select Committee, sets a goal of achieving net zero emissions in the U.S. by 2050, with interim targets and assessments in 2030 and 2040. As the U.S. lags behind nearly all developed countries by not having any national-level climate policy, the House report represents a major step forward through its comprehensive approach and clarity on the urgency to act on the climate crisis. The report outlines proposals within 12 pillars covering areas such as energy, agriculture, land management, buildings, transportation, environmental justice, workers and international engagement.
While energy and transportation often make the headlines on climate policy, reforming how we manage agricultural land and global markets is essential to meeting the climate challenge. IATP’s comments to the House Select Committee focused on climate solutions for farmers and rural communities, better regulation of climate-related financial risk and the need to dramatically reform trade policy. With this lens, what can we take from the House report?
What we liked:
Focus on resilience — All too often, climate policy is viewed narrowly through the lens of reducing emissions. But for many rural communities dependent on natural resource-based economies, those who work primarily outside and areas where infrastructure is already sub-standard, an emphasis on adaptation to climate change’s weather extremes is critical. IATP has issued two reports on state-level climate adaptation plans, finding that they routinely ignore or downplay the challenges facing rural communities, farmers and our food system. The House report calls for a National Climate Adaptation Program and Commission, designed to focus on resilience-based planning and investments in infrastructure, housing and ecosystems.
Climate justice at the center — The House report makes clear that workers transitioning to a clean energy economy and communities of color surrounded by polluting industries are already deeply affected by climate inaction. The report includes environmental justice considerations throughout and within a dedicated pillar. The House report states, “Climate solutions must have justice and equity at their core,” citing the Equitable and Just Climate Platform (IATP is a signer) as a source of many of the report’s policies.
Start with soil — The report highlights the multiple benefits of supporting farming systems that build soil health, including greater ability to withstand extreme weather events, less use of costly and polluting chemicals and fertilizer, and improving productivity. The report calls for deeper investments in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), a popular working lands conservation program that supports farming systems that build soil health. The report recommends creating a climate mitigation bundle within CSP which supports a shift toward more resilient farming systems. IATP has written on recent bills introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree and Sen. Cory Booker, both of whom would greatly expand public support for conservation programs like CSP. The report supports a host of other important agriculture program improvements, including reforms to crop insurance programs to incentivize climate-friendly practices, reforming lending and credit valuations to incentivize soil health and carbon sequestration, and farmer-to-farmer exchanges on climate stewardship.
Transitioning away from factory farms — Large-scale animal operations are the major source of agriculture greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to EPA data. Well managed, sustainable systems of grazing can be part of the climate solution by sequestering carbon and improving manure management. The House plan calls for greater support “for producers transitioning from confinement and feedlot systems or continuous grazing to managed grazing-based systems.” The report also calls for expanding an effective buyout program of agriculture operations located in flood and wildfire prone areas, modeled by a North Carolina initiative that has bought out numerous large-scale hog operations flooded out by recent hurricanes.
Addressing historical racism in farm programs — The plan includes greater support for new farmers, farmers of color and tribal nations in the food system. Historical racism at the U.S. Department of Agriculture closed many Black farmers out of farm programs and obscure land tenure rules literally pushed Black farmers off the land they had worked for decades. The House plan calls for deeper investments in programs that offer credit, grants and market-focused resources to farmers of color who are often smaller scale, targeting local markets. Stronger local food systems are important for creating a more resilient system as longer supply chains become more vulnerable to climate-related disruption.
Protecting farmworkers — IATP’s comments to the House Select Committee highlighted the rising climate-related risks for farmworkers experiencing a number of health effects from increasing heat waves associated with climate change. Only a few states offer any heat-related protections. The House report states: “Congress should direct the Secretary of Labor to establish a standard on prevention of occupational exposure to excessive heat and require employers to implement a workplace excessive heat prevention plan to protect employees from heat-related injuries and illnesses. Standards and requirements should consider (1) exposure limits that trigger action to protect employees from heat-related illness; (2) hydration; (3) scheduled and paid rest breaks in shaded or climate-controlled spaces; (4) employer and supervisor training; and (5) emergency medical response planning.”
Mandatory climate risk disclosure for corporations — The House report follows IATP’s recommendation in support of the Climate Risk Disclosure Act, which requires publicly traded corporations to disclose their climate risk, including how future climate policy might impact their business. Disclosing this risk is particularly important for agribusiness firms, who are already being affected by climate-related extreme weather events. A limitation is that the bill only applies to publicly listed companies on stock exchanges, not to the 70% of U.S. capital raised and traded by private equity (formerly “vulture funds”) that the Security Exchange Commission (SEC) has exempted from registration and disclosure requirements. The SEC, Commodity Futures Trading Commission and Federal Reserve are all considering actions to address increasing corporate climate risk. The House plan supports requiring the Fed to do climate scenario stress tests, but only for the 30 or so systematically important financial institutions. That requirement should extend to the Farm Credit System, in aggregate assets the ninth largest U.S. bank. The proposal for climate finance standards for Government Sponsored Entities should also clearly include the Farm Credit System and Farmer Mac.
A return to the Paris Climate Agreement — It seems obvious, but re-engaging with the world on what is fundamentally a global challenge is essential. The United States’ global standing has taken an enormous hit under the Trump administration. Withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement has isolated the U.S. from the rest of the world and undermined global cooperation needed to address the climate crisis. The House report emphasizes not only returning to the Paris Agreement, but also meeting financial commitments to the Green Climate Fund and supporting a Global Climate Resilience Fund. These are good first steps in repairing international relations. While the House report calls for integrating climate goals within the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. should also look for opportunities to contribute to existing international climate funds, both because they can leverage greater results and would demonstrate that the U.S. has the potential to be a useful partner again rather than an obstacle to climate action. For example, the U.S. should withdraw its objections to the climate change objectives of the Intergovernmental Arctic Council.
Rural climate priorities recognized — Five years ago, IATP worked together with more than 20 rural organizations to set priorities for climate action. Rural communities face a number of unique challenges when it comes to climate change and can be affected differently by climate policy (e.g., a carbon tax) than urban communities. Many of those priorities are reflected in the House report, including increased investments in broadband infrastructure, weatherization of older homes, climate-resilient housing, energy efficiency in public infrastructure, and improving rural health and tribal health.
What we didn’t like:
The carbon market ghost — The House report’s proposals are a far cry from the last time Congress seriously considered a national climate policy in 2009, which hinged on a poorly regulated carbon market to achieve emissions reductions. Ineffective carbon markets, with too many loopholes for polluters, are not effective enough to meet the urgency of the climate crisis. The House report emphasizes the need for a more effective approach, including following state policies that set climate-focused standards across sectors (more renewable energy mandates, greener transportation requirements, etc.) and deep public investment in climate-friendly infrastructure and systems. But the House report still includes elements of carbon markets sprinkled throughout. The House report also mentions the importance of carbon pricing, seemingly referring to a tax on fossil fuels, but emphasizes that such a carbon tax is not adequate to meet the urgent emissions reductions needed and instead should be considered primarily as a market signal and a revenue tool to aid in a climate transition. IATP has written about the limitations of a carbon tax and how it intersects with agriculture. The House report supports funding efforts to quantify carbon sequestration and GHG reductions in agriculture to enable farmers to participate in carbon markets. We’ve written frequently about how carbon markets don’t work for farmers because of imperfect measurement, the inability to keep the carbon in the ground permanently, low payments to farmers while project developers cash in, the exclusion of small to mid-sized, diverse farms, and allowing companies to greenwash and still pollute.
Strange love of manure — Both state and federal climate policy continue to include methane digesters , even though they are enormously expensive, have dubious benefits and incentivize large-scale factory farms to increase manure production. IATP has written on the problems with biogas from digesters on large-scale operations and how supporting a transition to regenerative systems of raising animals is a much better investment. A recent report by Earthjustice and the Sierra Club shows how the fracking industry is using manure biogas to prop up its pipeline infrastructure by re-branding its natural gas as “renewable” in order to meet state-level renewable energy standards. Biogas should not count as renewable energy. It is produced primarily by polluting large-scale animal operations, doesn’t burn cleanly and still releases CO2 and other pollutants when combusted. Pasture-based production emits fewer GHGs and supports a suite of other environmental goals including clean water and healthy soils. Public money should support small- to mid-sized farms not only to meet environmental goals, but also to counter agricultural consolidation and the overproduction of high GHG emitting crops and animal-based systems.
Highly questionable technology solutions — The House report counts on several dubious technological solutions to achieve its goals, from injecting mass amounts of carbon underground to geoengineering of the planet to alter weather patterns. These expensive approaches divert valuable resources away from climate solutions that could start reducing emissions right now, whether renewable energy or shifts toward more regenerative agriculture and land management practices.
Bold trade reform — The system of free trade agreements has locked in legally binding rules that have driven GHG emissions, both in the U.S. and around the world. These deals favor the global fossil fuel, mining, forestry and agribusiness industries by facilitating trade, lowering standards and protecting multinational corporate investments. Climate change has not been a consideration in U.S. trade deals, including most recently the U.S.-Mexican-Canadian Trade Agreement (USMCA).Sen. Edward Markey stated, “The USMCA is a trade deal that will hinder progress on climate action for a generation. This is a profound environmental and climate failure." That needs to change.
Fortunately, there are growing discussions among climate and trade activists and governments about what types of trade reforms are needed to address the climate crisis. IATP’s comment to the House Select Committee recommended a series of trade reforms, including:
the need to conduct a climate impact assessment of trade policy prior to trade negotiations;
the elimination of Investor State provisions that grant polluters special rights;
the need to transfer green technology to poor countries;
and reform of World Trade Organization rules to allow countries to meet their Paris climate commitments.
The House report includes support for one aspect of trade policy, the need for border tariffs to promote U.S. production of clean energy technology. It also proposes border tariffs to limit the offshoring of polluting industries like steel, iron, glass and cement to avoid tougher U.S. emission requirements. Under current trade rules, countries generally agree not to impose tariffs based on Production and Processing Methods (PPM). Whether the PPM-based tariff prohibition should have a climate exception is an issue that deserves careful consideration and open debate involving members of the World Trade Organization and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
One first step could be to propose a climate waiver at the WTO that would exclude from challenge any climate related policies or programs that fit the definitions of climate programs established at the UNFCCC. Article IX:3 of the WTO allows for waivers from normal rules of trade liberalization under “exceptional circumstances” if agreed to by three-quarters of the members. This, again, would require negotiating with other countries to find common solutions rather than unilaterally attempting to impose solutions by tariff threats. There also needs to be careful consideration of how such climate tariffs effect the least developed countries with historic low emissions. An option worth considering would be to redirect tariffs collected on emissions-intensive goods to international climate finance funds for mitigation and adaptation so that developing countries have more access to resources to transition to climate friendly practices.
Shying away from regulation — While clearly placing some restrictions on major polluters, the House plan does not take on the fracking industry or large-scale animal operations directly. There is no ban on fracking, the import and export of fossil fuels, or the continued building out the fossil fuel infrastructure. Nor does the report support a moratorium on new large-scale animal operations or a ban on public support for such operations through the Environmental Quality Improvement Program and the Farm Service Agency guaranteed loan program. The climate crisis cannot be prevented by voluntary guidance to industry. Regulation of GHGs is necessary to meet the urgency of the climate crisis, and predictable, progressively stringent emissions reductions for polluting industries will be essential.
As the House moves toward advancing climate policy in 2021, Congressional leaders should follow another one of the report’s recommendations: the critical importance of stakeholder engagement. The House committee held over 100 hearings and meetings with stakeholders, along with a direct public input process. The report reads: “In developing the policy recommendations… Congress should implement an inclusive stakeholder process that solicits early input and feedback from those most affected by the outcomes of the policy choices. In particular, Congress should ‘meaningfully involve and value the voices and positions of EJ [Environmental Justice] frontline and fenceline communities.’” The extent to which House leaders follow this recommendation will be the first test for passing a U.S. climate policy in 2021.