WASHINGTON – Environmental advocates say now is the time for decisive action on climate change.
Democrats won the House in November riding a platform that included a call to address the crisis. Global warming was blamed for intensifying natural disasters that killed dozens and cost billions of dollars across the country in 2018. A recent avalanche of evidence that the climate is already changing radically has hardened the case for immediate action.
"Climate change is here and now. And palpably getting worse. That is rapidly changing how Americans think about it," David Doniger with the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote in a recent blog. "The shift from 'future problem' to 'now crisis' is being fueled by blockbuster scientific reports and blockbuster real-world catastrophes."
And yet few – including Doniger – expect Washington to do much any time soon in the dramatic way scientists are urging.
President Donald Trump, who in 2017 yanked the U.S. out of the Paris Accord on climate change, continues to doubt the science and says radical action would only hurt the economy. At an international climate conference in Poland in December, his emissaries doubled down on the expansion of fossil fuels, notably coal.
And while incoming House Democratic leaders vow to make climate change a priority when they take control Thursday, their most ambitious proposals are expected to die in the GOP-controlled Senate, where Republicans remain resistant to far-reaching steps aimed at weaning the nation off carbon.
So for Democrats and their environmental allies, the next two years in Washington are likely to be more about making a case to voters than actually scoring significant victories on climate change, said Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic strategist who teaches political science at the University of Southern California.
"I don't think Trump's going to give an inch on this," he said. "I think we'll be at a stalemate (for the next two years). But I think Democrats can prepare the ground, can win the argument and can go into 2020 on these issues in a pretty strong position."
Studies suggest there isn't much time for politicking on the issue. Some of the effects are already taking place, according to a landmark climate assessment the administration released in November.
Climate change is contributing to extreme weather conditions, the spread of new diseases by insects and pests and changes to the availability of food and water, the researchers say.
But the dire warning has done little to prod Capitol Hill Republicans, many of whom still question the science behind climate change.
Reluctant to cross Trump, they barely discuss the issue these days compared to three years ago, according to an analysis of press releases, floor statements, tweets and Facebook posts by software firm Quorom.
When Republicans do talk about it, the refrain is that innovation and incentive alone can solve the issue. One of the most notable achievements they tout was passage of a tax credit to encourage the capture and storage of carbon emissions into the ground before they become airborne and contribute to global warming.
But they roundly oppose dramatic steps, such as a carbon tax, to cut the nation off fossil fuels because it would increase the cost of energy.
Wyoming GOP Sen. John Barrasso, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and a sponsor of the carbon capture legislation, opposes such "punishing regulations.
"Making energy as clean as we can, as fast as we can, without raising costs to consumers will be accomplished through investment, invention and innovation," Barrasso wrote in a column for The New York Times.
Experts on climate change firmly disagree.
With carbon capture, clean energy development and other advances, the reliance on fossil fuels must stop as well if the planet has any hope of meeting the net-zero carbon emissions goal by 2050 that scientists cite as a minimum to stave off the worst effects of a warming globe.
"That's a one-two punch we need to solve the climate crisis," said Conrad Schneider, advocacy Director for the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit organization pushing for carbon emission reduction. "Neither alone is going to get it done."
One of the few congressional Republicans willing to support a carbon tax is Florida Rep. Francis Rooney.
Representing one of the country's reddest districts, the former businessman from Oklahoma is a pro-Trump conservative on most issues. But on climate change, he is is an unflinching opponent, largely because rising sea levels threaten his home state.
"I don't think we need to burn coal," Rooney said. "A carbon tax is the most market-oriented, nonbureaucratic, efficient way I can see to kill off coal."
And Rooney said the intransigence most of his fellow Republicans, including President Trump, display on the issue is harmful to the GOP brand – and could come back to haunt them in 2020.
"We need to be reaching out to broaden our base, and if you look at this last election, our base is narrowing unfortunately," he said. "I talk to our kids and young people all the time, and they are more environmentally sensitive, they're more pro-alternative energy, they get the natural gas thing instead of coal."
Tom Steyer, the liberal California billionaire who is mulling a presidential run in 2020, believes climate change – and Republicans' refusal to follow experts' advice despite the dire warnings – will help Democrats sweep into office two years from now.
"When we talk about what's at stake here, we're talking about unimaginable suffering by the American people unless we solve the problem over the next 12 years," he said recently. " And I think that we're very far from doing that. And it is unclear to me that we can summon that will without having substantial political victories across the board."