Oregon congressman Earl Blumenauer joins us from Scotland as the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference continues this week. As chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade, Blumenauer says diplomacy and trade could play a role in fighting climate change.
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Dave Miller: Almost two dozen House democrats are in Glasgow right now for the COP26 United Nations Climate Change Summit. They include Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who says this is the biggest congressional delegation ever to attend a climate summit. The delegation includes Oregon’s Earl Blumenauer, who’s been focused on climate change and global warming for decades. He joins us now. Congressman Blumenauer, welcome back.
Earl Blumenauer: Thank you. Dave. It’s great to be with you.
Miller: Why did you make the decision yourself to go to Glasgow?
Blumenauer: Well, I think this is the most critical time. I’ve been to these summits before. I was in Copenhagen with President Obama a decade ago, but we have seen some real challenges in terms of trying to follow through, and the United States has been on the sidelines during the Trump administration, but things are changing. I’m really excited with the package that we are moving through the House, the infrastructure. We’ve got one more bill that is teed up and ready to go, and the Biden administration is totally committed and John Kerry, I’ve been working with him on these things for years. I’ve never seen him more fired up and more focused in terms of being able to deliver. It’s important, because the situation, as we know from what’s happened in Oregon this last year, has never been more dire.
Miller: I want to hear more about what you see going forward in terms of congressional action, but just to focus for a little bit first, on this particular meeting, Maybe the most memorable word that’s come out of it so far came at the very beginning, when the activist Greta Thunberg gave an impassioned speech outside, saying that what was happening inside amounted to “blah blah blah.” Do you disagree with her?
Blumenauer: You know, I deeply respect her. I posted her on Capitol Hill. I think she has had a tremendous impact in mobilizing young people and holding politicians’ feet to the flames. But I will just respectfully disagree in terms of, this is not all blah blah blah. We have seen significant commitments that have been made by the financial sector. The United States is moving forward with a variety of items. I can’t tell you how excited people were that we were here. I’ve met with European parliamentarians; they’re pleased that we’re here, they need the American leadership, and things are happening. It’s not blah blah blah. It’s not what we need; we need to do more. But the United States has showed up with unprecedented investments in infrastructure, in resilience, and policy changes, and I think it’s a tremendous point of departure.
Miller: A lot of the biggest announcements that have come from the conference so far have been in the form of pledges from individual countries like India, for example, saying last week that they’re going to get to net zero emission status by 2070. But for years now there has been a big gap between these kinds of promises or pledges and the policies at individual country levels to make them happen. How much faith do you have right now that these various countries, including the U.S., are going to follow through on their good looking promises?
Blumenauer: Absolutely, there’s been a big gap between pledges and promises and performance, but what you’ve just seen in terms of what the United States has teed up to go forward with our investments in green infrastructure, our investments in resilience and energy, is really unprecedented. By the same token, we’re seeing others come together. We have six major financial institutions that are making trillions of dollars in commitments, in part because it’s important for the planet, in part it’s good business for them. India, I think, has been problematic, but this represents a not insignificant show. The talks are still going on with the Chinese, where I’m candidly skeptical, but we’ve got things in the pipeline that can really put teeth into it. I’ve been working with some of the Europeans, and in Congress, for example, to make it illegal to have commodities like cocoa and palm oil and soy, that is produced on land that was illegally harvested.
We have things that will put teeth in this, and we have European allies that are willing to work with us on simple specific steps that will, in fact, make a difference. For the move towards electrification, we are teed up in a remarkable way. So you’re right, that we’ve fallen short in terms of promises being delivered, but the United States comes to this at a time when we have passed massive spending for infrastructure, we’ve got policies in place, everything from Amtrak, to electrification, to bicycles and dealing with what we’re going to do with the grid. I think, Dave, this is really a significant development. It hopefully is going to be a new era. The stakes have never been higher, but I’m really optimistic based on my conversations and what I’ve seen.
Miller: As you noted, you were in Copenhagen with President Obama. But when you talk, say, to parliamentarians from various European countries, do you get the sense from them that they’re worried that the US approach to climate change varies so widely with who is in the White House? We obviously have the simple fact of President Obama signing on to the Paris Accords, and then President Trump taking us away, and President Biden says, ‘no, we’re back,’ as one example, but that’s not the only one. I’m wondering if you think international partners know who we are in this?
Blumenauer: Well, they have been confused during the Trump era, but I’ve had dozens of meetings with ministers, ambassadors, parliamentarians in the course of last year and here in Glasgow. They are actually excited that we’re here. They know that the United States leadership is important. They can’t do it without us. They think we can, and should, do more. They want to work with us, on a partnership basis, but they are energized in many cases by the fact that we are here and that we have stepped up in an unprecedented way with things that we have passed and the things that we have teed up ready to go.
Miller: Congressman, you’re the chair of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade. I’m curious what you see as tangible ways that you can push forward on climate change, specifically related to trade.
Blumenauer: It’s a great question. I just mentioned, a moment ago, legislation that Senator Schatz and I have introduced to deal with commodities that are grown on illegally harvested timberland. This is legislation that I’m quite optimistic we can move. There’s conversation now, and I had one this afternoon, with people from the European Union, about a carbon border adjustment where both in Europe and in the United States, to be able to have a fee assessed, so that countries cannot export their carbon pollution. There’s more and more interest in this, in both the European Union, and it’s starting to get attention here in Congress. These are specific steps that we can take that will make a difference as we go forward.
Miller: What does it mean to export carbon pollution?
Blumenauer: Well, for example, right now there is an effort to have green steel, producing steel in a way that is sustainable. In some cases, that’s more expensive. If we allow countries that use shortcuts that are carbon intense to circumvent our regulations, our standards, they would have an unfair competitive advantage. Their product would be cheaper. If we adjust that with a carbon border adjustment to raise the price so that they don’t get an unfair advantage, that they have to pay a carbon tariff, that is equivalent to meeting our standards. It clears the way for going forward.
Green concrete actually is a better product, but it takes time to make that transition. Although that’s one of the other developments that’s taking place here; it looks like there is significant movement on the part of the two major international concrete producers to move to producing this green concrete with a much lower carbon content and candidly, it’s a better product.
Miller: Just a couple days ago, the Washington post reported that a lot of the data that individual countries all around the world are using to calculate their current levels of emissions, and then consequently their emissions reductions, that they’re massively flawed, meaning that a lot of them are under-reporting their actual emissions. In the article, which was a huge analysis, they said that the difference could be as great as the China’s total level of emissions, which has led a lot of activists to say that the pledges and the talk about emissions reductions amount to “greenwashing”, because it’s untethered to reality. Is there a global mechanism that you see that could actually provide better transparency and accountability, so we actually are talking in real ways about what countries are emitting?
Blumenauer: I have seen that report. I was aware that there were serious problems. I was rather shocked by some of the data that was there, but these are part of the conversations that are taking place behind the scenes right now. John Kerry, the special envoy, former EPA Administrator McCarthy, there’s a whole array of specialists formerly with the State Department who are at work on this now, to try and be able to tease out mechanisms to hold people accountable. The devil is in the details. We need to do a much better job. The United States needs to up our game candidly, and work with others, but that’s part of the details that are taking place behind the scenes in terms of negotiation, so that it is something that is reliable, that is transparent, and that we can count on. The United States needs to lead by example here as well. It’s a very real problem, but people are working hard to try and address it.
Miller: Would you say that you are there more to build global consensus to take action, whether it’s the European Union, or China, or Russia, or India, or more to build political momentum that you can bring back to Congress with you?
Blumenauer: I think we have to do both. The work that we have done already with the Biden administration and these massive infrastructure programs and resilience, they are breathtaking. They are larger than anything we had seen, on a global scale. We want to work with our allies. The conversations I had today dealt with sustainable agriculture, reducing the carbon footprint of food production. We need to make sure that our policies are as strong as we can make them, and we need to forge these partnerships with allies and other countries, including the European Union, Canada, and Japan.
We have our work cut out for us, and I see working on both tracks. The interactions I’ve had with parliamentarians from other countries are encouraging; there are a number of people here who are very, very serious and have track records that are significant, but we have to build momentum moving forward in our country. The electrification of the transportation system, the investments, for example, in rail transportation and resilience.
What we went through this last year in Oregon ought to make it clear to everybody that this is deadly serious. We have no time to waste. It is literally killing people now, as we saw in the Pacific Northwest. I think people are seeing some real results, but we have our work cut out for us, and I’m not satisfied with the provisions we have now. I’ll continue to fight to strengthen them.
Miller: So let’s turn to the huge social spending/climate change bill that’s ahead of Congress now. It used to have much more meaningful climate change provisions that would have essentially phased out the burning of fossil fuels for electricity in favor of renewable sources. As I’m pretty sure our listeners know, that was removed largely because of one person, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Given the razor thin Democratic majority that has to include Joe Manchin or Senator Sinema from Arizona, what do you see as the next steps in Congress that are both meaningful and politically possible?
Blumenauer: First and foremost, we should be clear that the package that we will be voting on is not the entire story. There are ways that the administration can take resources that we have and regulations to try and strengthen those provisions through the EPA and otherwise. They’re working on alternative paths. We also have significant investments that are going to make a difference in terms of the things that I just talked about, in terms of greener building materials, infrastructure, modes of transportation, agriculture. These are all areas that we can and should be making progress. I was disappointed with the concessions that were made to Joe Manchin, but that’s not the end of the story. There are alternative tactics that can be employed, and I’m convinced the administration will work with us to make as much progress as we can in those alternative modes.
Miller: Congressman, just the last question; you’ve been relatively positive about what has happened so far at this meeting, based on conversations you’ve had or behind the scenes conversations you know are going on. What do you most want to see that hasn’t happened yet, that will tell you, going forward the next couple of days, that this was a true and meaningful success?
Blumenauer: Yeah. Well, Dave, I’m not saying “what about this?” I started the conversation. I think time is running out. I think we are in a desperate situation. I would like to see us take much stronger steps, but the point is simply we don’t have time to waste, in terms of worrying about the perfect being the enemy of the good.
This is the biggest package that we have ever seen, in American history. We have opportunities that are unprecedented, and we can do things that make a difference for American families, who are being pounded here with other elements, dealing with things like early childhood education, and paid family leave.
There’s a package here that will be transformational. I want to see us come together to make meaningful progress on these bits and pieces that we’re talking about, because collectively, all of these things in terms of investment commitments in the financial sector, getting what we can out of countries like India, which have been on the sidelines and not helpful at all. Continuing to look at partnerships with the European Union on progress we can make on illegal forestry, and refining what we do with agriculture. There is no single solution here. We need to have a broad menu, I want to see progress on a wide range of these things and then come back to Congress to be able to follow through on it.
Miller: Earl Blumenauer, thanks for your time.
Blumenauer: My pleasure, Dave.