Each week, we’re compiling the most relevant news stories from diverse sources online, connecting the latest environmental and energy economics research to global current events, real-time public discourse, and policy decisions. Here are some questions we’re asking and addressing with our research chops this week:
How would the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court influence the way environmental policies are implemented?
If confirmed to the Supreme Court, Judge Amy Coney Barrett could help shape American law for decades—but her ultimate influence on the environment remains uncertain. While healthcare and abortion were the main topics of discussion at this week’s Senate hearings, Barrett offered a possible preview of her philosophy on environmental cases when she made clear that she does not “have firm views” about climate change. And while her time on the federal bench has been relatively limited, Barrett joined one 2018 opinion that advocates a narrower interpretation of the Clean Water Act, and she has generally espoused a more conservative view of the federal government’s regulatory authority. Given this history, environmentalists worry that Barrett would threaten landmark environmental cases like Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, and that she might provide a crucial voice of support for the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks, many of which have been halted by the courts.
On the second episode of the Resources Radio's podcast “Big Decisions” series, environmental lawyers and former White House officials Jody Freeman and Jeff Holmstead agree that confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court could drastically shift how the federal government approaches environmental regulations. As the court tilts rightward, Freeman thinks Democrats could mobilize around efforts to increase the number of justices on the Court, rather than passively accept rulings that limit regulatory authority and hamstring ambitious environmental goals. While Holmstead thinks a more conservative Supreme Court will not necessarily be hostile toward all environmental regulations, he also predicts, “It will be clear that the courts are not the place … to be dealing with the solutions to climate change.” For more on why Holmstead thinks a changing Supreme Court could inspire legislative action from Congress, and why Freeman sees potential for bipartisan compromise on a clean energy standard, listen to the podcast.
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Is the partisan divide on climate change policy intractable, or is there room for compromise?
A new survey from Pew Research Center finds that while 68 percent of Biden supporters describe climate change as very important to their decision at the ballot box, only 11 percent of Trump supporters say the same. The seeming lack of concern from the president’s supporters about environmental issues reflects the priorities of the Trump campaign, which has advocated a “deregulatory agenda for energy independence” and has avoided promoting policies that are explicitly oriented around climate change. But while voters from both parties may perceive climate change in different ways, some emerging evidence suggests that partisan differences on environmental issues may not be as extreme as they seem and could shrink over the coming years. Survey results suggest that young Republicans are much more likely than older ones to believe the government should do more about climate change, and one recent Stanford study finds that personal experience with natural disasters like wildfires “may lessen partisan gaps” in support for climate policy.
According to the fourth report in RFF’s Climate Insights 2020 series, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents already agree on many crucial environmental issues. While only about a quarter of Republicans say that climate change is likely to hurt them personally—which perhaps explains the lack of enthusiasm about climate issues in the recent Pew survey—large majorities of Republicans believe that humans have contributed to global warming and want governments and businesses around the world to take action in response. Although Republicans are generally more skeptical of government policies in response to climate change than Democrats or Independents, majorities of all three groups support tax breaks to encourage clean energy innovations and believe that the US government should reduce emissions by 25 percent by 2025, relative to 2015 levels. “Given that Republicans do not overwhelmingly oppose climate action, it seems that claims that the nation is hopelessly polarized on this issue are not accurate,” write RFF’s Jon Krosnick and Stanford’s Bo MacInnis in the report’s conclusion.
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Historic fires continue to burn across California. What can policymakers do to reduce the risk of extreme fire seasons in the future?
This year’s unusually severe fire season—which has forced thousands of evacuations, degraded air quality nationwide, and burned over four million acres in California alone—is not over yet. Fires have spread across Colorado this week, and California, which has a long history of intense fire seasons that burn through October, is confronting new threats, too. When asked about this year’s blazes at the vice presidential debate, Mike Pence echoed the president’s frequent assertions that “forest management” is largely to blame. While such assertions can minimize the role of climate change, policymakers from both parties increasingly are considering reforms that would manage forests more aggressively. One bipartisan Senate bill would remove bureaucratic hurdles that historically have delayed projects designed to reduce fire risk, create a workforce development program to educate forest managers on prescribed burns, and fund efforts to expand biomass facilities in an attempt to prevent dead trees from spreading fires.
Forest managers have complicated roles to play in minimizing fire risk, needing to consider climate, disease, insects, regulatory hurdles, and more. In a new blog post, forest policy experts and RFF researchers Ann Bartuska, David N. Wear, and Matthew Wibbenmeyer reflect on this year’s fire season and discuss how forest management practices, climate change, and public policy influence the health of forests. They discuss how tried-and-tested strategies, such as forest thinning and prescribed burns, generally help reduce fire risk but often prompt backlash among those who worry about the consequences of razing forests or unnecessarily polluting the air with smoke. Bartuska contends that policymakers need to shift from a single-minded focus on fire suppression to a strategy that encompasses fire prevention, while Wear suggests that “creative approaches to bringing in capital, whether from the public or the private sector” could be necessary, given how difficult it is for forest managers to secure funds for projects that reduce fire risk.
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