By Evan Lehmann
Freshman Rep. Scott Peters was involved locally in California's ambitious climate efforts before arriving in Congress this year. Now he's willing to set climbing temperatures aside so he can make a case to Republicans and Democrats for increased disaster funding, whatever's causing the catastrophes.
The San Diego Democrat believes there are a few patches of common ground in the hyperpartisan House around the impacts of climate change. Funding disasters through a predictable budget process, rather than with emergency aid, is one that could resonate with fiscally minded lawmakers of either political stripe, he said yesterday.
"We all know it's happening," Peters said of rising catastrophe costs. "Put aside for right now the question of why this is happening. But let's recognize that it is happening, and as a budget matter, Republicans and Democrats can agree that we could provide some contingencies in our budget."
That assertion underscores a new theme undertaken yesterday by a group representing more than 50 Democratic House members. It focuses on the financial costs of natural calamities like Superstorm Sandy, damaging thunderstorms and wildfires. In floor speeches, lawmakers compared the amount of disaster spending last year, which they say amounted to $96 billion, to budget outlays for things like education, transportation and housing. Disasters won, they say.
The messaging downplays scientific assertions around warming, as legislators opt instead to zero in on an attribute of natural hazards that might appeal to a wider audience.
"It's dollars that gets people's attention," said Rep. Matt Cartwright, a freshman Democrat from Pennsylvania, who said every county in his state suffered extreme weather in 2012.
"I mean, look, our country is acting as an insurance company," he added. "We have flood insurance. We have FEMA bailing out natural disasters constantly. And ... every insurance company in business engages in actuarial science [and] makes an assessment of what its potential liabilities are. We don't do that. That's crazy."
Cartwright, a member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, is developing legislation to assess the cost of climate change on the federal government. He says that could pull into the climate discussion voters and lawmakers who are more interested in economic issues than environmental ones.
Batting practice, not a home run
The theme emphasizes the rising costs of disasters months after 180 House lawmakers, all Republicans but one, voted against a $50 billion emergency aid package following Superstorm Sandy.
It also acts as a counterweight to Republican ideas that disaster funding should be offset with reduced spending elsewhere, said Kara Allen, executive director of the Sustainable Energy & Environment Coalition (SEEC), composed of 53 Democratic House members.
"If you want to have a debate about a better payment system or about how to deal with the flood insurance system, there has to be a recognition of what is going to cause these programs to have to pay more and more money over time," said Allen, who coordinated yesterday's speaking campaign. "We have to be that voice in the argument. We have to be the people saying, 'It's not enough to say we can't continue to provide emergency funding.'"
The strategy for now is focused on resuming a discussion about climate change. The group, pronounced "seek" by its members, is not getting behind big climate policies like a carbon tax in part to avoid distinguishing those ideas as Democratic initiatives at a time when Republican support is crucial.
"What we want to do is get the ball moving on something," said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.). "We want to make sure we push climate change to the front again and that we talk about it being the current reality that we are facing."
She acknowledges that convincing Republicans "is going to take a little while."
"But we must raise our voices," she added.
Climate is 'like religion'
Disaster costs have become embroiled in political tensions that don't always break along partisan lines. Conservative lawmakers in coastal states often support subsidized initiatives like flood insurance and large emergency aid packages that help their damage-prone constituents.
Other conservatives adhere to tea party principles of reduced deficits and tightened spending, often giving disaster payments a parochial flavor over a political one.
Insurance companies, meanwhile, generally support efforts to harden homes and businesses against future catastrophes. But those mitigation costs are not often supported by Republican lawmakers concerned about excess spending.
While Republicans might support cheaper ways to prevent damage, like stronger local building codes, some Democrats argue that it's cheaper to toughen up homes and infrastructure now using federal money than it is to clean up after future storms.
"Sometimes it takes money to save money," said Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), a co-chairman of SEEC. "I think we can continue to invest a small amount in strengthening our fight against climate change or expect to continue to spend a whole lot more -- eye-popping amounts -- in response to extreme weather."
For Peters, the California freshman, the trick is to find a crease between the politics. He is chairman of SEEC's climate task force, but he isn't set on convincing Republicans about the impacts of climate change.
"No, no, it's like religion," Peters said. "I don't think we have to talk about climate -- because I think the point of agreement is we want responsible fiscal budget policy. I know Republicans, a lot of Republicans, are sincerely interested in that."
Peters, an environmental lawyer who served on the San Diego City Council and as a commissioner for the city's port, said disaster funding should be similar to a family's budget for emergencies: Sock some away now for an illness or some other dilemma.
"Why aren't we building this into the budget? We know it's coming," he said.