Climate change looms over Trump infrastructure meeting with Democrats

Congressional Democratic leaders plan to tell President Donald Trump on Tuesday that any agreement to improve the nation’s infrastructure must include funding to combat climate change.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer consider the effects of climate change among the greatest long-term challenges to the nation’s infrastructure, and will urge explicit funding to address it in any future legislation.

Schumer, a New York Democrat, and Pelosi, a California Democrat, sent Trump a letter on Monday saying that “a big and bold infrastructure package must be comprehensive and include clean energy and resiliency priorities.”

They wrote, “To truly be a gamechanger for the American people, we should go beyond transportation and into broadband, water, energy, schools, housing and other initiatives. We must also invest in resiliency and risk mitigation of our current infrastructure to deal with climate change.”

It’s unclear what the funding sources could be. Democrats were unhappy last year when the White House discussed an infrastructure package but generally did not come up with the means to pay for it.

An increase in the gasoline tax has been widely discussed as one option for infrastructure funding, but Schumer will not consider it unless Trump reverses some of the 2017 tax cuts for the wealthy, according to a congressional source. Schumer is concerned that poor and working class taxpayers would wind up bearing too much of a burden if the gas tax went up.

The Democrats’ plans create new hurdles as the two sides work toward achieving what could be a rare bipartisan victory this year: a massive infrastructure bill that both sides have promised to their political bases.

Schumer sent Trump a letter at the end of last year demanding the compromise bill include funding for projects that will “mitigate risks that the U.S. is already facing” due to a warming Earth.

But funding climate change mitigation projects would challenge Trump to acknowledge the direct effects of global warming on the nation’s infrastructure. Schumer and Pelosi are calling for “resiliency” improvements to transportation, water, waste and sewer systems and to critical infrastructure increasingly at risk of extreme weather.

“Climate change is an existential threat,” wrote Schumer last year. “The impacts will continue to worsen if we do not take decisive and immediate action to transition to a 100-percent clean energy economy,” the senator said.

A White House spokesman would not comment on the agenda for the upcoming meeting.

“I’m not going to get ahead of the meeting other than to say the president wants a bipartisan infrastructure package that rebuilds crumbling infrastructure, invests in the projects and industries of tomorrow, and promotes permitting efficiency,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere told McClatchy.

Trump is scheduled to meet Democratic leaders in the Oval Office on Tuesday in a bid to craft a broad funding package to repair the nation’s roads, bridges, airports, utilities and other public works and facilities.

“The bottom line is this: if they’re not going to put real money and have real labor and environmental protections, we’re not going to get anywhere,” Schumer told reporters earlier this month.

Last month, Trump proposed investing at least $1 trillion for a package that included $200 billion in federal spending.

That was less than last year’s $1.5 trillion plan, which went nowhere.

This time, taxes could be part of the deal. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told a Senate subcommittee last month that “nothing is off the table” when asked if higher gasoline taxes or airport passenger fees were in the mix.

It could be tougher to get an agreement on climate change.

Schumer’s December letter included a detailed, 10-point plan on his climate change priorities, and in its first two paragraphs highlighted the “administration’s release” of the Fourth National Climate Assessment — a congressionally mandated report that outlines the effects and economic costs of climate change on the homeland.

In response to the report, which the administration released on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, Trump is exploring the creation of a “presidential committee on climate security” that would question the scientific basis undergirding its findings.

Schumer, meanwhile, embraced its findings and encouraged Trump to do the same.

“Climate change is real, caused by humans, and its impacts are already being felt in communities across the country,” Schumer wrote. “The administration’s recent National Climate Assessment report laid out in detail many of the risks of climate change, which will only worsen if we do not dramatically reduce emissions.”

Privately, White House officials acknowledge the effects rising carbon dioxide emissions have had on the atmosphere – and say the administration embraces private-sector innovation, such as the advent of carbon capture and storage technology, as a preferable way to fight climate change to government regulation.

But Trump has repeatedly questioned the reality of climate change.

“I think something’s happening,” Trump told CBS’ “60 Minutes” in October. “Something’s changing and it’ll change back again. I don’t think it’s a hoax, I think there’s probably a difference. But I don’t know that it’s man-made.”

Schumer will also propose funding for conservation projects, smart grid technology and energy efficiency in schools and other public buildings.

While he does not mention gasoline taxes, Schumer does urge “permanent tax incentives” for domestic production of clean electricity, energy efficient homes, electric vehicles and a more modern electric grid.

David Lightman is McClatchy’s chief congressional correspondent. He’s been writing, editing and teaching for 47 years, with stops in Hagerstown, Riverside, Calif., Annapolis, Baltimore and since 1981, Washington.
Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.