Climate change talkathon is a sign of weakness

    There’s a reason why the U.S. Senate has long been nicknamed the Cave of Winds. Typically, its denizens are all talk, no action.

    Consider, for instance, last night’s 14-hour talkathon about climate change. It’s laudable that 28 Democratic senators morphed into night owls in order to spotlight a science-vetted crisis that’s real to everyone except deniers, flat-earthers, trolls, and Republicans. But when senators talk non-stop, it’s often a sign of weakness, a virtual admission that nothing substantive is in the works.

    Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse basically said so: “Tonight is not about a specific legislative proposal…We have got a little bit more work to do to open up the political space on this.”

    True that. It’s nice that the Democrats’ self-described “climate caucus” showed up to talk all night, and buttressed their efforts with a Twitter hashtag, #Up4Climate. But it’s more noteworthy that four Democratic senators up for re-election this year – Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Mark Begich of Alaska – were absent and silent. All but Hagan hail from states that produce lots of oil or gas.

    Those red-state Democrats have plenty of company; the last time the Senate tried to pass a bill reducing carbon pollution, 13 Democrats fled for the hills. And even if the Senate ever saw fit to act, there’s no way that any substantive law to cut carbon pollution would pass the Republican House, a notorious hotbed of head-in-the-sand denialism. Besides, any Republican or moderate red-state Democrat daring to fight the status quo is likely to be buried in an ad avalanche bankrolled by the Koch brothers – who made their fortune in the fossil fuel industry.

    As Whitehouse said yesterday, referring to the Koch brothers and their allies, “History will look back at the propaganda effort of the carbon polluters as one of the most sophisticated and complex propaganda efforts that human kind had to withstand.” Whitehouse is right about history, but politics is about the here and now. It’s about winning the next election; acting with wisdom and foresight on behalf of the public interest is a luxury few politicians can afford.

    The climate-caucus Democrats obviously had a lot to talk about last night, given the virtual scientific consensus. For instance, the National Climate Assessment and Developmental Advisory Committee, mandated by Congress to report on the climate every four years, warned last year (in a report vetted by 240 top scientists): “Climate change is already affecting human health, infrastructure, water resources, agriculture, energy, the natural environment and other factors – locally, nationally, internationally….The climate change of the past 50 years is due primarily to human activities.”

    The warnings are endless. A major re-insurance company concluded in an autumn 2012 report that human-caused climate change “particularly affects formation of heat waves, droughts, intense precipitation events, and in the long run, most probably, tropical cyclone activity…Nowhere in the world is the rising number of natural catastrophes more evident than in North America.” Two weeks later, we had Hurricane Sandy.

    Yeah, I know, an extreme “event” can’t be solely attributed to climate change. But scientists tie the increasing severity of these events to climate change. And a federal Energy Department report, released last summer, said the crisis is threatening our power grids: “Increasing temperatures, decreasing water availability, more intense storm events, and sea level rise will each independently, and in some cases in combination, affect the ability of the United States to produce and transmit electricity from fossil, nuclear, and existing and emerging renewable energy sources.” One DOE official told the press, “You can’t just put your head in the sand anymore.”

    President Obama has oscillated between leading on climate change and burying his head. He went mum in his first term after cap-and-trade died in the Senate, and reportedly avoided the topic in the ’12 campaign at the urging of his advisers. But he briefly referenced the issue on re-election night (“the destructive power of a warming planet”), he has since delivered a series of speeches to further raise public consciousness, and he hopes to cut power-plant carbon pollution with new Environmental Protection Agency rules (although, naturally, the Republicans are united in fighting that effort).

    And, like Obama, the climate-caucus Democrats are playing a long game. Talk is obviously no substitute for action, but talk may well inspire liberal fat cats to donate more money to the cause (case in point: billionaire Thomas Steyer). And clearly they’re trying to plant seeds in soil that’s already fertile. According to the latest Gallup poll, 57 percent of Americans believe that the seriousness of climate change is either “generally underestimated” or “generally correct” – a percentage that has steadily increased since 2010.

    If that trend continues, if climate-change politicians keep talking, and if more extreme weather “events” lay waste to coastlines and power grids, there may indeed come a time in the not too distant future when respecting science will be the safe political position. If only.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal