By Ben Adler, March 14, 2014
Sen. Brian Schatz, a climate hawk who pushes climate talk.
On Monday night, 31 senators pulled an all-nighter
on the chamber’s floor. This rager wasn’t for fun, though, and it
wasn’t because they were rushing to meet a legislative deadline. It was a
climate talkathon, lasting nearly 15 hours.
To those watching the proceedings on C-SPAN, it was a little unclear
what the intended purpose was. There was no bill to address climate
change on the docket, and if there were it would have no chance of
passing the Republican-controlled House. The only Republican who showed
up, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), mocked the event. The speakers mostly
rehashed well-established science and talked about the effects of
extreme weather in their states – sometimes very small-bore effects.
Even Al Franken (D-Minn.) earnestly lamenting that “turkey growers are finding it difficult to heat their barns” didn’t make it funny.
So what was the point? “One of the major objectives was to engage the
American public, and we did that,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), an
organizer of the event, told Grist in a phone interview Thursday. “We
need more passionate enthusiasm and engagement from the public.”
With this strategy, Democrats are mimicking the activism-oriented
approach of their conservative Republican colleagues. When the House
Republicans vote for the thousandth time to repeal Obamacare, they
aren’t accomplishing anything tangible, but they are generating press
coverage and exciting their base.
Back in 1955, when William F. Buckley Jr. launched the magazine National Review with hopes of invigorating a new conservative movement, he wrote
of “stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is
inclined to do so.” It took decades, but eventually conservatives’
seemingly hopeless exercises in speaking, writing, marching, and, most
importantly, campaigning led to more and more conservatives winning
elections. It also shifted the terms of the political debate in their
favor, such that the upper bound of what Democrats propose on marginal
tax rates today is less than half of what the highest tax rate was when
Buckley wrote that line.
Now the senators most concerned about climate change are hoping to do
something similar — stand athwart history and yell Stop. To make
climate change stop, they must change the bounds of what’s possible.
“It’s the beginning of this Senate taking on the issue of climate
change more prominently,” said Schatz. He noted that the new Senate
Climate Change Task Force, which supported the all-night talkathon, is
planning a series of events for the coming months.
The senators’ approach was made clear by their speeches Monday night:
homing in on the effects of climate change in their states. Their
reasoning is obvious, and obviously correct: Americans, like it or not,
are a selfish people. They mostly don’t care much
about climate change now. They aren’t going to start caring because
they learn of another species dying or another group of Pacific
islanders losing their homes. They will care when they believe their
jobs, their homes, their security, or maybe just their access to cheap
food is in danger.
“We had 31 senators talking about how climate change is affecting
their home states economically,” says Schatz. “This is a question of
economic survival. It’s something the Department of Defense takes
seriously. The only people not taking it seriously are the House of
And so the challenge is to turn climate change into an issue of
economic and national security, thus elevating it to the stature of two
things most American voters actually do care about.
And if most American voters can be convinced to care, congressional
Republicans might have to start caring too. Republicans are obstinate
about climate change because their supporters are. Back in 2008, the
Republican nominee for president, John McCain, supported reducing CO2
emissions through a cap-and-trade program, as did many other Republicans
with national ambitions. All reversed themselves in 2009, as their base
grew ferociously opposed to anything President Obama supported, no
matter how moderate or commonsensical the actual policy was. It strains
credulity to think that all these educated people have actually stopped
personally believing in anthropogenic climate change as evidence of its
existence has only grown. They are cowards and opportunists, and they
will do whatever will help them win the next election.
There’s still a long way to go before Republicans will believ
in their political interest to act against climate change. But the
climate talkathon, which generated a lot of headlines, was at least an
attempt to start.