Where is Congress’ Center on Climate Change?

A bipartisan duo of centrist senators combine to promote a vague and inadequate agenda. But at least it’s something.

The Green New Deal proposal that AOC and Ed Markey put forward last month almost certainly won’t become law anytime soon. But presumably it also had a second purpose: to move the national debate off the nothing-can-be-done pessimism of the last two years and push other people to offer plans of their own. That effort is already seeing some success. For example, here’s economist Noah Smith’s GND, which largely overlaps with the progressive Democrats’ GND, but shaves off a few of its more controversial economic features — like a federally guaranteed job — and puts more emphasis on research and trade policy, plus a carbon tax.

Fertilizing the collective imagination and keeping pressure on fossil-fuel lackeys to explain why they’re blocking legitimate efforts to preserve a livable planet for future generations — those are two worthy accomplishments. But at some point actual legislation needs to pass, which (at least for the next two years, and probably well beyond) will require just about all Democratic votes plus a few Republicans. What kind of proposal could achieve that anytime soon?

We got an indication this week in the bipartisan op-ed on climate change that Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) published in the Washington Post. Murkowski and Manchin are both considered centrists in their respective parties, so if there is going to be bipartisan cooperation, this is where you would expect it to start.

Whether you find this piece encouraging or discouraging depends on where you expected the Senate’s center to be. On the optimistic side, the two senators accept the basic science of the problem.

There is no question that climate change is real or that human activities are driving much of it.

They point out that the effects of climate change not just looming in some distant computer-modeled future, but are already affecting their states: floods in West Virginia and shifting fisheries in Alaska.

This is a huge improvement on science-deniers like Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) or President Trump, who have described climate change as a hoax, or those like Marco Rubio who employ the “I’m not a scientist, but” dodge, or like Joni Ernst who dodge with “our climate always changes”. At least Murkowski and Manchin start by recognizing reality.

From there, though, things get iffy. They position themselves in the center by framing the climate debate as a clash between two equally wrong extremes.

those who support drastic, unattainable measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and those who want to do nothing.

Three things are wrong with this framing:

  • It fails to point out that more vigorous measures to reduce emissions are “unattainable” largely because people like Murkowski and Manchin won’t get behind them.
  • It ignores the likelihood that “attainable” measures won’t be enough to avoid a climate catastrophe. (If they think attainable measures will suffice, they should state that position openly and defend it.) Think about Winston Churchill in the 1930s foreseeing Great Britain’s coming clash with Nazi Germany: What if he had limited himself to calling for preparations that were “attainable” under the Chamberlain government?
  • The Trump administration isn’t trying to “do nothing”. If only it were. Instead, it’s actively rolling back what the Obama administration accomplished, trying to cut funding for renewable energy, filling the government with fossil-fuel industry activists, and in general doing everything it can to make the problem worse. Doing nothing would be a considerable improvement.

But OK then, what are Murkowski and Manchin proposing? They are the chair and ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where

we are working together to find pragmatic policies that can draw strong and enduring support.

So they support measures that can draw support, whatever those might be. From there, you have to read between the lines to see what they might mean.

The United States leads the world in research and development. Our national labs and universities are working toward the next scientific breakthrough, and private investors are pursuing the next game-changing technology. The United States is at the forefront of clean-energy efforts, including energy storage, advanced nuclear energy, and carbon capture, utilization and sequestration. We are committed to adopting reasonable policies that maintain that edge, build on and accelerate current efforts, and ensure a robust innovation ecosystem.

The impact of developing these new technologies will be felt by Americans from all walks of life, including residents of rural communities and other areas served by older technologies. Transitioning these communities to more efficient forms of energy will provide them with cleaner energy that is also more stable and has lower costs, which will bring about additional benefits.

I read it like this: They’ll appropriate more money for research, in hope of finding win/win solutions that lower carbon emissions without asking for any sacrifice from either industry or consumers. So: no green taxes, no mandates that might force higher efficiency standards, no forced retirement of coal-fired power plants, no firm commitment to a national carbon-emission goal.

Undoubtedly there are at least a few such win/win solutions to be found, and if so, we should definitely try to find them. But I suspect they won’t move us far enough fast enough to avoid the kinds of disasters that will create new deserts, raise oceans, and send tens or hundreds of millions of people looking for new homes. If you have been alarmed by the flood of refugees from Syria or Sudan or Guatemala, wait for Bangladesh.

If you think in terms of what the crisis requires, this isn’t even half a loaf; it’s more like part of a slice. If there is a slice to be gotten, though, we should be sure to get it. Funding new research, after all, is better than stifling research. The trick will be to get the slice without letting the public lose sight of what is really needed.

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  • Josh  On March 11, 2019 at 10:38 am

    If this is really the best we can get the “reasonable center” to agree to, we’ve got big problems.

  • Abby  On March 11, 2019 at 11:49 pm

    You didn’t mention that both Manchin and Murkowski are from states with heavy fossil fuel industry income. Murkowski’s Alaska has huge oil reserves, and Manchin’s West Virginia still thinks it can make money off of coal. They may be industry shills in sheep’s clothing. How would two centerists from non-fossil fuel heavy states state their opinion?

  • George Carty⚛️🔰 (@GCarty80)  On March 13, 2019 at 1:51 pm

    As one of America’s most powerful enemies of nuclear energy (due to the LNG terminal that was in his district when he was in the House of Representatives), Ed Markey is very much part of the problem rather than part of the solution when it comes to climate change.

    I am extremely dismayed that AOC seems to have been conned into thinking that climate change can be defeated without nuclear energy, not just by the corrupt Ed Markey, but also likely by Bernie Sanders (who was most likely anti-nuclear as a result of being of the generation that did duck-and-cover drills in school).


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