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 Monday 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.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.
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.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.