Can Democracy Catch Up to Climate Science?

NWF   |   July 3, 2008

070308_capitol_hill_3 When he first appeared before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Dr. James E. Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, brought alarming findings from a three-dimensional climate model to warn the committee and the world that the Earth was overheating and that we were all responsible.

Well, that was 20 years ago.

We now know so much more about the consequences of climate change as it unfolds all over the planet. With more than 10,000 peer-reviewed studies published about it, global warming is a highly documented, rapidly unfolding crisis that will affect everyone and alter the very nature of tomorrow. Yet despite two decades of accumulating increasingly alarming science, our government has failed to enact a single law to do anything to curb this crisis. There is plenty of blame to go around.

I believe President Bush will be remembered most by future generations for his stubborn refusal to address the climate crisis in the face of overwhelming science. Congress too, shares blame as it continues to be influenced by special interests from the oil and coal industries, and all of their associated fossil fuel vendors, that put corporate and financial interests ahead of public health and safety.

For the third time in recent years, key Senate leaders from both sides of the political aisle attempted, and actually came much closer, to moving forward on climate legislation in June. In addition to the 48 who voted to move the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill forward, another half-dozen lawmakers, including the hospitalized Senator Kennedy and the presidential candidates, expressed their support for the "cloture" vote to push the measure on to the amendment process.

In all, 54 senators spoke up for the need to debate solutions to global warming, far surpassing the 38 votes in 2005 and 43 votes in 2003. Supporters also included ten Senate converts who had opposed cap-and-trade legislation in prior votes. (Your emails, letters and phone calls do make a difference; keep them coming.)

Conflicted by their ties to affected industries and facing a surge of public pressure for action, nine senators failed to show up for perhaps the most important vote in their legislative careers. Leadership is about courage, integrity and duty. Those senators failed the test. (To find out how your senators voted, visit

While talking about high gasoline prices, the senators who voted against continued debate on the Climate Security Act actually voted against investing in a clean energy future. They thwarted important actions to energize our struggling economy with new, clean sources of domestic energy. They voted against safeguarding our families from the tyranny of big oil and Middle East dictators, and they voted against protecting and restoring America’s natural and wildlife resources.

Despite the disappointing vote, the outcome offers hope for our plans for passing strong global warming legislation next year when we have a new White House and a changed Congress. We now know which senators are paying attention to science and listening to the public, and which ones are instead listening to the oil companies.

In a recent speech titled "Is There Still Time to Avoid ‘Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference’ with Global Climate?" Dr. Hansen commented on the long history of legislative and administrative inaction: "There is little merit in casting blame for inaction, unless it helps point toward a solution. It seems to me that special interests have been a roadblock wielding undue influence over policymakers." Hansen, now armed with a new study, warns, "If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed…CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 to at most 350 ppm."

Climate change is threatening our national security, our economy and our vital natural resources. How could any senator in good conscience vote against advancing debate on global warming legislation? If we don’t tackle climate change soon, it will tackle us. It’s that simple.

I have a note taped to my computer monitor with these simple words: "Keep your destination in view." It reminds me daily that climate stabilization must be our common destination. I am optimistic about next year. All the extra effort from so many of you has been deeply inspiring and gives me confidence that we are building momentum for a legislative victory. Working together as never before, we will win this soon. When we do, the future of wildlife will look a bit more promising. Thank you for caring and acting for our children’s children.

Published: July 3, 2008