The Climate Vote: What a Difference a Year Makes

As I savor last Friday's historic House vote to pass clean energy and climate legislation, I can't help but think about last June, when leaders in the Senate tried to pass a groundbreaking climate bill. What has changed since then? 

Almost everything.

  1. The single most influential difference is the arrival of President Obama. Last June, the Bush White House had no interest in confronting global warming. Obama came into office with energy and climate in his top tier of priorities. He explicitly backed the bill, and deployed his cabinet and White House staff to the Hill on its behalf. And when the bill passed, he changed the topic of his Saturday radio address from discussing health care reform to singing the praises of the House bill.
  2. We need a new economic engine now more than ever. Last June, we knew the nation was headed toward financial trouble, but we didn't know the scope of it yet. Now lawmakers recognize that shifting to clean energy and confronting global warming would create almost 2 million new jobs, attract private investment, and make America the leader in new technology.  
  3. The deadline of the international climate negotiations is looming ever closer. At the meeting in Copenhagen this December, the nations of the world will turn to see whether or not the United States has stepped up on climate. While that may not influence many members of Congress, it is a motivator for the Obama administration. They don't want to arrive in Copenhagen empty handed. Nor do they want to relive the mistakes of Kyoto, when President Clinton never asked the Senate to ratify the agreement because he knew it did not have Congressional support.
  4. The scientific evidence of global warming keeps mounting. The past year has brought an avalanche of climate data, culminating with the administration's own analysis that the effects of warming are already upon us and the MIT study cited by Paul Krugman this week that concludes earlier estimates of temperature increases were too conservative. The scientific consensus may not have persuaded some members of the House, but I can say with certainty that it has mobilized the environmental community and citizen activists, who in turn put the pressure on lawmakers. 

The More Things Change

Many things have changed since last June, but one constant remains in the political arena: short term interests often trump long-term gains.

Generally speaking, there were two key groups opposed to the ACES bill. The first included climate deniers who continue--even at this late date--to bury their heads deeply in the sand.

The second group consisted largely of lawmakers concerned about near-term economic impacts in their districts and their vulnerability in the next election cycle.

It is right for elected officials to look out for the financial interests of their constituents, but countless economic analyses have been done, and the data reveal that:

So if the data says ACES will create economic opportunity, why were some lawmakers shying away from it? Because those opposed to climate action have run a campaign of fear mongering, using hyperbole and misinformation to frighten constituents and intimidate lawmakers.

As the bill moves into the Senate, we will need bold leaders to proclaim that the long-term health of our economy and planet are of greater value than the attack ads of next year's election cycle.

We will need leaders to recognize that visionary efforts to unleash American ingenuity and prosperity will not only create jobs today but will pay off for generations to come.

And we will need leaders to accept that a sea change in American politics has occurred since last June's climate vote.