A Vote to Remember

Today the Senate is scheduled to vote on a handful of shameful amendments to the Clean Air Act. While the details differ, all these amendments have one thing in common – they aim to block or eliminate parts of the Act that would start the long-delayed process of rolling back the carbon pollution that will bring misery to millions through profound climate disruption.

Promoters of one of these retrograde bills, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), are quoted in the trade press as saying the vote will put Senators on the record on this important issue.  They are right but not in the way they think.  Years from now, when historians review  why it took our country so long to act to protect the climate on which our health, our economy, and security depends, this vote will figure in the telling of the story. 

Nearly twenty years after ratifying a treaty that recognized the serious threat to human interests presented by climate disruption, the Senate considers, not how to get serious about combating that threat, but whether it should block action to cut pollution under existing law.

The Clean Air Act directs EPA to adopt sensible measures that will reduce waste and lead to adoption of modern, efficient technology in our businesses – actions that will make us more competitive in a world that takes protecting the climate seriously.  But thanks to fear-mongers and professional liars, there is a mantra echoing in the halls of Congress that enforcing the Clean Air Act to cut carbon pollution will weaken the economy and cost jobs.  So the smirking duo of Senators McConnell and Inhofe think they have found a way to discomfit their political rivals by spinning a vote to protect the climate as a vote against economic recovery and jobs.

The fact that this is nonsense ought to be enough for serious men and women to say so and to talk straight about what is really at stake – putting an end to our gambling with the stable climate on which our civilization depends.  But today’s politics being what it is, a number of otherwise responsible Senators seem to be motivated by the fear that a lie with a megaphone is more powerful than the truth.  Well, that does not have to be.  It can happen only if these men and women choose to be cowed by the threats of the McConnell and Inhofe types.

Students of history today examine the landmark Senate vote on the 1964 Civil Rights Act and still wonder how so many Senators could have put themselves so clearly on the wrong side of history by voting against that step to make America great.  Today’s vote will not have the same immediate impact on the lives of millions as that 1964 Act did but every day we falter in acting to protect our climate is a day of additional, avoidable suffering that we will inflict on the innocent who do not possess political power today.  A vote for any of today’s anti-Clean Air Act amendments is a vote against those innocents.

So yes, Senators McConnell and Inhofe, this vote will put you and others on the record.  The claims of economic harm that some will use to justify their votes will soon be consigned to the rubbish heap as the trash all such earlier claims have been shown to be.  But the mark that will not be erased from each Senator’s record as he or she recounts their service to their grandchildren in years to come is did they vote to move America forward or did they put themselves on the wrong side of history.

About the Authors

David Hawkins

Director, Climate program

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