THE BLOG

The DC Disconnect on Climate Change

02/02/2015 01:28 pm ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015

Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Nobel prize-winning international scientific body analyzing climate change data, issued its most recent report, stating that global warming was unequivocal and pervasive and that humans played a decisive role in that warming.

Last month, NASA and NOAA both confirmed that 2014 was the hottest year on record, and, last year, the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. and the Royal Society in the UK issued a joint report, concluding that there is clear evidence that humans are responsible for much of the environmental destruction now underway.

But, last week, the U.S. Senate decided to vote on whether climate change was real and, if so, whether that was due, in part, to human activity. (Spoiler alert: turns out that, according to the scientists in the Senate, climate change is real -- but barely -- and humans do not contribute to that change.)

The disconnect between where the scientific community is on the causes of climate change, and what Congress thinks, is profound. Congress is also out of step with the American public.

A poll by the New York Times, Stanford University and Resources for the Future found that a substantial majority of Americans believe the climate is warming, that humans play a critical role in that warming and that action needs to be taken quickly. A recent Yale University poll found that a majority of Republicans believe the climate is heating and support regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

The private sector clearly sees opportunity in addressing the issue. Last week, Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported that, in 2014, investment in clean energy in the U.S. climbed to nearly $52 billion. Venture and private equity investing in the sector was up 16 percent over 2013, to $4.8 billion.

Six clean energy yieldcos have come to market in the last 18 months and now hold over 7Gw of power assets. Major acquisitions, like Sun Edison's purchase of First Wind for $2.4 billion, are increasing and corporate investments, like Florida Power and Light's solar panel program to supply electricity to tens of thousands of homes, are more frequent.

Yet, earlier this year, Senator Deb Fischer (R-NE) introduced a bill that would outlaw the use of greenhouse gas considerations in National Environmental Policy Act reviews. Not to be outdone, Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY) introduced a bill to limit the Environmental Protection Agency's power to limit visibility pollution near national parks, perhaps under the mistaken impression that people visit the parks to see the pollution. Pat Toomey (R-PA), Bob Casey (R-PA) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) proposed a bill that, among other things, would limit EPA regulations on power plants that burn waste coal. In the House, Congressman Michael Burgess (R-TX) introduced legislation to repeal parts of the Clean Air Act.

The new committee assignments in Congress reflect this dichotomy. Senator Shelley Capito, from the coal-rich state of West Virginia, will chair the Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety. Climate science skeptic, Ed Whitfield, of Kentucky, leads the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power and John Shimkus of Illinois, who believes that carbon dioxide is really just plant food, runs the Subcommittee on Environment and Energy. Lamar Smith, who believes the IPCC report was deliberately slanted by the scientists who authored it, heads the House Science Committee.

What's the problem? Why is Congress so out of step with America's scientists, business community and voters in this area?

What we are witnessing, I believe, is the (prolonged) last gasp of a slowly dying fossil fuel industry. These bills and committee assignments represent one last, final effort to stop the movement towards a cleaner fuel mix and is based on three simple drivers: the economic interests of fossil fuel suppliers, conservatives' fear of regulation, and the nearly total gerrymandering of House Congressional districts.

That's why the Koch brothers have pledged nearly a billion dollars to support fossil fuel measures and the elected officials who will vote for them and why the U.S. Chamber spends significant time trying to gut clean energy and environmental regulations. Each has a strong economic interest in the outcome of these debates.

Conservatives have real and long-standing concerns about overzealous government regulation and the speed with which environmental rules now need to be promulgated troubles them. This is a matter of philosophy, but it is interesting to note that elected officials who have had significant "climate events" in their districts are more likely to favor some form of action.

Finally, gerrymandered districts cause elected officials to fear primary opponents, not the other party's general election candidate. This pushes conservative candidates even further right on issues like the environment.

Ironically, the push to gut environmental legislation and prop up the fossil fuel industry may not actually last very long. The political map in 2016 favors the Democrats in much the same way the political map in 2014 favored Republicans. Next year, more than twice as many Republican Senators as Democrats will face re-election.

There are already glimmers of change. A handful of Republican Senators recently voted for a resolution tying climate change to human activity. Potential GOP Presidential candidates Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham have begun to suggest that it's just possible that humans might have contributed a little something to the problem. Grassroots groups such as ConservAmerica, the Conservation Leadership Council and Concord51 are emerging to provide conservatives a forum, and a vocabulary, for supporting clean energy and the environment.

The growth in the support for action on climate change is similar to the way support built for many civil and economic rights issues. Strongly entrenched groups ignored the call for change until the calls became loud enough to threaten economic interests. Then, the incumbents spent considerable financial and political capital to try to maintain the status quo. Once the call for change reached critical mass, capitulation happened quickly, although it was years in the making.

If the debate over climate change follows the same pattern, relatively soon, Washington will reconnect.

Correction: A previous version of this post stated incorrectly that Dianne Feinstein (D- CA) was one of those proposing a bill that would limit EPA regulations on power plants that burn waste coal. SA 41 is co-sponsored by Pat Toomey (R-PA), Bob Casey (R-PA) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).