Senator Kirk: It’s time to pick a side on climate action

Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois is stuck between the desires of his constituents who overwhelmingly support action on climate change and voices within the Republican party desperate to derail climate action on behalf of the Big Polluter Agenda. But with a series of votes intended to derail the historic Clean Power Plan to cut dangerous carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants coming through Congress, he is going to have to pick a side. The decision should be easy for a politician who has constituents who care about the integrity of the environment. The Senator has devoted time and energy towards protecting the health of Illinoisans, fighting for the Great Lakes and working hard on national security issues: all issues that will require addressing climate change to move the ball in the coming years.

Kirk ad in Trib

That is why the NRDC Action Fund has been running digital ads across Illinois and a social media campaign to urge Senator Kirk to work for climate action and vote against bills targeting the Clean Power Plan. As part of that effort, we were joined by national security and business voices on a letter to the Senator outlining the issues at hand. Here’s the letter:

Senator Kirk:

On behalf of our members in Illinois, the undersigned organizations, businesses, and civic leaders urge you to support real and timely climate action. Among the most important actions in this area would be for you to oppose any proposals to block, delay, weaken or otherwise prevent the EPA from protecting public health under the Clean Power Plan (CPP).

Your work on behalf of the Great Lakes has been greatly appreciated by our groups and memberships, but we want to reach out to stress the need to protect our fresh water seas on all fronts. And looking forward, one of the greatest threats to the Lakes comes in the form of climate change. Climate action is essential for protecting the Great Lakes—not to mention the lives and livelihoods of future generations and our communities.

There is strong business support for the clean power plan, including more than 100 businesses that make up the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition working toward implementation of the plan at the state level.  A study by the Illinois Science and Technology Institute estimated that this legislation would create 32,000 new jobs designing, making and installing the clean energy projects that will put Illinois in compliance with the federal rules.

It’s absolutely essential that we reduce dangerous carbon pollution, which traps heat and is fueling climate change. The nation’s fossil-fuel power plants are the single-biggest source of carbon pollution in the U.S., accounting for nearly 40 percent of the total. Today we limit mercury, lead, and soot from these power plants, but no such limits exist for carbon pollution.

Carbon pollution drives climate change, which is a clear and present danger to Illinoisans’ health and communities, bringing stronger storms, harsher droughts, and rising temperatures—most recently highlighted by findings that 2014 was, globally, the hottest year on record. The National Climate Assessment, a recent report from 13 federal agencies, warned that human-induced climate change impacts are happening today, and worsening in every region of the United States.

Here in Illinois, rising temperatures, along with greater air stagnation and other climate effects, increase ground-level ozone smog. There are more than 1.7 million people with asthma or chronic respiratory disease in Illinois who are especially vulnerable to the harmful health effects of ozone smog, which makes it harder to breathe.  Eleven counties in Illinois currently have ozone levels that exceed EPA standards, and models indicate that areas with high ozone levels, like Chicago, are at risk of even greater ozone smog pollution due to climate change and rising temperatures.

Without efforts to reduce our carbon pollution, heat waves like the one in Chicago in 1995— which killed more than 700 people—could occur as often as once every two years by the 2050s. Heat waves far worse than the one in 1995, such as the 2003 European heat wave that resulted in 30,000 deaths, could occur once every two summers by the 2080s.

The devastating impacts of climate change are not limited to land and air. For decades, climate scientists have warned that significant swings in water levels would afflict the Lakes, warming waters would impact fish species and a loss of Lake ice pack could scour away shorelines. According to the National Climate Assessment, climate change encourages the production of the toxic algae that plagues our lakes and forced the city of Toledo to suspend water service last summer—and it should be noted an algae-related dead zone has now appeared in Lake Michigan’s Green Bay.

So much of the good work you have done on behalf of this globally unique and essential ecosystem which stands at the core of our region’s sustainability and quality of life will be utterly undone by climate change. In order to protect the Great Lakes, you must address climate change.

Senator Kirk, you and Illinois’ leaders have an opportunity to chart a healthy, clean energy future for our state. The Clean Power Plan presents Illinois with the opportunity to improve public health, foster new economic development, and help stabilize our climate.

And people across the state agree. Recent bipartisan polling shows Illinoisans are ready to fight climate change and advance clean energy by an overwhelming margin. Sixty-six percent of Illinoisans support the Clean Power Plan itself, and when informed that states can create their own plans to meet the pollution reduction goals of the Clean Power Plan, a whopping 83 percent of Illinoisans said they support the state developing a plan to reduce carbon pollution, as well as increasing the use of clean energy and energy efficiency.

This is an essential moment for climate action—we urge you to protect our state, our health, the Great Lakes and future generations by committing to oppose any proposals to block, delay, weaken or otherwise prevent the EPA from protecting public health under the Clean Power Plan.

Please let us know what you plan to do on this important issue.

If the Senator needs a reminder that climate issues are already wreaking havoc on his home state, he need look no further than downtown Chicago, where the Chicago River ran backwards last night due in part to climate-induced storms that dumped immense rainfall on the area, overwhelming the stormwater system and forcing millions of gallons of sewage-tainted water out into Lake Michigan.

But the chorus of voices advocating for climate action extends far beyond the environmental and business communities. The military and intelligence community has focused on the destabilizing impacts of climate change–something clearly noted in the most recent quadrennial review.

The climate votes should be easy for Senator Kirk. All the issues he cared about early in his career, and the consensus of his state point to the need for prompt climate action. We will quickly see who he is representing. In the meantime, let him know which side you are on with this online action.

Running Clean or Running Scared?

A batch of Senate amendments this week revealed the awkward maneuvering going on within the Republican Party on climate change. After months of some GOP lawmakers holding fast to denial and some demurring “I’m not a scientist,” a handful of Senate Republicans voted to forthrightly acknowledge that human activity is driving climate change.

But the Senate Republican membership as a whole still stuck to a dispiriting mix of denial and obfuscation.  And perhaps worst of all, even most of those Senators who voted to acknowledge the existence of man-made climate change, simply shifted from the know-nothing category to the do-nothing one.

Neither position will help our nation deal with this crisis. And neither will resonate with the vast majority of Americans who say in poll after poll they want leaders to address climate change and reduce the carbon pollution that drives it.

So what happened in the Senate?  One amendment, offered by climate champion Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) put the Senate on record, by a vote of 98-1, saying that climate change was not a “hoax.” The amendment passed almost unanimously because it was interpreted as just saying the climate is changing – not why.  The real test for deniers was the amendment put forward by Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) stating that human activity “significantly” contributes to climate change.

The former amendment is the equivalent of saying cigarettes release smoke. The latter recognizes that cigarettes cause lung cancer—and gets us headed toward solving a devastating problem.

There is overwhelming scientific consensus that pollution from human activity causes climate change. To stand on the side of fact and reality, lawmakers must recognize the link between pollution and climate disruption.

Republicans who flirt with references to a changing climate but refuse to acknowledge the human role in that change can’t shake off the label of climate denier—or flat Earther or ostrich with head in the sand.

The Schatz amendment failed 50-49, but five Republicans demonstrated leadership by voting for it: Senators Collins (ME), Kirk (IL), Ayotte (NH), Graham (SC), and Alexander (TN).

In an effort to give Republicans wiggle room, Senator Hoeven (R-ND) offered an identical amendment that struck the world “significantly” from the text on human activity causing climate change.

The Hoeven amendment does not acknowledge what the science actually says.  The scientific consensus is that the changes we’re seeing in our climate cannot be explained without including human activity, and cannot be addressed without limiting carbon pollution.  The Hoeven amendment was a way to make it look like Republicans accepted the science without actually having them do so.  This simply combines denial with cowardice.  At least figures like Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) are open about their beliefs.

Support for the Hoeven amendment seemed strong enough that Hoeven himself panicked and voted no, apparently fearing that denialism is so strong in some quarters that even his tepid amendment would lead some Republicans to turn against the underlying bill which forces approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. In the end, the amendment failed 59-40, but fifteen Republicans supported it—seven of whom are up for reelection in 2016, some in purple states.

It’s no wonder Republicans eyeing the next election are rethinking their climate positions. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that two-thirds of voters support the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. This support reaches into purple and red states: a survey conducted by Harstad Strategic Research reported that 53 percent of Republicans, 63 percent of Independents, and 87 percent of Democrats say the EPA should limit carbon pollution.

Mitt Romney’s team may be reading the same polls. As he considers a third run for president, Romney described himself this week as “one of those Republicans” who believe that humans contribute to climate change and the U.S. make show “real leadership” on the issue. Romney knows he needs moderate votes to win the White House, and 62 percent of moderate Republicans view climate change as a serious threat, according to new analysis from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Having a few more Republican Senators on-the-record accepting climate change science is, sadly, a notable development. So is more Republicans tacitly acknowledging that forthright denialism is bad politics.  But they can’t stop there. They have to offer a plan for solving it. Right now the GOP Leadership in Congress has not only vowed to block the Obama Administration’s climate action at every turn, they have failed entirely to present their own blueprint for reducing carbon pollution. Their do-nothing position is the hoax that needs revealing.

GOP Has No Mandate for Attack on Clean Air and Climate Solutions

Most voters didn’t go the ballot box to demand dirtier air and contaminated water. And yet Republican leaders have proudly proclaimed that gutting environmental safeguards is one of their top priorities for the new Congress. They have vowed to roll back national limits on climate change pollution, strip protections from waterways that feed drinking supplies, and launch a host of other attacks.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says his top priority for the next session is “to try to do whatever I can to get the EPA reined in.”

That’s a bold statement to make when the vast majority of Americans value the EPA’s role in protecting their families from pollution. Seven out of 10 Americans, for instance, support the EPA’s effort to limit climate change pollution from power plants, according to an ABC/Washington Post survey.

The GOP pro-polluter agenda is out of step with what Americans want. Republicans may have gained control of the Senate, but they did not receive a mandate to dismantle environmental safeguards.

Given the dismal voter turnout in the midterms, it’s hard to declare a mandate for anything.

  • 36.2 percent of eligible voters participated in the midterm elections, the lowest turnout since World War II. Even if every single one of them favored the GOP, the party still wouldn’t have the majority of Americans behind them.
  • Several races were settled by small margins. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that Republican Thom Tillis won the North Carolina Senate race by a margin of 1.7 percent—about 48,000 votes.
  • Republicans lost among people under 40 years old and among all minority voters, according to the National Journal.
  • The voting center grew this year: 40 percent of voters identified as moderates, while 36 percent called themselves conservative, down from 42 percent in the 2010 midterms. Fewer voters are calling for the radical changes espoused by the Tea Party.
  • Since the last midterm election, 21 states have enacted more restrictive voting laws, which means fewer people are able to vote and fewer voices are being heard.
  • 69 percent of all dark money—campaign funding from undisclosed donors—went to Republican candidates. The vast majority of it came from the Koch brothers and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads/GPS—polluter friendly groups known for attacking environmental safeguards.  That money means Mitch McConnell may be able to claim the Koch Brothers’ mandate, but certainly not a mandate from the voters.

These numbers paint a picture of a discouraged electorate. Many are tired of the gridlock in Washington; many are overwhelmed by the money in politics. But nowhere in the polling does it say Americans want to breathe dirtier air or get hit by more extreme weather brought on by climate change.

Indeed, exit polling showed that six out of 10 voters leaving the voting booth support the EPA’s effort to limit climate change pollution from power plants.

Republicans won several hard fought races this year, but they would be wise not to let it go to their heads. When candidates won roughly 52 percent of about 36.2 percent of eligible voters, making a declaration of war against the environment sounds like the beginnings of overreach.

Compare those small portions to the 98 percent of scientists who say climate change is a serious threat to our health and wellbeing. Now that’s what I call a mandate for action.

Running Clean Draws Support from Swing Voters

With 48 hours to go before the midterm elections, you’re probably a bit tired of seeing competing poll results. Head-to-head matchups between candidates have varied this entire election cycle, but one item we’ve been tracking has remained consistent—voters want action on climate change.

In February, the NRDC Action Fund released our first polling of the 2014 cycle. It was conducted in 11 battleground states and showed that voters across the political spectrum were ready for the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce dangerous carbon pollution. Now, eight months later, we released another poll, this time in five swing states that produced nearly the exact same results.

The poll found that:

  • Climate and energy are playing a role in the public discourse in these states’ senate races: nearly 40 percent of voters have heard about candidate positions on climate change, and majorities have heard their views on energy.
  • Republican candidates’ extreme positions are costing them support among key blocs of swing voters. By margins of 20 to 22 percentage points, independents, women and younger voters describe themselves as less likely to vote for their Republican candidate after learning of his or her views on energy, the environment and climate change.
  • Pro-climate positions are highly popular with voters. Sixty-eight percent of voters feel more favorably toward candidates who support clean energy and 54 percent have a more favorable impression of candidates who believe the government should take action on climate change.

Consistency is key. It clearly shows that even after polluters have spent millions of dollars to defeat candidates who are running clean, they have been unable to change voter’s attitudes.

No matter who comes out victorious on election night, all the winners would be wise to remember that voters want those heading to Congress to put in place policies that ensure cleaner air and less carbon pollution. It’s also a good reminder for all the would-be presidential candidates, that voters will not elect a climate denier to the White House in 2016.

A presentation of the results is available here:


Christie’s Crisis and Climate

Hold the presses on the “Christie 2016” bumper stickers (though they’d be easy to read while sitting in a traffic jam). With the New Jersey Governor’s image taking a beating from still-developing public controversies, perhaps the case for Chris Christie as the leading Republican candidate in the next presidential election is not quite as clear-cut as before—unless he can find a way to rebuild his reputation.

Much of Christie’s success has been due to the political brand he has carefully cultivated: a straight if tough talker who’s a true conservative but can reach across the aisle to get things done.  His landslide victory for a second term as Governor seemed to unequivocally demonstrate the broad appeal of this political brand and to prove that Christie represented the GOP’s best chance of winning the White House by appealing to independents and centrist Democrats.

Then the allegations of scandals within his administration hit, portraying a different kind of Christie–saying one thing while doing another; being self-serving, vindictive, even petty.  It remains to be seen whether Christie knew more than he has admitted about the lane closures or doled out sandy relief money based on favoritism instead of need.  But whatever ongoing investigations turn up, the brand Christie worked so hard to build has now been badly tarnished.

A closer examination of Christie’s record, however, suggests that this reputation may always have been predicated more on image than fact.  Where was the straight-talking Christie who could tell his party that it was time to act after he acknowledged climate change as a serious problem? And where was the Christie who seemed able to reach across the aisle after he ran for Governor as a friend to the environment?

Christie’s actions on climate change and clean energy during his first term are revealing in this regard.  Christie unilaterally withdrew New Jersey from a 10-state effort meant to reduce carbon pollution in the northeast region through interstate cooperation (the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative).  He also diverted approximately $1 billion from funds dedicated to promoting clean energy initiatives in the state budget. These course reversals are even more perplexing in a “blue state” like New Jersey where government action to protect the environment is popular and the economic benefits from investing in clean energy are great.

If the most serious allegations against Christie turn out to be true, it’s hard to imagine how he would make a recovery.  But even if nothing else turns up, Christie will still have to work to repair his damaged reputation.  He can start by leading on issues people care about, such as climate change, as he should have all along.

An opportunity is in the making for the governor, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to soon issue a proposal for reducing carbon pollution from power plants that use fossil fuels.  This proposal will make sense for New Jersey and the states still remaining in RGGI.  And it wouldn’t be bad for Christie either, who could use a new bumper sticker with a positive message.