Time for Senator Portman to Clear the Air

Time for Senator Portman to Clear the Air

20639961338_baa49886ea_zWhat’s Senator Rob Portman’s position on climate change?

For years, Sen. Portman’s pronouncements on the issue have amounted to a series of shifting, clever evasions designed to make it look like he agrees with scientists while rejecting the heart of the scientific consensus.

In the past year or so, he has tried to have it both ways by first echoing scientists’ conclusion that humans contribute to climate change, but then undercutting the point by adding that we don’t know exactly how much humans contribute – meaning that we don’t know enough to do something about the central environmental threat of our time.  And he’s put that view into (in)action by opposing each and every plan to actually do something to reduce carbon pollution and climate change.  Most notably, he voted to kill the Clean Power Plan, which would require utilities to limit their carbon pollution.

Recently, Sen. Portman has found another way to try to make it look like he’s not a climate denier.  He co-sponsored an amendment offered by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) that says that climate change is real, that humans contribute to it, and that Congress should do something about it.

Other supporters of the resolution have a clearer record on climate action.  Senator Graham has supported bills that would have actually cut carbon pollution, although he scuttled the last attempt to get legislation through Congress, and he opposes the Clean Power Plan.  And some Republican co-sponsors of the amendment, like Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), have voted to support the Clean Power Plan.

So where’s Rob Portman?  Does his backing for the Graham amendment amount to just another bit of “greenwashing” by the Senator – a way to sound concerned while doing nothing?

Ohioans ought to be confronting Sen. Portman directly with that question.  Does Sen. Portman still contend that we don’t know enough about the human contribution to climate change to take action?  And if he now believes in action, what action is he willing to take?  Will he support the Clean Power Plan and its real and affordable carbon pollution cuts?  If not, what’s his alternative?

It’s important to press these questions because Sen. Portman has been so squirrely on the issue for so long.  In 2015, he first introduced, but then stepped back from offering an amendment that would not only have killed the Clean Power Plan, but would have fundamentally undercut the central principle of the Clean Air Act – that we need national clean air standards because air (and air pollution) travel across state lines.  He has never repudiated his proposal, but has also never put it to a vote.

Also last year, he first voted for a resolution saying climate change is a problem, but then voted against another resolution that stated that humans contribute “significantly” to climate change.  Portman voted “no” even though scientists are clear that the human contribution is significant enough to be driving climate change, and significant enough that reducing pollution is the way to limit the impacts of climate change.  But Rob Portman wasn’t willing to acknowledge that.

Since then, he’s tried the cute and misleading dance of saying he believes that humans contribute to climate change, while rejecting the scientific understanding that humans contribute enough to make all the difference in the world.  His wording is technically true – scientists can’t say exactly what the human contribution is – while ignoring the scientists’ urgent message – that we know enough to require action to limit the human contribution.

And now comes the Graham resolution.  Does this represent a change in the Senator’s thinking, or is it just one more way to obscure his position and delay action?

The question takes on even more significance with Donald Trump now the presumptive Republican candidate for President.  Trump has denied the most basic conclusions of climate science with his usual off-the-cuff, devil-may-care truculence.  (Trump’s climate comments are of a piece with his idiotic dismissal of the Nobel Prize-winning science on the ozone hole, which he whisks away with personal anecdotes about hairspray.) Does Senator Portman reject Donald Trump’s willful, destructive ignorance on climate science?  Rob Portman’s stance is carefully constructed and mildly worded, but is it really much different?

Ohioans ought to be asking Sen. Portman to clear the air.

David Goldston is director of government affairs at the NRDC Action Fund.

(Photo: Gage Skidmore)