Monday night, 31 U.S. Senators staged an all-night “talkathon” (hashtagged #Up4Climate) to urge their colleagues in Congress to begin, in earnest, to address climate change. Their key points: Action is critical, the scientific consensus is clear, the window of opportunity is closing, and denial won’t keep climate change from wreaking untold harm on U.S. communities. At PHI’s Center for Climate Change & Health, we couldn’t agree more. If the U.S. does not take major action to mitigate and adapt to climate change, people here, and around the world, will continue to feel the ravaging effects of amped up storms and flooding, worsening droughts, extreme heat, increased wildfires, sea level rise, and the many health impacts these changes directly and indirectly produce.
Noticeably not among the outcomes of the #Up4Climate event: the introduction of any new climate legislation. Indeed, it is precisely the inability to advance any climate change legislation whatsoever in this divided Congress that provided the impetus for this week’s event, the explicit aim of which was to get climate change back on the political agenda. The last time Congress seriously engaged with a bill on climate change was in 2009, with the Waxman-Markey bill. That bill unraveled in 2010. Though more recent bills have been proposed – such as the Boxer-Markey carbon tax of 2013, or Capps’ bill of the same year to strengthen public health system capacity to respond to climate change impacts – they have been widely understood to be ‘dead on arrival.’ Many legislators continue to deny that climate change is even occurring, flying in the face of sound science.
From the White House we’ve seen renewed efforts to tackle climate change through executive action (Keystone XL pipeline aside). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with support from the President, is moving forward with regulations to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, a major greenhouse gas source. Though the House passed a bill that would block the EPA’s authority to regulate these health-harming carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act, the Senate won’t take up the House bill; but even if it did the President has already vowed a veto.
As bills to address the issue get repeatedly shut down by Congressional gridlock, the impact of climate change has been increasingly felt across the U.S., including the historic drought we are still grappling with in California. Communities in California are looking at dangerously low drinking water reservoirs, fallow fields and unfed cattle, job loss, damage to fish stock, Valley Fever and the prospects of another raging fire season.
#Up4Climate comes at crunch time. The best time for U.S. action to begin to address climate change would have been nearly 25 years ago, when the first President Bush first put climate change on the Washington agenda. What we face now, instead, is the last possible moment for action. The #Up4Climate Senators are right – it’s high time to start pulling all-nighters.