Political Gamesmanship Is Running the Climate Agenda

Despite public opinion favoring government action on climate change, some members of the U.S. Senate continue their political posturing.

US Capitol Snow
The U.S. Capitol building. (US Capitol / Flickr)

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As the 114th Congress ends its first month, another major public opinion poll revealed a strong and growing trend that an overwhelming majority of the American public supports government action to curb global warming.

Despite this broad consensus, the opening act of this congressional session led by new Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) ignored public opinion with a bill to force construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. This was simply a reward to polluters in the oil and gas industry for the $721 million that the industry and its allies spent in the 2014 elections to make McConnell the Senate leader.

The Keystone XL project is currently under review by the Obama administration. Studies show that the greenhouse gases and other environmental and public health harms it would cause far outweigh the benefits. Nonetheless, the Senate has wasted three weeks and taken dozens of votes on amendments to a bill fated for a presidential veto.

For close observers of the Senate, votes on amendments associated with the Keystone bill exposed a rift between leadership and senators who understand the political danger of denying the need to act on climate change. While a vote on an amendment indicating climate change is not a hoax passed with near unanimity, the lines were redrawn on a separate amendment affirming that climate change is caused by humans. This amendment fell short of the 60 votes needed to pass but still garnered support from five Republican senators, Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Susan Collins (R-ME), Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Mark Kirk (R-IL).

Votes seeking to benefit polluters might not be as easy to win as McConnell and others in leadership think. That is because 56 percent of all Republican voters support action to curb carbon pollution, according to a study recently released by Yale University. This philosophical difference is more pronounced based upon ideology, with 62 percent of moderate Republicans indicating that climate change is real and just 38 percent of conservative Republicans and 29 percent of Tea Party Republicans in agreement. 

The past weeks have been full of political gamesmanship and test votes on where senators stand on climate change. Yet, the true test will happen in the coming months when senators will be forced to vote on solutions to climate change, not merely its existence or cause.  Such solutions have been put forth by the Obama administration, including the President’s Climate Action Plan and Clean Power Plan. The vote on the President’s plan—what the U.S. can do about climate change—will be the more accurate predictor of whether this Congress will stand with the polluters or for public health and clean energy. 

From 2001 to 2019, Sarah was on Earthjustice's Policy & Legislation team, working on Capitol Hill at the intersection of agricultural policy and climate policy and promoting a food system that is more resilient and just.

Established in 1989, Earthjustice's Policy & Legislation team works with champions in Congress to craft legislation that supports and extends our legal gains.