More than two dozen Democratic senators staged a rare Senate talkathon last night and through the early morning hours, often posing next to a sign that said, "Time to Wake Up," as the nation's capital slumbered.
Their issue was the need for Congress to do more to combat climate change. As the night wore on, their speeches touched on topics including the devastating impacts of Superstorm Sandy, a New Jersey man who started a community garden, the cost of energy for Hawaiian hotels and the oysters that have been hurt by acidic waters. Senators repeatedly engaged each other in colloquies to ask each other questions about climate change and how their respective states were being affected.
There was no reading of telephone books, a tactic senators have sometimes resorted to in the past to hold the floor during filibusters to prevent Senate action. Last night's goal was the opposite: to push for action.
Senators framed fighting global warming as essential to halting rising sea levels, moving the country to renewable energy and helping the United States avoid consequences of climate change like droughts and extreme storms.
There were also many paeans to America's greatness and the innovation that senators said the United States could summon to find ways to get off fossil fuels. Several senators compared fighting climate change to putting a man on the moon in terms of tackling a seemingly impossible but critical challenge.
As the night wore on, there were few people on the Senate side of the Capitol, mostly security and maintenance personnel and a few young Senate pages and aides milling about. At around 5:30 a.m., there were only one reporter and one photographer in Congress covering the session. The audience was the unblinking red bulb in front of the live C-SPAN cameras. At 5:15 am, staffers brought in fresh containers of coffee to a side room off the Senate chamber to keep themselves and senators recharged.
"One of the reasons that we are here tonight is to hopefully galvanize the American public to go back to their more reasonable Republican members and say, 'Remember when you said you would be a middle-of-the-road Republican?'" said Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, who helped lead the event. "This is a way to demonstrate that you're a middle-of-the-road Republican."
The younger Democrats led the action through much of the night. There weren't any Republican senators around to listen, a point quickly noted by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who was helping to lead the talkathon. "There's been no voice for doing anything responsible about climate change all night from that side of the aisle," he noted at one point. "It's been absolutely silent, absolutely empty, but it's closer than it looks when you actually look at the history of members on that side of the aisle."
A focus on national security risks
But he predicted that the political tide on climate change is turning and added that several Republican senators had voiced strong sentiments on tackling climate change, but unfortunately, the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission had opened up the floodgates for cash from "big money" interests that oppose climate change legislation.
Senators also hammered away at the national security risks of not confronting climate change, saying that inaction could antagonize populations of developing countries.
If "the fish they used to catch aren't there, the crops they used to grow won't grow any longer, the river they used to irrigate isn't running as strong any longer, and their lives have been hurt as a result of that, and they look around, what greater resentment could there be than a resentment of the country that knew this was coming, that said it was a leadership nation and that did nothing about it when it knew?" Whitehouse said. "Now, there is a confluence of resentments around the world, and that, too, creates a national security risk for our country."
"We know that if future storms hit, that the damage as the sea-level rises will be increasingly worse and so we have an affirmative obligation to act. That's who we are as Americans," said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), one of the senators who stayed and talked on the floor during much of the night. "The question will be asked, did this body, when the evidence was clear, when the damage was being done ... when we knew the crisis was coming, did we do everything to prevent that challenge?"
Senators and others used the hashtag #Up4Climate to spread their message on Twitter and reach people who were perhaps not watching C-SPAN2 at 3 a.m. One White House tweet read: "FACT: Thanks to President Obama, our cars will be twice as efficient by 2025-saving the average driver more than $8,000 on gas. #Up4Climate." Whitehouse said that since the debate started, 70,000 people had gone to the League of Conservation Voters' website and 15,000 had visited 350.org.
Warmup for midterm elections
"Whether it's passing legislation to help communities cope with drought or debating the future of coastal flood insurance, Congress is often dealing with the effects of climate change, even if some members dare not say the words," said Angela Anderson, director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "What we need is a much bigger national debate about how we can respond to the risks scientists have uncovered about climate change and how we can reduce emissions to avoid the worst impacts. These senators should be commended for calling attention to these issues in such a high-profile way."
Congressional experts were skeptical about how effective the talkfest might be. "With no major legislative measure on climate change pending, this all-night session strikes me as an opportunity for Democrats to define their differences with Republicans over global warming in the run-up to the midterm elections," said Sarah Binder, a professor of political science at George Washington University.
"The talkathon is an effort by Democrats to let the environmental movement know they haven't forgotten about climate change, even though party and philosophical polarization doesn't permit real legislative action. It's a collective valentine headlined 'We Care' to a vital constituency in the Democratic Party that produces money and workers in a midterm election year," said Larry Sabato, a professor of American politics at the University of Virginia.
The debate didn't convince Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who went on the Senate floor earlier yesterday to say that "senators can say it's real, it's real, it's real, but I think that people have heard that before and times have changed." He also mentioned his belief that the science of climate change has been greatly undermined by the "Climategate" scandal.
"Today's climate filibuster illustrates how Barbara Boxer and the Senate Democrats' Climate Action Task Force are living in the long-ago past," said Taylor Smith, a policy analyst at the Heartland Institute. "Their stated goal is to call attention to the effects of recent global warming, but there has been no global warming for the past 17 years. Maybe they will filibuster about the risks of Y2K computer mayhem while they are at it."
But even if most Americans across the country were sound asleep and at times it seemed Democratic senators were talking to themselves, those facts didn't seem to deter them. "This is an attempt ... to wake up this nation to the idea that what is happening today is real, that it is almost irreversible and that we are not powerless to do something about it," said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500