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Debate: Is the Democrats’ Talkathon on Climate Change Just Talk?

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Center for American Progress Director of Climate Strategy Daniel Weiss and IPS Fellow Daphne Wysham debate whether the Senate Democrat’s all-nighter meant they are serious about tackling global warming.

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

The verdict is out on the reality and causes of climate change, with the vast majority of climate scientists agreeing that the Earth is unequivocally warming and such activities as burning fossil fuels will increase greenhouse gases and speed up the process.

In a Senate sleepover that started on March 10 and ended this morning, 30 senators stayed up all night in what they called “Wake up Congress on Climate Change”. Here’s a quick roundup of what a couple of senators had to say.


ED MARKEY, U.S. SENATOR (D-MA): In 1775, Paul Revere warned Massachusetts revolutionaries of an invasion coming from the sea. With climate change, Boston and the Bay State could now face an invasion of the sea itself in Massachusetts and all across New England.

ANGUS KING, U.S. SENATOR (I-ME): These two photographs were taken from exactly the same spot. Nineteen forty-one, here’s the glacier. Two thousand four, here’s the lake. The glacier’s gone. That’s change. And that’s a change that’s the canary in the coal mine. That’s the change that tells us something is happening. And we ignore it at our peril.


DESVARIEUX: With us to discuss this action and the Democrats’ record on climate change are our two guests.

Daniel Weiss is a senior fellow and the director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, where he leads the center’s clean energy and climate advocacy campaign.

And we’re also joined by Daphne Wysham. She is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, where she directs the Genuine Progress Project.

Thank you both for joining us.


DESVARIEUX: So, Daphne, let’s start off with you. So we have 30 senators staying up all night to talk about the climate crisis. What’s your take? Is this just a stunt? Or could it actually have a real impact?

DAPHNE WYSHAM, FELLOW, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Well, I think the senators are reading the tea leaves, and they’re also reading the potential political donations that could come in, the tea leaves being that it turns out it isn’t such a bad thing to be talking climate and to be actually talking about climate change being a major issue. And in terms of political campaign donations, Tom Steyer, who is a former hedge fund manager and environmentalist, has pledged to contribute up to $100 million towards the 2014 elections to members of Congress who are willing to make climate change a top-tier issue.

So I think what we’re seeing is Democrats finally, instead of treating climate change as sort of the broccoli on the platter of ideas, they’re beginning to treat it more as something that perhaps could be even viewed as dessert, something that needs to be paid attention to and isn’t so bad for them after all.

DESVARIEUX: Daniel, do you agree? Do you see this as purely political? This is a way to get contributions?

WEISS: I frankly think that’s just silly, because, first of all, a lot of the participants aren’t up for reelection in 2014. Second, many of these members have been dedicated to trying to address the climate change for a long time.

I think what they’re trying to do is raise the visibility and the salience of the issue to their colleagues, the American people, and the media. And, you know, there’s no pending climate legislation right now, because Republicans would block it. In fact, half of all Republicans in Congress are climate science deniers, based on a survey that we’ve conducted.

But what it does do is provide additional support for President Obama’s efforts to use existing law to achieve reductions in carbon pollution.

DESVARIEUX: Daphne, what’s your take? I mean, could the Democrats, who control the Senate, actually put something on the floor, despite having opposition from Republicans?

WYSHAM: Well, they’ve learned the hard way that it is very difficult to take on this issue. And, you know, I agree with Daniel that—and I don’t want to undermine what they have done in tackling this issue last night, and I do think that there were a lot of sincere statements made by an array of senators, some of whom five years ago, including Senator Angus King, who called himself a climate skeptic until five years ago and now is firmly convinced that climate change is an urgent issue, and in fact was talking about the possibility of abrupt climate change being a possibility in his lifetime—.

But in terms of this sort of teeing up President Obama for stronger action on climate change, I think, you know, I want to remind people that when Obama leaves office, the U.S. will surpass Saudi Arabia as the planet’s biggest oil producer and Russia as the world’s biggest oil and gas producer combined. And, of course, under Obama, coal exports have risen through the roof. Just in 2012, we exported the equivalent, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the coal exports that we exported are equivalent to putting 55 million new cars on the road. And should he approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, which we hope he won’t, that would be equivalent to putting 46 new coal-fired power plants online. So we’ve got a president that’s been willing to open up oil and gas leases offshore in unprecedented fashion. And, yes, he talks a good talk, but the question is: will he actually sort of begin to change course and move away from all of these exports of oil, gas, and coal?

DESVARIEUX: Daniel, what’s your take on Daphne’s critique of the president’s record?

WEISS: I think it’s missing some very important things. First of all, our greenhouse gas pollution has been cut in half over the last ten years, and most of those reductions occurred under President Obama. Right now we’re on track—assuming that he fully implements all of the proposals in his Climate Action Plan, we’re on track to meet our 2020 greenhouse gas pollution reduction goal.

I would agree with her, though, that he, although in his pursuit of the all-of-the-above energy strategy should not include anything-goes. And, for example, one of the more troubling aspects of the president’s actions has been leasing for sale coal that’s on public or federally owned lands, lands that are owned by all Americans. They’re leasing that—they’re selling that coal, basically, at a cheap price, which is then either going to be burned here or exported, and either way, that’s very bad for the climate.

So while he’s putting in place—he’s already put in place the first reductions in carbon pollution for motor vehicles. He’s done both cars, light trucks, heavy trucks. He’s about to do another round of heavy trucks. He’s working on the first carbon pollutions from power plants. We don’t want to see those efforts undone or counteracted by more leasing of coal from public lands or by the approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which I’m cautiously optimistic that he and Secretary of State Kerry will ultimately turn down.

DESVARIEUX: Daphne, are you as optimistic?

WYSHAM: I wish I were as optimistic as Daniel is. I think we’ve gotten every indication that President Obama is willing to move forward on the pipeline. He has allowed the lower half of the Keystone XL Pipeline to be built, and he in fact helped push it through. He has—his State Department has essentially said that the environmental impact statement that was done, which many considered riddled with all sorts of conflicts of interest, went through a review, and it looks like that environmental impact statement, which found no significant net greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the Keystone XL Pipeline, that that will be considered the final say, which, as we know from President Obama’s speech last June in Georgetown, where he essentially said, I will either approve or deny this pipeline based on whether or not there is a significant increase in net greenhouse gas emissions. And so with the State Department report now saying there is no net increase in greenhouse emissions, unless there’s some new step that John Kerry takes to open up the review again, I expect that President Obama will approve the pipeline.

WEISS: You know, it’s unfortunate that you’re making that assumption, because, first of all, the president hasn’t decided, nor has Secretary Kerry. A bunch of bureaucrats who did a very flawed environmental review aren’t the ones who get to decide. Every public comment that President Obama has made about this that indicates how he—what he believes about it one way or another has been critical. He’s dismissed the claims of the proponents that it would create tens of thousands of jobs, which it won’t. He’s—you know, Secretary Kerry’s talked about we need to review the impact of future energy projects not just for their economic benefit but for their economic costs for additional climate change. So anything publicly that they’ve been saying about this indicates great skepticism.

Now, what will they decide? I don’t know. But I don’t think anyone else should pretend to know either and that hopefully, with outside people like this—Senator Boxer and Senator Whitehouse that have asked the State Department to do an analysis of the impact of building the pipeline on human health, they will make the right decision.

DESVARIEUX: But will—. Daphne, go ahead, because I know what we do know and we do know that the president did approve the southern half of the pipeline already, so I just want you to weigh in, Daphne.

WYSHAM: Yeah. I mean, I’m always hopeful. I think we can’t help but, you know, continue to protest and send letters and send comments and so on, but this is a president that has talked about adding enough new oil and gas pipelines to encircle the Earth and then some. He’s a president that has bragged about opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. He’s bragged that we don’t have enough pipeline capacity to transport all of the oil and gas that we’re producing right now. He’s bragged about, you know, the fact that we are producing more than Saudi Arabia.

So I think what we have in this president is a president who wants to please both sides. He wants to make the United States the number one oil and gas producer in the world, and he also wants to take on the climate crisis and talk about how this is the challenge for his children, that his children’s—are going to be facing this challenge and he needs to look them in the eye and know that he’s done the right thing.

Well, you know, the question is, you know, can he please both sides? And I hope that he chooses to please his children and not people, including his former communications director, who went to work for TransCanada, and other members of his staff that seem to be very tight with the oil and gas industry.

DESVARIEUX: Daniel, I’ll let you have the final word. Go ahead.

WEISS: Yeah. First, there’s a difference between trying to please both sides and trying to have a smooth and orderly transition to a lower-carbon energy system. The president has put in place the most stringent fuel economy standards, the first one to ever limit fuel economy and greenhouse gas pollution from heavy trucks. And we’re going to take on the first reductions in carbon pollution from power plants.

At the same time, if we don’t produce more oil right now, we’re going to buy it from Saudi Arabia or some other country. And the reality is: he’s wanted to invest more money in getting off of oil for our transportation system, but he’s been blocked by Congress. So while we’re going through this transition where we’re going to be using less fossil fuels and expanding, hopefully, into more alternative fuels, like electric vehicles, public transit, those sorts of things, we’re going to produce the oil that we need to keep going. He has not leased one single acre of area that was not previously open for leasing under previous presidents.

And so the reality is what he’s doing is let’s increase our production from places that are already open for oil and gas while we’re adapting technologies that will reduce our need for those products in the future. He’s pursuing a short-term and long-term plan together.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Daphne, I have to let you just respond really quickly to that.

WYSHAM: Coal exports in the U.S. have nearly tripled since 2005, and a good chunk of that happened on Obama’s watch.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Well, very lively debate. Thank you both for joining us,—

WEISS: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: —Daphne Wysham and Daniel Weiss. We invite you both to be back on, and we can continue this debate in the future. Thank you for joining us.

WYSHAM: Bye-bye.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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