Why isn't climate change keeping more Senators up tonight?

Keith Gaby

All-nighters are usually the result of not doing your homework, but this evening twenty-eight United States senators will be up for pretty much the opposite reason. Having read the latest science on climate change, they will be making speeches through the night to call for comprehensive action to meet this threat.

It’s an unusual tactic, but the real question isn’t why are twenty-eight of them talking all night, but why the other seventy-two senators are sleeping when we’re facing such a serious challenge. All the major American scientific organization have been warning us about the reality and seriousness of climate change for years. And while it may be happening slowly, that won’t make it any less expensive or devastating. If taxpayers liked paying for damage from Hurricane Sandy, or the droughts and wildfires in the West and Midwest, they’re going to have a ball as the impacts get stronger in the years to come.

So why are the Sleeping 72 ignoring this severe threat to our economy and our environment?

It’s not that endorsing the science of climate change is unpopular in this country.  69% of Americans believe there is “solid evidence” the climate is changing (Pew, 2013). But as is almost always the case, members of Congress care a lot less about what Americans in general think than about what the voters of their state or district think. Even more specifically, that means being wary about taking position that might alienate the core supporters of your party, or ‘gettable’ moderates. 

As a result, many House members from solidly conservative districts, and Senators from swing states, are afraid to step out on an issue like climate change. Never mind that prudent action now will save their constituents money in the long run, and protect future generations from devastating storms, droughts, and health effects. If the politics look worrisome, they’d rather get a good night’s sleep tonight.

But the funny thing about politics is that we often get it wrong. Like in sports, sometimes the worst thing you can do is play not to lose – avoid risks to nurse a lead, hoping it will hold up. Clearly, there are a lot incumbents who have calculated that denying the obvious truth of climate science will protect them from unnecessary political risk. But, in the long run, that could be a losing political strategy. 80% of voters under 35 want action to address climate change. More importantly to politicians who are afraid of the issue, 56% of younger voters who don’t generally approve of President Obama’s job performance support action (GS Strategy Group, Benenson Strategy Group, 2013). And it’s not just the long run. Even in 2014, before that demographic wave washes over us, signalling a sensible position on climate change (it’s real, we should act prudently) is a great way to signal moderation to swing voters.

Senators, of course, know the politics of their states much better than most of us outside observers. But most of them also know they got their jobs by, at some point, upsetting the status quo – beating an incumbent, surprising a front-runner, grabbing a forgotten issue and rallying the public. In business and in politics, new ideas are disruptive. If the Sleeping 72 want to avoid becoming the Kodak or Blockbuster of politics, they’d better wake up to the threat of climate change.

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