Scott Brown is the toast of the town. Sweeping into Washington on the heels of his election as the newest senator from Massachusetts, he might just be bigger news than Tiger Woods or Conan. Some hope, and others fear, that he is the first sign of a changing political tide. Much is being made of the loss of the 60 vote filibuster proof Democrat super-majority in the Senate. The Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has already labeled him "41". What does Scott Brown's election mean for legislative efforts in Congress to address climate change? Probably not as much as you think.
Many pundits and politicos assume that Senator Brown’s election spells the end of any hopes of climate change legislation being passed in the Senate any time soon. Climate change legislation has been in a holding pattern, in line behind the health care debate. Some are giddy with the prospect of stopping climate change action in its tracks. This however remains to be seen.
One assumption here is that climate change is purely an issue of the Democratic Party. Another assumption is that all 60 Democratic Senators would have voted for climate change legislation. A third assumption is that action in the Senate is the only game in town. None of these are probably true.
Getting all 60 Democratic Senators to vote the same way on this legislation probably wasn’t going to happen anyway. "We always knew that passing climate legislation would require bipartisan support," said Tony Kriendler for the Environmental Defense Fund (NY Times, Jan 20 2010). Climate change is a huge challenge affecting many interests in the US, and like it or not the interests represented by those 60 votes in the Senate are diverse, representing coal states, farm states, industrial centers, and everything else. Getting these diverse interests all lined up behind climate change legislation faced an up-hill battle long before Mr. Brown’s election.
Democratic and Republican senators led by John Kerry and Lindsay Graham have been working on a new version of climate change legislation, working to find a middle ground. Such a move would be likely to include support for nuclear energy and offshore drilling. Moves like these are repugnant to some, but then again passing climate change legislation of any sort is also repugnant to some. If there is a middle ground that gets the required votes and make significant progress to tackle this important challenge, we should get in that middle ground and make the most of it.
Whether climate change legislation happens this year or not, or whatever form it finally takes, others are not waiting.
While the Senate has had climate change legislation in a holding pattern, the EPA has announced that it will regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. This move is also under attack, but seems likely to progress.
State and regional efforts like the RGGI continue advancing. While the COP15 climate change conference in Copenhagen might not have been the game changer some had hoped for, progress was made at the international level as well.
Innovative business leaders still view action on climate change as an opportunity and not the business disaster it is often portrayed as. A group of 83 business leaders sent a letter to President Obama and Congress urging action on climate change. The United States Climate Action Partnership includes major industrial corporations like Alcoa, DuPont, and GE as well as environmental non-profits like the NRDC and Environmental Defense Fund, all of which continue urging and pursuing action on climate change. They may be doing this in part perhaps because they believe it’s the right thing to do, but also because they see it as an important opportunity for their business and the economy of our nation. Small businesses are redirecting their efforts to make a difference for the environmental and build innovative green businesses that revive the economy, while committed individuals are changing how they live to create a better future.
We can take advantage of this opportunity to meet the challenge, or not. The party affiliation of one senator should not prevent us from taking on this challenge and realizing this opportunity.
Glenn Croston is the founder of StartingUpGreen.com, helping businesses to start and grow green. He is also the author of "75 Green Businesses" and "Starting Green: An Ecopreneur’s Toolkit for Starting a Green Business from Business Plan to Profits", a nuts and bolts guidebook to starting a green business.