What was the point of the Senate’s climate talkathon? Changing the terms of the political debate
On Monday night, 31 senators pulled an all-nighter on the chamber’s floor. This rager wasn’t for fun, though, and it wasn’t because they were rushing to meet a legislative deadline. It was a climate talkathon, lasting nearly 15 hours.
To those watching the proceedings on C-SPAN, it was a little unclear what the intended purpose was. There was no bill to address climate change on the docket, and if there were it would have no chance of passing the Republican-controlled House. The only Republican who showed up, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), mocked the event. The speakers mostly rehashed well-established science and talked about the effects of extreme weather in their states — sometimes very small-bore effects. Even Al Franken (D-Minn.) earnestly lamenting that “turkey growers are finding it difficult to heat their barns” didn’t make it funny.
So what was the point? “One of the major objectives was to engage the American public, and we did that,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), an organizer of the event, told Grist in a phone interview Thursday. “We need more passionate enthusiasm and engagement from the public.”
With this strategy, Democrats are mimicking the activism-oriented approach of their conservative Republican colleagues. When the House Republicans vote for the thousandth time to repeal Obamacare, they aren’t accomplishing anything tangible, but they are generating press coverage and exciting their base.
Back in 1955, when William F. Buckley Jr. launched the magazine National Review with hopes of invigorating a new conservative movement, he wrote of “stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so.” It took decades, but eventually conservatives’ seemingly hopeless exercises in speaking, writing, marching, and, most importantly, campaigning led to more and more conservatives winning elections. It also shifted the terms of the political debate in their favor, such that the upper bound of what Democrats propose on marginal tax rates today is less than half of what the highest tax rate was when Buckley wrote that line.
Now the senators most concerned about climate change are hoping to do something similar — stand athwart history and yell Stop. To make climate change stop, they must change the bounds of what’s possible.
“It’s the beginning of this Senate taking on the issue of climate change more prominently,” said Schatz. He noted that the new Senate Climate Change Task Force, which supported the all-night talkathon, is planning a series of events for the coming months.
The senators’ approach was made clear by their speeches Monday night: homing in on the effects of climate change in their states. Their reasoning is obvious, and obviously correct: Americans, like it or not, are a selfish people. They mostly don’t care much about climate change now. They aren’t going to start caring because they learn of another species dying or another group of Pacific islanders losing their homes. They will care when they believe their jobs, their homes, their security, or maybe just their access to cheap food is in danger.
“We had 31 senators talking about how climate change is affecting their home states economically,” says Schatz. “This is a question of economic survival. It’s something the Department of Defense takes seriously. The only people not taking it seriously are the House of Representatives.”
And so the challenge is to turn climate change into an issue of economic and national security, thus elevating it to the stature of two things most American voters actually do care about.
And if most American voters can be convinced to care, congressional Republicans might have to start caring too. Republicans are obstinate about climate change because their supporters are. Back in 2008, the Republican nominee for president, John McCain, supported reducing CO2 emissions through a cap-and-trade program, as did many other Republicans with national ambitions. All reversed themselves in 2009, as their base grew ferociously opposed to anything President Obama supported, no matter how moderate or commonsensical the actual policy was. It strains credulity to think that all these educated people have actually stopped personally believing in anthropogenic climate change as evidence of its existence has only grown. They are cowards and opportunists, and they will do whatever will help them win the next election.
There’s still a long way to go before Republicans will believe it’s in their political interest to act against climate change. But the climate talkathon, which generated a lot of headlines, was at least an attempt to start.