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Climate change is bad, but the Senate is tired


This Guardian article explaining what different temperature rises would mean for the global climate is one of the most helpfully concrete interventions into the climate change discussion I've seen. For instance, a rise of a "mere" two degrees Celsius, which is what scientists are hoping to achieve if we secure a strong global warming deal and implement it pretty quickly, would look something like this:

The heatwaves seen in Europe during 2003, which killed tens of thousands of people, will come back every year with a 2C global average temperature rise. Southern England will regularly see temperatures around 40C in summer. The Amazon turns into desert and grasslands, while increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere make the world's oceans too acidic for remaining coral reefs and thousands of other marine lifeforms. More than 60 million people, mainly in Africa, would be exposed to higher rates of malaria. Agricultural yields around the world will drop and half a billion people will be at greater risk of starvation. The West Antarctic ice sheet collapses, the Greenland ice sheet melts and the world's sea level begins to rise by seven metres over the next few hundred years. Glaciers all over the world will recede, reducing the fresh water supply for major cities including Los Angeles. Coastal flooding affects more than 10 million extra people. A third of the world's species will become extinct as the 2C rise changes their habitats too quickly for them to adapt.

Optimism! And rises of three degrees, four degrees, and even five degrees are becoming more likely by the day. It's important to note that the consequences don't become correspondingly more nightmarish as you move up the scale; they become exponentially more nightmarish, in part because they unleash new forces that further accelerate warming. Arctic permafrost dissipates and the carbon trapped beneath it rises and then things get even hotter. That sort of thing.

Amidst all this, conservative Senate Democrats are waving off the idea of serious action in 2010. But not because they're opposed. Oh, heavens no! It's because of abstract concerns over the political difficulties the problem presents. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), for instance, avers that “climate change in an election year has very poor prospects.” That's undoubtedly true, though it is odd to say that the American system of governance can only solve problems every other year. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) says that “we need to deal with the phenomena of global warming," but wants to wait until the economy is fixed.

Rather than commenting abstractly on the difficulty of doing this, Conrad and Bayh and others could make it easier by saying things like "we simply have to do this, it's our moral obligation as legislators," and trying to persuade reporters to write stories about how even moderates such as Conrad and Byah are determined to do this. They could schedule meetings with other senators begging them to take this seriously, leveraging the credibility and goodwill built over decades in the Senate. They could spend money on TV ads in their state, talking directly into the camera, explaining to their constituents that they don't like having to face this problem, but see no choice. That effort might fail -- probably will, in fact -- but it's got a better chance of success than not trying. And this is, well, pretty important.

See Matt Yglesias for more on this. It's very frustrating.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus.

By Ezra Klein  |  December 29, 2009; 9:30 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change  
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Next: Scenes from the future


"It's because of abstract concerns over the political difficulties the problem presents"

"Abstract"? Don't you mean "concrete"?

Or do you mean to say that you don't care about the "abstract" issue of the seats Republicans pick up in the next Congress?

Posted by: ostap666 | December 29, 2009 9:42 AM | Report abuse

I read a few articles this morning that suggested immigration reform will also be waved off in 2010, citing the same reasons being used to wave off climate change legislation: election year, widespread opposition, we're tired, need to focus on the economy, etc.

So, because the Senate had to work on Christmas eve, they get to take 2010 off?

Posted by: tnoord | December 29, 2009 9:52 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the link. Excellent piece. A big part of the problem is that the US media doesn't do its job in informing us--all they talk about is the non-existent 'controversy'. I have not even seen a piece here like the Guardian's. The British are much better informed on this than Americans, and their press has a lot of do with that.

Posted by: drindl | December 29, 2009 9:54 AM | Report abuse

--"Conrad and Bayh and others could make it easier by saying things"--

Beneath the Valley Girl hysteria, Klein is still at heart a propagandist.

Posted by: msoja | December 29, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

The people in power spend more time trying to figure out how to stay in power --- rather than using the power they have while they have it. It's like something out of Revenge of Sith ... Will the President or Harry Reid muscle the caucus THIS time, or let the Senate's rusty and precarious machinery do its damage. Again.

It's also hard for people to treat global warming like the emergency it is when the temperature outside my New York City office is 21 degrees farenheit (4 degrees w/ windchill). Maybe someone should try to convince Mary Landrieu that the Mississippi River delta is likely to be underwater 50 years from now, and see if she flinches.

Posted by: pbasso_khan | December 29, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

I realize that this has been a pretty torturous year getting health insurance reform done (not yet!), but seriously, isn't it Congress' job to get this type of stuff done? Bah, humbug...

Posted by: MosBen | December 29, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

As you point out "hough it is odd to say that the American system of governance can only solve problems every other year". But the truth is politicians assume that because of elections they must pander to their constituents rather solve major problems that are often incredibly politically difficult. I don't know if it is the electorate's fault or the politicians though, the politicians might be right who knows :(

Posted by: jdine | December 29, 2009 11:23 AM | Report abuse

"So, because the Senate had to work on Christmas eve, they get to take 2010 off?"

I'm sympathetic to the idea that it's hard to get immigration legislation done in an election year, because it affects *people who can't vote*, and the people who can and do vote generally have a very limited and usually inaccurate understanding of the issues under question.

"Maybe someone should try to convince Mary Landrieu that the Mississippi River delta is likely to be underwater 50 years from now, and see if she flinches."

She's already survived the ethnic cleansing of New Orleans; given that she's one of the most useless people in the Senate, why should that bother her?

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | December 29, 2009 11:31 AM | Report abuse

This ClimateProgress post presents a more optimistic view. I sure hope he's right.

Posted by: bupkiss | December 29, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Cheer up, Ezra. The Guardian article is ludicrous. And you claim to be the "reality-based" community, with this kind of incredible lunacy (a) running around, and (b) approvingly linked to by well-known pundits?
See Bjorn Lomborg.

Posted by: MikeR4 | December 29, 2009 4:10 PM | Report abuse

or rather, DON'T see Bjorn Lomborg, do some research and see all of his position completely discredited by the science.

try the earlier advice of reading to get the straight story.

Posted by: rosshunter | December 29, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Rosshunter, are you a climate scientist? "Get the straight story." How do you know?

Posted by: MikeR4 | December 29, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

It is a new excuse for some of these Senators: climate change is a real problem,but I'm too tired to try. They could at least try: "My brain hurts!"

Posted by: bdlieberman | December 29, 2009 5:28 PM | Report abuse

MikeR4 I know how to reason, and I know how to sift through different perspectives, and I know how to check citations and go back upstream to the sources. More to the point, I take the time to do it.

But I'm not going to take the time to educate you. The tip if you want to hear it is, re-check what you think is true. Lomborg is discredited, and so is the whole denier culture.

Posted by: rosshunter | December 29, 2009 6:16 PM | Report abuse

Ezra it's funny how who you read affects how you feel. Forget Yglesias with his frustration. Read Joe Romm at Yesterday he deconstructed Politico's take on these same non-news senatorial pronouncements (brilliantly, although he's a scientist not a journalist).

Romm gives us more reason for optimism than despair, in his story titled:
"Memo to swing Senators: You are going to vote on a bipartisan, economy-wide climate and clean energy bill this spring. Get over it."

Link is here:

Posted by: rosshunter | December 29, 2009 6:27 PM | Report abuse

Rosshunter, I assume that your response is, No, I'm not a climate scientist. (Neither am I.) What you mean is, you've chosen a set of climate sites that you like. But that's all it means. This is a data-intensive business, and no one who is not working with the real data has any business claiming that he knows anything about it. You are taking their word for it from some scientists you respect, that's all. You've chosen to disrespect some others.
I, on the other hand, know that I am not expert enough to have a relevant opinion. I am willing to let the scientists work it out.

Posted by: MikeR4 | December 29, 2009 6:34 PM | Report abuse


Yes, it is stupid that the Senate is postponing this BUT I am glad if what they will consider will be the POS Waxman/Markey/Kerry/Boxer bill. That cap and trade system will doom the atmosphere. Better to put in the Cantwell cap and dividend or better yet still put a fee and dividend system that can start putting a price on carbon next year.

The idea that the bill being considered is climate action is as dangerous an idea as they come. That bill will doom us. Romm is one of the worst offers. He's become a partisan hack.

Posted by: michaelterra | December 29, 2009 11:46 PM | Report abuse

on the other hand, I don't know anyone who sums it up like Romm does .. he's not very partisan IMHO, except partial to the planet first and foremost

learn from the health care struggle - now that it's essentially done all the tweaking can follow

it'll be the same with climate - more is comng, but first we get their attention

and yes we may still lose the biosphere, but this was always the case .. struggle hard we must.

Posted by: rosshunter | December 31, 2009 3:07 AM | Report abuse

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