US senators stage all-nighter to urge climate action

The US Capitol Dome at night. Creative Commons: Drew McKechnie, 2011

The US Capitol Dome at night. Creative Commons: Drew McKechnie, 2011

Nearly one-third of the United States Senate stayed late on Monday night to draw attention to the climate crisis and to urge their peers to work toward climate legislation.

After the last votes concluded in the Senate early Monday evening, a coalition of 28 Democratic and Independent senators began delivering speeches focused on climate change on the chamber floor.

The event, which was organized by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), was not planned to advance specific legislation. Instead, it was to serve in the words of Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M), as “an opening salvo” for a building movement.

Talk of climate change has been scant in the US Senate after a bipartisan cap and trade bill passed in the House of Representatives but failed to gain majority support in the upper chamber in 2010.

Now, however, as the effects of climate change become unavoidable and pressure mounts for the United States to take a leading role in the upcoming international climate negotiations, talk about the climate crisis is seeing a resurgence on Capitol Hill.

In the dusk-till-dawn session, the coalition of senators challenged climate deniers and pointed out the concrete impacts of global warming such as intensified extreme weather events, including Hurricane Sandy, rampant wildfires in the American West, and the drought currently afflicting large swaths of California’s agricultural regions.

Sen. Heinrich opened the discussion by saying:

Tonight we will illustrate that climate change is not theoretical and cannot be ignored. We will discuss how sound science can be used to better understand and manage climate impacts. And we will highlight the moral imperative that we have in Congress to implement real solutions.

The other participants spent the rest of the night and the early morning—until nearly 9AM—living up to Heinrich’s promise.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) spent considerable time reiterating the bulletproof scientific evidence that ties global warming to man-made greenhouse gas emissions, and directed remarks at some of his more conservative colleagues, calling their decision to ignore critical scientific evidence “extremely disturbing.”

In view of the newest release from UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which details the physical science basis of climate change, as well as two forthcoming reports that will detail the severe consequences of climate change and our options for mitigating it, continuing to deny an anthropogenic role in global warming is risky and reckless.

Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who is currently the longest serving member in the Senate, chose to focus on the positive steps recently taken by the Obama administration to curb climate change, and honed in on the broad importance of addressing the issue:

Some see climate change as simply an environmental issue. It is not. Creating a green energy sector is not just about cutting greenhouse gas emissions. It is about providing jobs for Americans in the renewable energy and energy efficiency fields. It is about strengthening national security by having greater control over our energy sources and breaking the stranglehold of oil on the transportation system. It is about ensuring that our children and grandchildren have clean air to breathe.

More than anything else, the ‘talkathon’ was shot through with a sense of real urgency, as the senators looked to increase public awareness of climate change as well as build a climate-focused caucus within the legislature.

As Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said, “we should not and we must not wait for other countries to act. We must take action now.”

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