The Real Cost of Senate Inaction

Our children and grandchildren will pay the price for our nation's failure to pass energy reform legislation

  • Larry J. Schweiger, President & Chief Executive Officer
  • Sep 14, 2010

DESPITE THE FACT that we are living in the hottest decade since record-keeping began, legislation protecting the planet from catastrophic climate change died in the U.S. Senate. Every Republican senator and even a few Democratic senators from coal- or oil-producing states refused to support passage of the comprehensive energy reform bill, forcing a colossal failure on clean energy/climate legislation. Now our children and grandchildren will pay the price for our worst failure as a nation.

Members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and other oil-producing countries must be cheering over this recent decision to shelve comprehensive energy reform. That is really good news for OPEC and these countries. It means that Americans will continue sending them a billion dollars every day. With the assurance from the American Petroleum Institute and their congressional allies, OPEC and the other nations can be confident that we were never serious about ending our dangerous oil addiction in the first place.

The Chinese are cheering too. The failure of this country to act on comprehensive energy reform means that as an earlier adopter of such policy, China will gain control over the new energy economy. It was no coincidence that two days after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced the Senate was short five votes to block the filibuster in order to pass comprehensive energy reform, China announced it would begin pricing carbon and establishing a carbon market. With this important commitment, the Chinese will soon dominate world carbon trading. Sorry, Chicago.

In the two years that Congress has been dragging its feet on clean energy reform, China went from having very little new energy manufacturing capacity to becoming the largest manufacturer of wind turbines and the number-one producer of solar panels in the world. During the height of the recession, China decided to take that opportunity to build high-speed electric rail service to every major city within its borders. It is halfway to reaching that ambitious goal and projects completing it by 2014. While the Senate fiddled, China was burning up the new energy markets.

There is the price for climate solutions and then there is the cost of inaction. The price of addressing climate change is expected to be in the range of 1-2 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product over the next several decades. The cost of unchecked climate change is something much, much greater. The average global temperature has increased 1.3 degrees F during the past 100 years and the pace of this increase is accelerating. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2010 promises to be one of the hottest, if not the hottest, years on record. We already are seeing massive forest fires around the world, more intense storms and flooding, expanding deserts, glacial melting and alarming declines in phytoplankton in all the oceans.

Phytoplankton are critical for our future. They are the base of the ocean’s food chain and the primary producer of much of the oxygen we breathe. Research data from just under a half million observations gathered for more than a century were used by Dalhousie University researcher Daniel Boyce to determine that the number of phytoplankton in the world’s oceans has decreased by about 40 percent since 1950. Boyce has warned that ocean warming is an important factor in the phytoplankton decline.

Too many senators are listening to polluters instead of the scientists or to the majority of Americans who support a new energy economy. They have learned nothing from the Gulf disaster and the high price we pay when oil lobbyists dictate energy laws. There can be little doubt that the Senate’s failure to act will let polluters off the hook while jeopardizing wildlife and our children’s future.

Every American needs to wake up to what is not going on in Washington and rediscover our personal duty to maintain a viable democracy capable of making timely, responsible decisions. I have heard a lot of excuses for inaction. Reluctance to act is generally linked to two myths—“too big to fail” and “too small to matter.” Those who believe the Earth is just too big to be impacted by human activities promote and hide behind the first myth. Many who know better express the second myth that “my efforts are too small to matter.”

I have often wondered which myth is the most dangerous and concluded that they operate in tandem as a dangerous duo threatening the future inhabitability of the world. We must reject this thinking not just by voting but by being active, engaged citizens who know how to make a difference by working together.

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