By William S. Becker
Here is a question: To what extent is each Congress bound to honor the intentions of past congresses when they are expressed in the nation’s laws?
The question is not academic. It has direct relevance to the duties and obligations of the current Congress and President, and what they should be doing about global climate change. As we look back at the environmental laws duly passed and signed over the past 50 years, it appears that our current elected leaders are violating the spirit, if not the letter, of those statutes.
Despite the disagreements today about the Green New Deal, Congress made clear in the 1960s and 1970s that we need something like it. It might be a good idea for everyone in this 116th session to take a short step back from the GND debate to consider a new resolution. We can call it the Green Old Deal (GOD), and challenge Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring it to a vote in the Senate.
To digress for a moment, I suspect the Founders would have included a number of fundamental environmental rights in the Constitution if they had any idea that a time like ours would come, when energy companies alter the atmosphere for profit, when a million species are in danger of extinction, and when we have degraded some of the planet’s vital life-support systems. The rights to breathe air and drink water without getting sick and to live on a hospitable planet are so self-evident that the Founders probably did not imagine there would ever be a question about them. Is it time for a constitutional amendment?
But back to the Green Old Deal. In a study of presidential powers to deal with climate change, the Presidential Climate Action Project analyzed federal environmental statutes in 2008. At that time, there were 96 provisions in the U.S. Code that explicitly addressed climate change, global warming or greenhouse gases. Several were preceded by statements of congressional intent. The Green Old Deal resolution would remind us of those statements. It could read:
WHEREAS the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 recognizes “the profound impact of man’s activity on the interrelations of all components of the natural environment” and “the critical importance of restoring and maintaining environmental quality to the overall welfare and development of man”; and
WHEREAS, the Act states that protecting the environment is necessary because of “the profound influences of population growth, high-density urbanization, industrial expansion, resource exploitation, and new and expanding technological advances”; and
WHEREAS, the Act declares that it is the continuing policy of federal, state and local governments to use all means necessary “to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans”; and
WHEREAS, the Act asserts that it is the federal government’s duty to “fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations; assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and aesthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings; and
WHEREAS, the Act recognizes the need to “enhance the quality of renewable resources and approach the maximum attainable recycling of depletable resources”; and
WHEREAS, the Act further declares that “each person should enjoy a healthful environment and that each person has a responsibility to contribute to the preservation and enhancement of the environment;” and
WHEREAS, the National Climate Program Act of 1978 acknowledges that “Weather and climate change affect food production, energy use, land use, water resources and other factors vital to national security and human welfare”; and
WHEREAS, that Act declares that “International cooperation for the purpose of sharing the benefits and costs of a global effort to understand climate is essential”; and
WHEREAS, the Global Climate Protection Act of 1993 acknowledges that the release of greenhouse gases could “so alter global weather patterns as to have an effect on existing agricultural production and on the habitability of large portions of the Earth”; and
WHEREAS, the Act further states that greenhouse gas pollution results in “thermal expansion of the oceans and partial melting of the polar ice caps and glaciers, resulting in rising sea levels”; and
WHEREAS, the Act concludes that “ongoing pollution and deforestation may be contributing now to an irreversible process”; and
WHEREAS, that Act states that the United States should work toward multilateral agreements to “increase worldwide understanding of the greenhouse effect and its environmental and health consequences; foster cooperation among nations to develop more extensive and coordinated scientific research efforts with respect to the greenhouse effect; and
WHEREAS, the Act calls on the Federal Government to identify “technologies and activities to limit mankind’s adverse effect on the global climate by slowing the rate of increase of concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in the near term and stabilizing or reducing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases over the long term”.
Resolved that it is the sense of Congress that it is the duty of the Federal Government to:
- Honor these congressional findings, especially in view of the fact that national and international science has confirmed them;
- Fully utilize its authorities and resources to minimize the causes and effects of the U.S. contribution to global climate change;
- Remain a willing and active party to the Paris climate agreement and fulfill its obligations in other existing multi-national agreements to conduct joint research and take other collaborative steps to prevent even more severe global climate change;
- Adopt and comply with the goal of achieving a net-zero carbon national economy by 2050;
- Engage the full cooperation and powers of the Executive and Judicial Branches of the Government to limit climate change to the maximum possible extent;
- Fully support the capabilities of the Federal Government and the private sector to research, develop and demonstrate the technologies necessary to achieve a net-zero carbon economy by mid-century and to achieve a net-negative carbon economy thereafter;
- Formally classify the atmosphere as a public trust asset and establish that it is the enforceable fiduciary duty of federal, state and local officials to protect it for the benefit of present and future generations;
- Fulfill each of these obligations consistent with social, economic and environmental justice for all of the American people.
The laws quoted in this resolution show that Congress and presidents accepted the reality of global climate change and the need to address it long ago. The doubt, denial and delay ever since has been manufactured to allow the fossil energy sector to continue extracting coal, oil and natural gas as long as politically possible, to the detriment of this generation and those that follow, as well as other species on which humanity depends.
No congressional resolution — no words, in fact — are adequate to express how egregious this has been, and still is. The best we can do is to show up on judgment day, November 3, 2020.