By William S. Becker

There has been a long, slow evolution in the excuses that climate-change skeptics have used over the years to argue that nothing need be done. Climate change is a hoax. The science isn’t settled. Yes, the weather is changing but it’s due to natural cycles. Federal action to confront climate change would bankrupt the economy. Yada yada.

But in the wake of two ominous new reports from international and U.S. climate scientists, some skeptics are beginning to waffle. There may even be a crack developing in the U.S. Senate’s  wall of denial.

The two new science studies – one from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the other from the U.S. government’s own scientists – are a wake-up call that nations have procrastinated too long. Everyone including the United States must make profound changes in energy use within the next 12 years.

However, politicians don’t need science any more to know that climate change is real. They are witnessing deadly and destructive weather events across America, attributed to global warming. Polls show that voters want leadership from the federal government. Democrats plan to put climate change on their list of priorities when they take control of the House in January. The danger for Republicans is that they’ll be caught flat-footed in 2020 if climate change rises closer to the top of voter concerns. The weather alone could make that happen.

President Trump, the denier-in-chief, has started waffling a bit, finally acknowledging that something is happening but shrugging off the need for any action. Last Sunday on Fox News, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who has earned a zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters, agreed that the climate is changing because of human activity. “What the U.S. needs to do is participate in a long-term conversation about how you get to innovation,” he told Fox’s Chris Wallace. “But that starts with some discussion of the magnitude of the challenge, the global elements to it and how the U.S. shouldn’t just do this as a feel-good measure but some sort of innovative proposal.”

The problem, Sasse said, is “you don’t hear a lot of (climate action advocates) offering constructive, innovative solutions for the future. It’s usually just a lot of alarmism.”

With all due respect to Sen. Sasse, he clearly has not been paying attention. First, there isn’t time for a “long-term conversation” and we don’t need one. The conversation about climate change and its solutions has been underway for a very long time, but the Republican Party and the Far Right decided not to join in.

Second, there is a cornucopia overflowing with constructive ideas developed over the last 20 years by think tanks, public interest organizations, universities, policy analysts and environmental organizations. It’s not that climate action advocates have failed to come up with ideas; it’s that Congress has not been interested in considering them.

One example among many are the more than 200 new ideas for federal action developed five years ago under the leadership of former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and his Center for the New Energy Economy (CNEE) at Colorado State University.  Ritter organized five roundtables to gather recommendations on how America can transition to energy resources that don’t pollute the atmosphere. More than 100 people participated including chief executive officers, chief financial officers and other top executives from industry, academia, research institutions, NGOs and state and local governments.

In addition to the many left-of-center groups that have developed recommendations, some courageous Republicans, conservatives and national security organizations have put ideas forward. There have been bipartisan meetings to look for common ground. Groups have concentrated on presidential action because it has been clear for a long time that Congress is not interested. If Congress is finally ready to discuss solutions, many of the ideas are suitable for legislation.

If the Senate wants to get serious about climate change, it probably will want to start with small, incremental measures. But again, that time has passed. With only 12 years to make a difference, Congress needs to go big or go home.  So, in the spirit of progress, here are some constructive ideas:

  • The Senate could pass a resolution that endorses the Paris climate accord and continued U.S. participation. The accord is not a formal treaty that requires Senate concurrence or ratification by the president, but it would have greater legitimacy and clout if the Senate treated it as one. It might persuade President Trump to change his mind about pulling the United States out of the accord.
  • The Senate and House could collaborate on legislation to put a price on carbon. This is the kind of market-based action that fiscal conservatives say they love. It also is arguably the single most important thing Congress can do to address America’s role in global warming. Senior Republicans, Democrats and nonpartisan groups have offered different proposals for a revenue-neutral carbon fee on fossil fuels. The House and Senate could set to work immediately next year to hammer out the differences.
  • The Senate and House could pass a bill to create a Green Infrastructure Bank that leverages private financing for infrastructure that supports clean and renewable energy.
  • Congress could add all greenhouse gases including carbon and HFCs to the Clean Air Act’s list of criteria pollutants.
  • The House could send the Senate a bill to phase out federal fossil energy subsidies on a timetable similar to the one it set for renewable energy subsidies. The subsidies are a fiscal conservative’s nightmare. They distort market signals; they are an example of the government rather than markets picking winners; and oil, gas and coal companies are mature industries that should not need taxpayer largesse. Besides, it makes no sense for the government to try to reduce carbon pollution with one hand while subsidizing it with the other. These subsidies amount to tens of billions of dollars a year that could be better spent.
  • Congress could authorize an emergency program by the U.S. Army of Engineers to evaluate the ability of the nation’s flood control dams and levees to handle 500-year and 1,000-year floods rather than the 100-year events for which most of these aging structures were designed. There already have been assessments of “deficient” dams, but most if not all of the nation’s flood control structures are likely to be deficient in regard to today’s record rain and flood events and those projected into the future. This is the most dangerous threat that extreme weather poses for the many families who think they are protected by flood control structures.

This merely scratches the surface. There are more “shovel ready” ideas available than Congress can handle. If Sen. Sasse is serious about having a conversation, he could start by inviting climate-action leaders to brief him and his colleagues on the many ways that Congress can do something about climate change, before it’s too late.