More than 30 years ago, when cooperation and bipartisanship were a hallmark of the United States Senate, a bipartisan group of senators sounded the alarm about climate change. They made a modest request of the Office of Technology Assessment — study the issue of climate change, and make recommendations to avert global disaster. Those senators were concerned that human activity might directly cause permanent, destructive and widespread changes to our planet’s climate system — changes that would put our entire economy, ecosystem and our very own existence at risk.
One of those senators was my senior senator, Republican Robert Stafford, from Vermont. Today, led by Sen. Whitehouse, I am here with other senators to recall that moment in 1986 and to renew the warning those senators issued, now 33 years ago.
I served with Sen. Stafford. His legacy is one of sensible, pragmatic Vermont values that he brought to Washington for decades. Sen. Stafford was, like most Vermonters, a champion for the natural environment. With his work on landmark environmental legislation like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Superfund program, Sen. Stafford represented the best of Vermont’s commitment to sustainability.
His appeals to reason and for common ground, and his belief in sound science, resonate even more today than when he left this body three decades ago. If here today, I believe he would still be calling on both sides of the aisle to act now to ensure that we can pass on a secure and livable planet to generations to come — before it is too late.
Today, so many people still refuse to accept what is now an overwhelming scientific consensus: That climate change is real, and that humans are the dominant cause of it. What’s worse, for the last two years, many in Congress have willfully accelerated the devastation caused by global warming by enabling the Trump administration’s erosion of our nation’s bedrock environmental protections — protections that I have fought for throughout my time in the Senate.
As climate scientists warn of the urgent need to reduce emissions and reverse the global rise in temperatures, many senators have refused to preserve even the status quo. Instead, in the last two years, we have seen the rollback of common-sense regulations, often at the behest of private interests that have spent decades misinforming the public and suppressing their own science on the long-term hazards of the fossil fuel industry. Alarmingly, the Senate this week is poised to confirm someone to lead the Environmental Protection Agency — the agency charged with safeguarding the air and water on which we depend — who, despite the scientific consensus, denies that climate change is the greatest threat we face today. To growing numbers of Americans, it is saddening, it is maddening and, most of all, it is deeply alarming that the Trump administration and many others in leadership positions have made Trump-ism’s anti-science, know-nothing agenda their default position. This poses existential threats not only to our children and grandchildren, but to our own generation.
More than three decades ago, long before protecting our planet became a partisan issue, the Environment and Public Works Committee held three days of hearings on climate change. Those 1986 hearings compelled a bipartisan group of senators to acknowledge and warn the public about a “fundamentally altered planet” as a result of the “substantial greenhouse warming” that was projected. They asked what could be done to prevent consequences “ranging from disruption of forest, crop, and ocean productivity to shifts in population” and “extreme weather events such as droughts, monsoons, and lowland floods.” Those words of warning were neither radical nor partisan.
So, what has changed since then? The ice caps are still melting, only faster. The coastline is still disappearing, only faster. Farmers and ranchers are still concerned about prolonged drought and extreme weather, only today the fires and storms are more frequent and more devastating. Just last month, the intelligence community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment offered a sobering conclusion, stating that: “Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.”
We know that bipartisan action on big environmental threats is possible. Soon after the climate change hearings in 1986, I climbed Vermont’s Camel’s Hump with President Reagan’s EPA director to show him the terrible damage caused by acid rain. With his support, we moved ahead with the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 that were signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. The result was a great reduction in the scourge of acid rain. We see these results every day. And today we are in danger of taking such results for granted.
It is up to us to protect this planet. There is no more urgent responsibility.
There are bold ideas for how to address this challenge. The Green New Deal offers a valuable roadmap for debate, and it offers a pathway to action. The time for dallying around the edges of this issue is over. We all share responsibility for where we are today, and we likewise have an obligation to attack this issue. But not with cynical show votes intended to demonstrate a political divide rather than a universal acknowledgement of what we know to be true: climate change is real, and human activity is the primary cause of these threats to our way of life, our communities and our planet.
We must channel the American innovative spirit that has improved our way of life for centuries. We must find creative solutions for reducing carbon emissions, and we must invest in them. We must re-orient our workforce toward the great opportunities that are opening for green economy jobs, and we must invest in leading the world in developing clean energy solutions. We must address this real emergency, head on. Not only can we curb climate change; in doing so, we can transform the American economy.
Over 30 years ago, a handful of Republicans and Democrats stood together in this Senate and issued a challenge. The time for delay is over. In fact, our time is running out. Let this renewed vigor in addressing climate change brought about by the bold proposed Green New Deal be the catalyst for real change. And let’s stand, as Sen. Stafford and others did in 1986, and do it together.
Sen. Patrick Leahy lives in Middlesex. This speech was given on the floor of the U.S. Senate last week.