'Because... Climate Change'

When our group of pipeline opponents goes to Washington this week to call on senators to reject Donald Trump’s nominees to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and to investigate the Commission instead, we’ll have no shortage of compelling reasons to provide. Communities in the path of natural gas pipeline projects have been on the receiving end of FERC’s abuses of power for decades. But this is the week we learned a chunk of ice the size of Delaware just broke off of the Larsen ice shelf. Shouldn’t it be enough, when asked why the U.S. Senate should reject unabashedly pro-fossil fuel nominees from a Commission that already has the dubious distinction of rejecting only one pipeline in 30 years, to simply respond, “Because… climate change”?

Forty senators signed a letter to Trump urging him to keep the United States in the Paris climate agreement. It told a grim story of climate impacts:

“The reality of climate change is unforgiving. The three hottest years ever recorded were 2016, 2015, and 2014. The global temperature in 2017 is on pace to break this record yet again. American communities are already feeling the impacts of climate change. City streets from Boston to Baltimore to Miami are flooding at high tide. Western states are just now emerging from years of punishing drought. In recent weeks, extreme downpours have led to deadly floods in the South and Midwest. Doctors and scientists have identified climate change as a significant threat to Americans’ health. The pace and severity of these changes on a global scale prompted military experts in both the Bush and Obama Administrations to identify climate change as a national security threat. Faith leaders from around the world have called for urgent action to address climate change―and especially its impact on the poorest and most vulnerable. Simply put, climate change puts Americans’ health, safety, and livelihoods at risk.”

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Maria Cantwell was among the signers, as were committee members Al Franken, Tammy Duckworth, Martin Heinrich, and Debbie Stabenow.

When Trump announced the pullout on June 1, Franken made this statement:

“President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement is a catastrophic mistake that puts the short-sighted interests of his friends in the fossil fuel industry ahead of the safety and security of American people and the future of our planet. The Paris climate agreement brought together virtually the entire world-195 countries-to recognize the basic fact that climate change is a real, man-made, existential threat to the planet that demands broad international action. We don’t have time to turn our backs on the rest of the world and bury our heads in the sand. We must address climate change now. The stakes are too high and the consequences too devastating to kick this problem down the road to future generations. Make no mistake, President Trump is not only ignoring scientific consensus-he’s putting our children and grandchildren at risk, weakening our economy, and undermining America’s credibility and leadership around the world. I call on President Trump to immediately reverse this terrible decision.”

Five days later, he was joined by fellow committee members Cantwell, Duckworth, Heinrich, and Stabenow in voting in favor of Trump’s FERC nominees. Wait. What? Didn’t they read the letter they’d submitted to Trump less than two weeks earlier?

Franken’s yes vote is the most surprising. His post-pullout statement was the strongest to be offered by any committee member. He’s also teamed up with David Letterman on a series of videos on climate change for Funny or Die. Wouldn’t it make sense to vote against approving any nominees to a Commission that has hardly ever met a fossil fuel pipeline it didn’t like? Wouldn’t it make even more sense when the nominees are so clearly in favor of the fuels he knows are exacerbating warming?

More specifically, didn’t the nominees’ responses to questions on climate change asked by Bernie Sanders bother him? Both nominees agreed with the Commission’s current perspective that climate change is not in its purview during pipeline application reviews. Didn’t he hear nominee Robert Powelson’s response when asked if he agreed with former FERC Chairman Norman Bay’s call to review the cumulative impacts of drilling in the Marcellus and Utica, the two formations being drilled in Pennsylvania?

According to RTOInsider, Powelson responded, “I respectfully disagree with that recommendation. As a Pennsylvania state regulator … I believe that this issue would be better addressed at the state level. State environmental regulators and state public utility commissions are closer to the issues of shale gas development and are better equipped than the federal government to undertake such an assessment.”

Putting aside the fact that states have almost no legal authority in the approval of natural gas pipelines regulated by FERC, wouldn’t Franken, wouldn’t any of the signers of the letter who voted yes be concerned that a potential commissioner, especially one from the one of the states hit hard by the cumulative impacts in the very shale plays Bay referred to, is so dismissive of a federal-level inquiry into fracking’s impacts?

David Wallace-Wells has received a lot of criticism from climate scientists for his chilling piece, “The Uninhabitable Earth”, in the current issue of New York Magazine. The piece was called “deeply irresponsible” and “alarmist” by some climate experts. Others worried that the incredibly dire account would be so overwhelming as to cause paralysis at precisely the time we need action.

Slate’s Science Editor Susan Matthews takes a different view. She believes the piece isn’t scary enough, that we need to be more alarmed. Most importantly, she points out there would be more than sufficient cause for alarm already if all lives mattered equally to those in power and to the rest of us, frankly. She’s absolutely right. Any parent’s climate nightmare is another parent’s reality somewhere on this planet right now. She contends that the hopelessness that would result from being sufficiently alarmed is a fair trade off for “actually taking this issue seriously at the ballot box”.

Imagine what that would be like. Imagine if Democrats’ deeds matched their words because the next election counted on it. Imagine what it would be like if they could no longer engage in the dissonance I call climate denial, Democrat style.

That world is within our grasp. And it starts by letting politicians know that their actions, or failures to act, have consequences. This week, it starts with flooding Senate offices with calls with the message that they will not be reelected if they continue to ignore demands to address regulatory abuses going on at FERC before they even consider approving one more Commissioner. You don’t have to learn talking points about tolling orders or segmentation or eminent domain or the myriad other issues we’ve raised with them time and time again. The only reason you need to give is, “Because… climate change.”