On Climate, From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

On the same day that Pope Francis issued his nearly 200 page encyclical, calling for bold action on climate and for all of humanity to end its mistreatment of "sister earth," members of the Senate appropriations committee were busy voting to defund pollution control and block 11 different critical environmental protections - including climate pollution limits on power plants.

Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The pope's widely anticipated encyclical is indeed sublime. In his letter addressed to "every living human," Pope Francis casts climate action as a moral imperative. He endorses the transition to 100 percent clean energy. He criticizes the fossil fuel industry and inert politicians, writing, "There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected."

He also offers hope: "Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start."

Unfortunately, on this day the majority of Senate appropriators did not appear to rise above themselves. Instead, they continued their full-scale attack on the nation's air, water, and climate, with a spending bill that is not only riddled with anti-environmental policy riders but also severely underfunds the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and land conservation.

The bill cuts funding for EPA by more than half a billion dollars compared to this year and continues to shortchange the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It targets air and water pollution prevention and environmental enforcement specifically, slashing as much as $80 million from these programs.

Senators added to their spending bill provisions that block a long list of environmental policies, starting with the Clean Power Plan, a central component of President Obama's Climate Action Plan and the biggest step ever proposed in the U.S. to cut carbon pollution. The plan requires cuts in carbon pollution from power plants, the nation's largest source of global warming pollution.

The list of programs to be thwarted continues: the Clean Water Rule, ozone pollution limits, fracking regulations on public lands, protections for endangered wildlife, requirements that polluters pay to clean up their public lands, and more.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) did try to strip the bill of its anti-environmental policy riders; his amendment was rejected when both Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) joined the majority to vote it down. He tried to strip only the provision targeting the Clean Power Plan; that amendment, too, was rejected, with Sen. Kirk the deciding vote.

The resulting spending bill is a dream for the oil and gas industry, the coal companies, and other polluters, but a nightmare for everyone wants clean air, clean water and a healthy climate for future generations.

But let's get back to the sublime.

As Pope Francis's letter recounts, the gravity of the global warming problem requires much more than cuts to carbon pollution from any one source in any one country. The Clean Power Plan's survival in the Senate is one step toward the commitment President Obama has made to cut U.S. emissions by about 27 percent by 2025. And that is one step toward a strong, international agreement achieved in Paris to slash pollution worldwide.

To avoid devastating climate impacts, scientists say we need an 80 percent cut in heat-trapping pollution by 2050. We hope Pope Francis's unequivocal call for action will help rally public opinion for the action necessary to avert climate disaster, in such a way that politicians can no longer ignore or resist. We hope, as the pope writes, "humanity at the dawn of the twenty-first century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities."