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Senators discuss climate policy possibilities

In an online event moderated by SIEPR's Lawence Goulder, senators Lisa Murkowski and Sheldon Whitehouse discussed the prospects of bipartisan climate change legislation.

A variety of bills aimed at combatting climate change are currently before Congress – and more might emerge depending on who wins the November election. But there’s going to be “a food fight” and “an uphill push” either way to get enduring policies passed, two U.S. senators from both sides of the aisle said Tuesday.

In an online event hosted by the Stanford Environmental and Energy Policy Center (SEEPAC), Lisa Murkowski, (R-AK), and Sheldon Whitehouse, (D-RI) discussed the prospects of bipartisan climate change legislation. 

[Watch the event here.]

Both senators agreed that the issue of climate change is not in question in the halls of Congress. The challenge for lawmakers has been finding consensus on how to fight it and how to get deep-pocketed industry lobbyists to support legislation rather than obstruct it.

Political division is often miscast as the culprit, but a large, underlying force comes from the affected industries, Whitehouse said during the conversation moderated by Lawrence Goulder, director of SEEPAC and a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR). 

And the dynamics can change in a big way if more companies buy in, he said.

“Corporations have not shown up, or they’ve shown up on the wrong side of the issue for a long time now. But that’s starting to change,” Whitehouse said.

Still, lobbyists for the powerful tech sector recently provided a long list of legislative requests that included nothing related to climate change, Whitehouse noted.

The good news, according to both senators, is that there is a good deal of bipartisanship on the climate issue, and current climate-related proposals — including bills on energy, industrial emissions, oceans, nuclear, carbon capture, and agriculture — represent movement in the right direction.

“There’s actually quite a lot going on — it just doesn’t quite add up to protecting us and staying at 1.5 degrees,” Whitehouse said, referring to global efforts to prevent the planet from heating more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. “But it’s better than where we were four, five years ago, when there was a complete shutdown.” 

Bipartisan legislation is “the best case scenario,” he said. “The worst-case scenario is if we don’t get anything done. So if we have to settle for partisan, we’ll do it partisan. But my hope is to do it bipartisan.”

Bipartisanship will be the key to any law’s success and longevity, said Murkowski, who leads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and chairs the Interior and Environment Subcommittee.

“Anything not enacted in a bipartisan manner is not going to last,” she said. “Republicans will do everything to repeal (a law spearheaded by Democrats), and it’ll be the ACA (Affordable Care Act) all over again.”

“We need to be doing more to deal with the issue of climate change. We need to be doing more, responsibly, to reduce emissions and advance technologies that will move us to a cleaner, renewable energy future,” Murkowski said. “But I don’t want things to be so whipsawed and that it depends on who is in control of the Senate or the White House. If we want to make a difference, it’s got to be long-term.”

Bills that provide incentives also come with their own set of challenges, Murkowski said. “It’ll be a food fight. If you have money, everyone will want a piece of it.” 

When asked about his views on climate policies if Trump were to win the November election, Whitehouse’s criticisms were sharp.

“It would be hard to get much activity out of a Trump administration,” said Whitehouse,  who serves on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the Judiciary, Finance, and Budget committees. “If the past is prologue, they were pretty terrible, and if they have a second term, I don’t see that improving much. It’ll be an uphill push to get anything done.” 

But climate change affects the whole world, and poorer communities, disproportionately; the U.S. government needs to step up, Whitehouse said.

“We’ve got to reboot ourselves in international leadership on this and get it done,” he said.

SEEPAC is supported by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) and Precourt Institute for Energy. Goulder, the event moderator, and Charles Kolstad, who introduced the pair of senators, are both SIEPR senior fellows.

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