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History's Greatest Barrier to Climate Action—the Senate—May Have Fallen

Climate change was born as a modern political issue in the United States Senate. On a hot June day in 1988, a senior NASA scientist warned a Senate committee that global warming, which was previously mooted only as a hypothesis, was not only real but already under way. “It is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here,” James Hansen said.

An auspicious start, and an ironic one. Since then, the fight against climate change in the United States and abroad has been defined by one constant: You can’t get the Senate to do anything. For 34 years, the upper chamber’s peculiar failure to act on the issue has shaped nearly every facet of policy and politics. Because the Senate could not pass a comprehensive climate bill, Congress could not; because Congress could not pass a climate bill, climate-concerned presidents had to rely on executive action and the permissiveness of the Supreme Court, and climate activists had to win smaller state and local reforms. This uniquely American reliance on regulatory, state, and local climate policy has never quite worked—the country still lacks a comprehensive plan to decarbonize its electricity sector, for instance, which remains dirtier than Western Europe’s—and it has been too disjointed to help the United States transition away from fossil fuels.

Even the edifice of international climate diplomacy was built with the Senate in mind. In 2015, diplomats wrote the Paris Agreement on Climate Change to be strictly voluntary for rich countries, so that the Senate would not have to ratify it. (In the final moments, the American delegation had to change an errant shall into a should to save it from Senate jurisdiction.) Madeleine Albright once said that America was “the indispensable nation.” But on climate change, the Senate has been the invincible obstacle.

But now, on a broiling August day 34 years after Hansen spoke, that record began to change. After an all-night session that stretched from Saturday evening into Sunday afternoon, Democrats voted along party lines to pass the first comprehensive climate law in American history. The bill will touch every sector of the economy, subsidizing massive new investments in renewable and geothermal energy, as well as nuclear power and carbon capture and removal, and encouraging new clean-energy manufacturing industries to develop in the United States.


After all, the Senate has been failing on climate for Stokes’s entire career—really, for most of her (and my) life. The two highest-profile failures came on bills very much like this one, landmark energy legislation considered early in a Democratic president’s first term. In 1992, President Bill Clinton proposed what became known as the “BTU tax,” a surcharge on energy production that would have reduced American emissions and functioned something like a carbon tax. (But not exactly like a carbon tax: The BTU tax would have levied a fee on nuclear energy, which a carbon tax does not do.) The House of Representatives passed the proposal, but the Senate never took it up. Eighteen years later, President Barack Obama endorsed a sweeping piece of climate legislation that would have created a new artificial market where companies could buy and sell the right to emit carbon. The House passed the measure. The Senate left it to die.

But these were not the Senate’s only climate-related failures, Matto Mildenberger, a political scientist and the author of Carbon Captured, a history of American climate inaction, told me. In 1997, the Senate voted 95–0 to forbid the United States from joining the Kyoto Protocol, the first attempt at an international climate treaty. In 2001, President George W. Bush took office with a new promise to regulate four air pollutants, including carbon dioxide. “Even the Bush transition documents said that they were going to do it,” Mildenberger said. The plan perished in part because of strong opposition from conservative Republican senators.

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