- Special Projects
WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii has been named the chairman of a new Democratic special committee on the climate crisis, meaning he’ll have a major say on what direction his party takes on the issue over the next couple of years.
Civil Beat caught up with Schatz as he traveled back to Hawaii over the weekend to talk about his new role and how he hopes to influence even skeptical Republicans.
“Nebraska just got hit by historic floods that are going to cost over a billion dollars to their economy,” Schatz said. “When you see the impacts of climate change and severe weather in your community, and it harms your farm or your home or your family, it becomes real and it becomes personal. You want to take action.”
For starters, we asked about Schatz’s heated response to U.S. Sen. Mike Lee’s mockery of the Green New Deal on the Senate floor last week. In his attempt to undermine the resolution, Lee used images of a cartoon seahorse, a machine gun-wielding Ronald Reagan taking on a velociraptor and Luke Skywalker riding a “Star Wars” tauntaun.
Lee claimed the Green New Deal would end air travel and force residents of Alaska and Hawaii to use seahorses and these “hairy bipedal species of space lizards” to traverse the oceans and the snow.
He then said the only real way to solve climate change is to have more babies and leave it up to them to solve the crisis.
Schatz’s response was to take the Senate floor himself and call out Lee.
“I get that we want to make jokes and we want to be clever and we want to get clips to put on Facebook or Instagram or whatever, but that was appalling,” Schatz said. “This is the crisis of our generation and it is not a joke.”
Here’s how the conversation went, with some minor editing:
I was just watching your reaction to Mike Lee on CSPAN. What went through your mind when you saw his pictures of tauntauns and seahorses?
“I understand he was trying to be funny. But with the Midwest flooding, with the worst wildfires in California history, with billions of dollars worth of damage across the country, this is a serious matter and we need to get to work.
“It just demonstrates that so far very few Republicans have a real idea about what to do about climate change.”
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell finally said that climate change does appear to be human-caused. What did you think about that admission?
“We’re making progress. It’s slower than it needs to be. But because of our determination and because the American public is with us, Republicans have moved on from denying that climate change is real to at least acknowledging the existence of the problem.
“The next step is to get them to propose solutions and work on legislation, but it was progress to get Mitch McConnell to concede that climate change is real and caused by humans.”
What is it going to take to get Republicans to take that next step?
“There are two things. One is that events are overtaking politics. Nebraska just got hit by historic floods that are going to cost over a billion to their economy.
“It’s one thing to be theoretically conservative and put on a red hat and oppose what Al Gore or liberal Democrats are proposing.
“But when you see the impacts of climate change and severe weather in your community and it harms your farm or our home or your family it becomes real and it becomes personal and you want to take action.
“The polling data is fascinating on this. The majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents want climate action. So the only places that remain obstinate on this issue are the United States Senate and the White House.
“The other thing is elections. We had a problem in 2016 of a steep drop-off in turnout among young people and that was one of the reasons that we lost places like Wisconsin and Michigan, for instance.
“2020 is going to be a climate election. You’ve got a Democratic primary in which there are several climate hawks, you’ve got a media that’s beginning to pay attention in earnest, and you’ve got the unfortunate reality of these disasters continuing to roll on and do damage.”
Of the presidential contenders so far, who’s talking about climate in a way that you can get on board with? Who in your view seems to be saying the right things?
“I don’t want to get into that, and this is sort of my standard answer because so many of them are my friends and colleagues.
“Even though I’m pleased with what several of them have said, the problem becomes if I praise one I have to praise them all. It’s like being a parent and making sure all of your children feel equally loved.”
How about this: If you could build the perfect candidate, what would they say about the climate challenges we face today?
“I think that you have to strike the right balance between moral urgency and hope and optimism. This is a real catastrophe. This is a crisis. But we have to call upon our self-confidence as a nation.
“We have actually solved bigger problems than this. We vanquished the Nazis, we built the interstate highway system. We built railroads. We did rural electrification. We navigated our way out of the Great Depression. We landed a man on the moon.
“Using electrons from wind and solar ought not to be as hard as a lot of these other accomplishments of the United States throughout history.”
Could you reflect on what it means to be the chairman of this new climate committee given your career as an advocate, from lieutenant governor to your affiliations with the Center for a Sustainable Future and the Youth for Environmental Service?
“It’s been my life’s work and will continue to be my life’s work. I remain as hopeful and determined as ever and I’m extremely pleased that Senate Democrats are finally united on this issue.”
How did you feel when you first came into the Senate in December 2012? Were Democrats united then?
“We were a little more wobbly, and that’s because of all of the factors that I just talked about. The politics weren’t squared away and the public was a little more either divided or just purely ambivalent, like it just didn’t rise to the top.
“To be clear, anytime you take a poll, it’s definitely health care at the top or it’s all about jobs and then maybe education and then maybe infrastructure.
“That’s just how people operate because these are the things that are going to matter to your own existence, your job, your health care and your housing situation. So this issue of climate rarely polls at the top. But it’s also a defining question for the people of this era.
“People understand that increasingly it’s not an abstraction. It’s not just another box to check for liberals or another thing for politicians to fight about or the parties to argue about. People understand that we have to rise to the challenge and fix this.”
What can this Democrats-only committee accomplish with Democrats in the minority and most decisions falling squarely along party lines? The committee doesn’t have the ability to pass legislation or mark up bills, so what’s the point?
“It’s there to do the investigative work on the cost of inaction and the opportunities around solutions, and to lay a predicate so that when and if we run the Congress in 2021 we can move quickly and boldly.”
Let’s say Democrats retake the Senate in 2020. Would this committee become more formalized such as Appropriations or Armed Services or Intelligence committees?
“There’s an argument that it ought to continue to roll on through to the next Congress.
“But the idea is that by then we would be legislating and then the committees of jurisdiction — the Finance Committee, the Appropriations Committee and others — would take it from there.
“I just don’t know. We haven’t gotten there conceptually yet because we just announced this thing.”
How then do you get the Republicans take to take this committee seriously and ensure that you’re not just screaming into the void?
“We have to win first. Because the Republicans need to see that there are electoral consequences to being on the wrong side of electoral history here.
“Number two is we were fighting pretty ferociously here on the floor and through the media for the last couple of weeks and it was that fight that seemed to dislodge some of the Republicans from their previous positions.
“Mitch McConnell seemed to indicate that he was not going to be a climate denier anymore, although he will obviously continue to be an obstacle. (Tennessee Sen.) Lamar Alexander came to the floor to say climate change is real and caused by humans. He then proposed what he’s calling a Manhattan Project for clean energy.
“But this wasn’t a result of us going over to their offices and begging for a compromise. It was the combat that resulted in them moving off the vine. Sometimes a carrot works and sometimes a stick works. I think in this instance some of them feel comfortable staying in their climate denier positions and we need to spend the next few years making them feel uncomfortable.”
Can you give me some examples of concrete action that can come out of this committee’s work?
“We’re sort of not there yet. I’ve had a couple of meetings with (Democratic Minority Leader) Sen. (Chuck) Schumer and his team and I’ve had one meeting with all of the members of the committee.
“But in terms of both the content of the committee hearings and the cadence, how often we’re going to meet, that remains to be fleshed out.”
A year from now what do you hope this committee is doing?
“I want to demonstrate that climate action is good for the economy and good for communities and climate inaction is expensive and dangerous.
“So we could have business leaders, government leaders, scientists and advocates come to the committee to testify. But I think you’re also going to see unexpected partnerships and allies, such as in the outdoor industry associations and farming community.
“I think we have to make sure this isn’t just the usual suspects. I love my friends at the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, and they have a major leadership role here, but we want to hear from folks who are new to the climate movement, not those of us who have been working on this for two decades.
“I’m also excited to tell the story of Hawaii’s success, that on a bipartisan basis and led at the time by (former Republican Gov.) Linda Lingle that we embarked on an ambitious clean energy program and it worked.
“We still have lots more to accomplish and it hasn’t been easy and it hasn’t been perfect and it hasn’t been conflict-free. But we are proof that you can develop a clean energy economy and make the transition in such a way that it benefits everybody.”
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