Say this for Senator Ed Markey: He is one irrepressible optimist.
If you put your faith in careful research and scientific consensus rather than pseudo-science and sophistry, the politicization of climate change can be profoundly disheartening.
Which is why it’s a tonic to talk to Markey. A longtime leader on the issue, he sees things coming together for real progress in the near future. Start with the November understanding President Obama struck with China on carbon emissions. With the two largest carbon-emitting countries now in agreement on emissions targets — and the European Union having established a target of its own — Markey thinks the stage is set for a significant advance when officials from 196 countries meet in Paris in December for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change.
Some were skeptical a few years back when Markey contended that China was coming to view action on climate change as in its self-interest and thus would likely join such an effort. But he was prescient there, just as he’s probably right about the US-China framework being the precondition to progress in Paris.
“The China excuse is gone,” he says. “China and the US are the primary polluters. Since we now agree, it is going to be difficult for the rest of the world not to participate.”
Meanwhile, despite congressional paralysis on the issue, President Obama has detailed his plan to use his executive authority to drive carbon reductions. That’s left Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for whom coal-rich Kentucky geology is political destiny on this matter, warning the world to be wary of the administration’s promises because Congress isn’t aboard. (Shades of the Senate Republicans’ Open Letter to Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran!)
The administration’s regulatory approach will face a stiff legal challenge; there, the pro-coal forces have scored a considerable coup by getting Harvard Law School luminary Laurence Tribe to put his credibility on the line for their cause. Tribe, retained by Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, argues that the administration’s regulatory effort badly oversteps its constitutional authority. (Other legal experts, including several of Tribe’s Harvard colleagues, strenuously dispute his conclusion.)
But in the broader struggle for public opinion, a solid majority believes in the science of man-made climate change — and wants Washington to act. Markey sees that climate-change consensus strengthening this year, in no small part because of the efforts of one of the world’s most watched figures: Pope Francis. Last spring, the Massachusetts senator met with two top Vatican officials about climate change. Those discussions and the pontiff’s comments to date lead Markey to believe Francis will issue a powerful message in his encyclical on climate change, which is expected before summer’s end. And that Francis will underscore that message when he addresses Congress on Sept. 24.
“It is highly likely he is going to be focusing on the moral dimensions of the wealthier nations of the world creating conditions that are having catastrophic consequences for the poorest nations on the planet,” Markey says, adding: “Pope Francis has not pulled his punches on this issue, and I don’t expect him to start in front of the United States Congress.” That speech will be a can’t-miss moment, both for the drama and the delicious irony of the pope urging conservative religious congressmen to credit the science on climate change.
Markey is also hopeful about the fog-clearing effects of “Merchants of Doubt,” a new documentary now hitting theaters. Based on the 2010 book of the same name, the film examines the way the energy industry has used experts-for-hire and pseudo-scientists to create the false impression that there’s substantial scientific disagreement about climate change.
On the legislative front, he notes, it’s important to renew the tax credits for wind, which expired in December, and for solar, which lapse at the end of 2016. Free-market purists object to those breaks as distorting the energy market, but, conceptually, they should be seen as helping put the price of green energy on par with what the cost of carbon-based fuels would be if their environmental consequences (or externalities) were factored in.
Markey has spent years in the trenches on this cause. His commitment is laudable, his optimism infectious. Let’s hope his prediction of real progress this year comes true.