Green Notes from a Political Insider Commentary from the Legislative Director of the League of Conservation Voters

The League of Conservation Voters (LCV), where I am the legislative director, is calling—loudly—for a strong global warming bill that brings about a clean energy future. The World Health Organization estimates that global warming already cuts short the lives of 150,000 people each year. James Hansen, who is head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and perhaps the world’s leading researcher on global warming, has said we have just 10 years to reduce greenhouse gases before global warming reaches the point of no return. Without action, the problem could get much worse.

My story is this: One summer in high school, I went backpacking out West and saw forests devastated by clear-cut logging. When I returned to school that fall, I started a recycling club and have been working to protect the environment ever since. Last summer, I became a mother and the urgency I felt about saving the environment went into overdrive. Without action, we risk leaving our children a world that’s vastly different than the one we inherited.

I”ll start with the good news: We’re making progress in the fight to get Congress to pass a strong bill that achieves the emissions reductions necessary to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. Throughout the spring and early summer, LCV worked to strengthen the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act (S. 2191), a bill that would have made significant reductions in global warming pollution. That act would have resulted in about an 18% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and about 65% by 2050. It relied on a cap-and-trade system that would limit total greenhouse gas emissions and gradually reduce them each year. The money generated from auctioning pollution permits would be used to help provide assistance to working families and help states and localities adapt to the impacts of global warming.

LCV worked to increase the bill’s emissions reductions targets and to boost funding for things like energy efficiency, transit and green buildings while decreasing subsidies for polluting sources of energy like coal. Every week, we met with Senate staff and camped out in the Capitol to talk to senators directly. We worked with state leagues, environmental organizations, religious groups, labor unions and low-income advocacy groups to build support for a strong bill.

On June 2, the Senate voted overwhelmingly (84-14) to begin the global warming debate, but opponents of the bill, led by Senators Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and James Inhofe (R-OK) (both members of LCV’s 2008 “Dirty Dozen”) embarked on several days of obstructionism and delay. They launched a filibuster—insisting that the clerk read the entire 492-page substitute aloud on the Senate floor.

I was in the Capitol when this happened, and while it was going on, a rare tornado warning was issued in Washington—interesting timing give the link between global warming and increasingly extreme weather.

Tiernan Sittenfeld, the legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters, hiking with her son. © Tiernan Sittenfeld

Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) then called for a vote to end the filibuster—a move that LCV strongly supported in order to move forward with the debate and have a chance to strengthen and pass a bill. My colleagues and I were a constant presence in the Capitol that week—standing outside the Senate floor in the ornate reception room so that we could strategize with Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and other climate champions during the debate.

On June 6, 48 senators voted to end the filibuster mounted by our opposition, and six senators who were absent (including Barack Obama and John McCain) issued statements indicating that they would have voted yes as well—bringing the total number of senators who supported moving forward to 54. With just six more votes, we would have had the chance to continue debating this very important bill. Unfortunately, a minority of Senators who opposed the legislation brought the debate to a halt, standing in the way of real progress.

LCV is increasing its efforts to elect pro-environment senators across the country in November. These include:

Mark Udall: Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO) has been a leader on clean energy issues since serving in the Colorado State House. In Congress, he serves as cochair of the House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus, and his 99% LCV lifetime score puts him among the highest scoring members of Congress. Rep. Udall’s opponent, former Rep. Bob Schaffer, has been named one of LCV’s Dirty Dozen and has a LCV lifetime score of 5%. All available polling shows that this race is extremely close.

Tom Udall: In the House, Tom Udall (D-NM) has been a leader in efforts to end the U.S. addiction to fossil fuel, develop clean, renewable sources of energy and reduce global warming pollution. In particular, he has introduced bipartisan legislation requiring 15% of electricity come from renewable energy sources. Udall will face a tough general election against Rep. Steven Pearce, who has an LCV lifetime score of 1% and consistently sides with Big Oil and other polluting energy special interests.

Jeanne Shaheen: As governor of New Hampshire from 1997 to 2003, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen worked with members of both parties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. She has said that “reversing global warming and becoming energy independent are not just our most urgent environmental challenges; they are among the most urgent of all our national and international challenges.” The incumbent, Sen. John Sununu (R-NH), has a LCV lifetime score of 35%. At various times the available polling has shown both candidates with leads.

If we’re successful, by this time next year, America will be moving towards a clean energy future that reduces global warming pollution, creates jobs, saves money, and gives mothers and fathers real hope for the planet their children will inherit.

TIERNAN SITTENFELD is the legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters (LCV). LCV’s mission is to advocate for sound environmental policies and to elect pro-environmental candidates who will adopt and implement such policies.