Congressional caucus will play key role in addressing climate change

By Wharton Sinkler
Guest columnist
Posted2/5/2018 1:00 AM
  • Wharton Sinkler

    Wharton Sinkler

Citizens and observers of our federal government are rightly worried by the growth of extreme partisanship. We've seen the repercussions in appointments of judges and other officials, hampering government's ability to function. Add to that the recent funding of government through short-term resolutions, with lawmakers exacerbating lack of trust of their colleagues.

While those concerns are justified, it's also important to recognize positive signs when they occur, and the role that we, as citizens, can play toward nurturing bipartisanship.

Would it surprise you, for example, to learn that large numbers of Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. House have signed up to look for bipartisan ways to address climate change? Based on national headlines, this would seem unlikely, given how partisan climate change has become. Extended court fights over the EPA's Clean Power Plan instituted under President Obama, are now followed by its dismantling under President Donald Trump's EPA chief Scott Pruitt.

Objectively, climate change should be a fairly obvious area for bipartisanship. It's a well-understood problem, with costly repercussions. For example, new research shows that climate change contributed to increased rainfall in hurricane Harvey and to the severity of California's recent six-year drought. The mounting risks from climate change include damage from sea level rise, and more extreme weather.

There's nothing partisan about these facts. They point to a problem we need to solve. Damages from storms, droughts and coastal erosion don't single out victims based on their political leanings.

The problems presented by climate change are causing attitudes to shift in Congress. Conservatives understand that they bring valuable perspectives to this problem, by helping government promote market mechanisms in the design of fair and effective climate policy.

This spirit of collaborative problem-solving led to the formation of the House Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus in February 2016. The caucus was started by two South Florida representatives, Democrat Ted Deutch, and Republican Carlos Curbelo. The caucus requires members to join in pairs, one from each party; membership is kept bipartisan with strictly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. The caucus' objective is clear from its name: design and pass bipartisan legislation to solve the problem of climate change.

Over the last year, 44 new members have joined the caucus. The most recent to join are Chicago region Reps. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from the 9th Congressional District in Illinois, and Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican from the 6th Congressional District in Michigan, who announced on Jan. 26 that they have joined together.

The caucus now has 68 members, 34 from each party, and over 15 percent of the total U.S. House. These two will join prior members from the Illinois delegation, Reps. Dan Lipinski and Rodney Davis, who joined separately last March. The addition of Reps. Schakowsky and Upton is particularly significant for their leadership roles on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, on which both serve (Rep. Upton is former committee chair).

In addition to the crucial concern of climate change, there are important lessons in the formation of the Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. The first is a message of hope: that our representatives reveal themselves to be decent people committed to serving our nation and their constituents.

While they are members of political parties, and often compete bitterly to win elections, they still agree that the best policies emerge from building consensus across political divides. The second lesson involves citizen engagement.

Growth of the Climate Solutions Caucus has had crucial help from citizens encouraging their representatives, regardless of party, to take action on the issue of climate change. Our democracy is truly participatory, and we make it better when we speak up about issues which concern us.

The changing politics of the issue of climate change, and particularly the involvement of conservatives, is due to engagement by leaders such as George Shultz and Michael Bloomberg, as well as by constituents like all of us, making elected officials aware of our concern, and asking them to act on the issue of climate change.

So, let's celebrate the recent action of Reps. Schakowsky and Upton in joining the Climate Solutions Caucus. We should be grateful to all its members for their courage and leadership on climate change. Let's also recognize that this is only an important first step; there's much more work to be done on climate change. Our representatives should receive our gratitude when they make Congress work, and they will need the steady and determined encouragement of citizens as they move toward drafting and passing bipartisan climate legislation.

Wharton Sinkler, of Des Plaines, is a member of the Citizens' Climate Lobby, Chicago Northwest Suburbs.

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