Congress is more deeply divided today than it has been in the last two decades on a wide range of issues, including global warming. In the Senate, for example, Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe routinely fulminates that it's a hoax, while Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse understands the science and is leading the charge for a carbon tax.
Conventional wisdom says the schism between Inhofe and Whitehouse shouldn't come as a shocker. After all, Oklahoma is a red (i.e. conservative) state, and Rhode Island is blue (i.e. liberal), and elected officials represent the views of their constituents, right?
Despite the polarization on Capitol Hill, Americans in red and blue states agree on quite a lot—including the need to address global warming—according to a recently released study sponsored by Voice of the People, a new nonpartisan organization that wants public opinion to play a bigger role in the policymaking process.
The study, conducted by the Program for Public Consultation (PPC)—a joint project of the Center on Policy Attitudes and the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy—analyzed answers to 388 questions from two dozen opinion surveys taken between 2008 and 2013 on a variety of hot-button policy issues. Besides climate change, they included health care, immigration and U.S. forces in the Middle East. PPC found that a majority or plurality of residents in red congressional districts and states disagreed with their blue district and state counterparts on only 4 percent of the questions, and those mainly pertained to abortion, gun control and gay rights. In two-thirds of the questions, there were no statistically significant differences in their answers.
"Clearly the American people are not the source of polarization and gridlock in Congress," said Steven Kull, PPC's director and Voice of the People's founder and president. "What is the source of this polarization and gridlock? Well, there are a lot of forces that try to influence Congress. You could call it the 'influence industry.' There are lobbyists, there are corporations, there are special interest groups, all trying to influence Congress, pulling Congress in different directions."
Blues and Reds Agree Feds Need to Tackle Global Warming
The PPC study included responses from blue and red districts to 27 questions on climate change and the environment. Given the chasm in Congress on these two interrelated topics, some might find the responses from red districts surprising.
For example, approximately 80 percent of both blue and red district respondents agree that the U.S. has "a responsibility to take steps to deal with climate change." Majorities in both blue (60.2 percent) and red (55.1 percent) districts also agree that the "government is not doing enough to deal with the problem of climate change."
The poll results also indicate that Americans are prepared to make modest sacrifices to avoid the worst consequences of global warming, which ultimately would cost considerably more. For example, roughly 60 percent of blue and red district respondents are willing to pay as much as $19.50 a month more for energy and other products. And slim majorities—54.7 in blue districts and 51.5 percent in red districts—say "climate change should be given priority even if it causes slower economic growth and loss of jobs."
Survey answers to questions on vehicle fuel economy and carbon emissions suggest that Americans of all political stripes approve of recent Obama administration initiatives, including the new proposed rule to reduce power plant carbon emissions. More than 80 percent of respondents in both blue and red districts "favor [the] federal government requiring automakers to build cars that use less gas." And more than 70 percent "favor [the] federal government lowering the amount of greenhouse gases power plants are allowed to emit."
Furthermore, majorities in both blue and red districts support international efforts. At least 75 percent agree that "limiting climate change is an important goal for U.S. foreign policy," and more than 60 percent say the U.S. "should participate in a climate change treaty." Finally, majorities in both districts—58 percent in blue districts and 54.2 percent in red—agree that "if less developed countries agree to limit their greenhouse gases, the United States and other developed countries should provide them with substantial aid to help them do so."
Money Talks (and the Koch Brothers Have a Lot of It)
So if blue and red districts largely agree that the government should cut carbon pollution, why are federal lawmakers sitting on their hands?
As Kull pointed out, too often members of Congress seem more concerned about protecting special interests than the public interest. In this case, the special interests are the fossil fuel industries—coal, oil and natural gas—and electric utilities, which have collectively lavished more than $324 million on federal candidates, PACs, parties and outside groups over the last 10 years, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, the source for all of the campaign and lobbying stats below.
If nothing else, those contributions buy access, and since 2004, utilities and fossil fuel industries have spent more than $2.6 billion to lobby Capitol Hill. Over that time, Congress has beaten back attempts to put an end to the nearly $5 billion in annual tax breaks and subsidies afforded the oil and gas industry—and failed to take any substantive action on climate change.
Americans for Prosperity's "No Climate Tax Pledge" campaign illustrates how corporate influence can manifest itself. Four years ago, Charles and David Koch's flagship tea party group began lobbying members of Congress to sign a pledge to "oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue." Although the pledge technically leaves the door open for a revenue-neutral bill, it is highly unlikely that the 137 representatives and 25 senators who have signed it—especially the ones who deny the reality of manmade global warming—would support any climate-related measures.
So who has these legislators' ears?
To keep this analysis manageable, let's confine it to the Senate. Since 2009, utilities and fossil fuel companies have contributed more than $38 million to the 25 senators who have signed the pledge. The top two recipients, Texas' Ted Cruz and Oklahoma's Inhofe, pulled in more than $400,000 and $393,000 respectively.
The biggest donation came from the Koch brothers' coal, oil and gas conglomerate, Koch Industries, which contributed $725,900 to 23 of the 25 senators who signed the pledge. Other significant funding came from the Murray Energy coal company, which doled out $358,650 to 17 signatories; the Southern Co. electric utility, which gave $198,600; Chevron, which contributed $147,750; and ExxonMobil, which provided $139,550.
The Club for Growth, a conservative political action group that disputes mainstream climate science, kicked in another $2.3 million over the same time period to six of the signatories. Nearly 90 percent of the club's contributions went to three senators: Jeff Flake from Arizona, who raked in more than $1 million, and tea party newbies Cruz and Marco Rubio of Florida, who received $705,000 and $363,000 respectively.
The Club for Growth, as it turns out, also has a Koch connection. Between 2008 and 2012, its largest donor was the Center to Protect Patient Rights, a secretive political action group linked to the billionaire brothers. Over that time period, CPPR gave the club $1.15 million—20 times more than the group's second-highest donor—and funneled $15.8 million to Americans for Prosperity.
Rubio Does a 180
Sen. Rubio, who was elected in 2010 after eight years in the Florida Legislature, provides a shining example of how corporate influence can sway a politician.
In 2008, as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, Rubio was a lead sponsor of an omnibus energy bill directing state agencies to develop a cap and trade program for carbon emissions and a standard requiring electric utilities to increase their use of renewable energy. In March of that year, in an interview on the Florida Channel's weekly news show Florida Face to Face, he even voiced support for a carbon tax.
"When Rubio was speaker of the house, he was very committed to clean energy solutions," said Susan Glickman, the Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "He clearly understood the threat climate change poses to Florida, and he saw the economic development and technological potential in addressing it."
After Rubio announced a run for the U.S. Senate in May 2009, however, he began to attract funding from major carbon polluters on top of the hundreds of thousands he got from the Club for Growth. ExxonMobil, Chevron, Koch Industries, Murray Energy, Southern Co. and four other energy companies gave him more than $180,000.
He also did an about-face on climate change.
Just a few weeks ago, ABC's This Week aired a lengthy interview with Rubio, who was visiting New Hampshire to explore the possibility of a presidential run. Correspondent Jonathan Karl asked the senator for his take on global warming. Rubio's response was right out of a fossil fuel industry talking points memo.
"I don't know of any era in world history where the climate has been stable," Rubio said. "Climate is always evolving and natural disasters have always existed."
Karl pressed him further. "But let me get this straight," he said. "You do not think that human activity—the production of CO2—has caused warming to our planet?"
"I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it," Rubio responded. "I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy."
Rubio got it backward. According to the federal National Climate Assessment report issued just days before his appearance on the Sunday morning gabfest, it's unchecked global warming that would devastate the economy, especially in his own home state. The report, the third in a series produced by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, provided an overview of the likely consequences of global warming nationwide.
In South Florida, one of the most vulnerable regions in the country to rising sea levels, the consequences are already an everyday reality.
"We've been dealing with the effects of climate change for quite some time," said Broward County Mayor Kristin Jacobs, who attended an East Coast sea level rise conference the Union of Concerned Scientists convened in April 2013. The biggest issue for Jacobs is routine flooding from high tides and heavy rainfalls.
Broward, which includes Fort Lauderdale, joined with Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach counties to form a compact in January 2010 to coordinate mitigation and adaptation efforts across the region. The compact—which covers 5.5 million people—estimates sea levels off the coast will jump another 3 to 7 inches by 2030. That's on top of the 5 to 8 inches Florida has recorded over the last 50 years.
Florida is hardly alone. Americans across the country have been grappling with a range of severe, climate change-related weather events, including prolonged droughts, extreme precipitation, heat waves and, like Florida, coastal flooding. And majorities in both blue and red districts want federal action.
Perhaps it's time for Rubio—and the other members of Congress who signed the Americans for Prosperity pledge—to stop genuflecting to the Koch brothers and start listening to their constituents. After all, that's who they're supposed to represent, right?
Elliott Negin is the director of news and commentary at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Union of Concerned Scientists intern Kanoko Maeda provided research assistance.
By Robert J. Orth, Jonathan Lefcheck and Karen McGlathery
A century ago Virginia's coastal lagoons were a natural paradise. Fishing boats bobbed on the waves as geese flocked overhead. Beneath the surface, miles of seagrass gently swayed in the surf, making the seabed look like a vast underwater prairie.
Why Didn’t Seagrasses Recover Naturally?<p>Development, nutrient runoff and other human impacts have damaged marshes, mangroves, coral reefs and seagrasses in many bays and estuaries worldwide. Loss or shrinkage of these key habitats has reduced commercial fisheries, increased erosion, made coastlines more vulnerable to floods and storms and harmed many types of aquatic life. Rapid climate change has compounded these effects through <a href="https://theconversation.com/ocean-warming-has-fisheries-on-the-move-helping-some-but-hurting-more-116248" target="_blank">rising global temperatures</a>, more <a href="https://theconversation.com/more-frequent-and-intense-tropical-storms-mean-less-recovery-time-for-the-worlds-coastlines-123335" target="_blank">frequent and severe storms</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/as-climate-change-alters-the-oceans-what-will-happen-to-dungeness-crabs-61501" target="_blank">ocean acidification</a>.</p><p>In the late 1990s, local residents told two of us who are longtime students of seagrasses (Robert "JJ" Orth and Karen McGlathery) that they had spotted small patches of eelgrass in shallow waters off Virginia's eastern shore. For years the conventional view had been that seagrasses in this area had not recovered from the events of the 1930s because human activities had <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aquabot.2005.07.007" target="_blank">made the area inhospitable for them</a>.</p><p>But studies showed that water quality in these coastal bays was <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02782971" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">comparatively good</a>. This led us to explore a different explanation: Seeds from healthy seagrass populations elsewhere along the Atlantic coast simply weren't reaching these isolated bays. Seagrasses are underwater flowering plants, so seeds are among the main ways they reproduce and spread to new environments.</p>
Eelgrass beds were restored in four bays at the southern tip of Virginia's eastern shore on the Atlantic coast. David J. Wilcox/VIMS, CC BY-ND
Sowing a New Crop<p>From our <a href="https://doi.org/10.2307/1941597" target="_blank">earlier research</a>, we knew that when eelgrass seeds fall from the parent plant, they sink to the sea bottom quickly and don't move far from where they land. We also knew that these seeds don't germinate until late fall or early winter. This meant that if we collected the seeds in spring, when eelgrass flowers, we could hold them until the fall, helping them survive over the months in between.</p><p>We decided to try reseeding eelgrass in the areas where they were missing. Starting in 1999, we collected seeds by hand from underwater meadows in nearby Chesapeake Bay – plucking the long reproductive shoots, bringing them back to our laboratory and holding them in large outdoor seawater tanks until they released their seeds naturally. After about 10 years we started gathering the grasses using a custom-built underwater "lawn mower" to collect many more of the reproductive shoots than we could by hand.</p><p>In 2001 we sowed our first round by simply tossing seeds from a boat. Our first test plots covered 28 acres of mud flats in waters 2 to 3 feet deep. Returning the following year, we saw new seedlings sprouting up.</p><p>Each year since then, the <a href="https://www.vims.edu/" target="_blank">Virginia Institute of Marine Science</a> and the <a href="https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/virginia/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Nature Conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve</a>, along with staff and students from the <a href="https://www.vcrlter.virginia.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Virginia</a>, have led a team of scientists and citizens to collect and seed a combined 536 acres of bare bottom in several coastal bays.</p><p>These initial plots took off and rapidly expanded. By 2020 they covered 9,600 acres across four bays. Several factors helped them flourish. These bays are naturally flushed with cool, clean water from the Atlantic Ocean. And they lie off the tip of Virginia's eastern shore, where there is little coastal development.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a482c2146febd6782c99960c2b55feb8"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K9NyfPLINtk?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Sheltering Marine Life and Storing Carbon<p>Since eelgrass disappeared from these bays in the 1930s, human understanding of seagrass ecosystems has evolved. Today people don't pack their walls full of seagrass insulation but instead value different services they provide, such as habitat for fish and shellfish – including many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12645" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">commercially and recreationally important species</a>.</p><p>Scientists and government agencies also have recognized the importance of coastal systems in capturing and storing so-called "<a href="https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/bluecarbon.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">blue carbon</a>." In fact, we now know that seagrasses constitute a globally significant <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1477" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon sink</a>. They are a key tool for reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-64094-1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slowing climate change</a></p><p>We are working to understand the valuable services that our restored seagrass beds provide. To our surprise, fish and invertebrates returned within only a few years as the meadows expanded. These organisms have established extensive food webs that include species ranging from tiny seahorses to 6-foot-long sandbar sharks.<br></p><p>Other benefits were equally dramatic. Water in the bays become clearer as the seagrass canopy trapped floating particles and deposited them onto the bottom, burying significant stocks of carbon and nitrogen in sediments bound by the grasses' roots. Our research is the first to verify the overall net carbon captured by seagrass, and is now being used to issue carbon offset credits that in turn <a href="https://vaseagrant.org/eelgrass-carbon-credits/" target="_blank">create more funds for restoration</a>.</p><p>One big question was whether restoring seagrasses could make it possible to bring back bay scallops, which once generated millions of dollars for the local economy. Since bay scallops no longer existed in Virginia, we obtained broodstock from North Carolina, which we have <a href="https://chesapeakebaymagazine.com/return-of-the-bay-scallop/" target="_blank">reared and released annually</a> since 2013. Regular surveys now reveal a growing population of bay scallops in the restored eelgrass, although there is still some way to go before they reach levels seen in the 1930s.</p>
Restored seagrass beds (dark areas) along Virginia's Atlantic coast, with sunlight reflecting from a small island. Jonathan Lefcheck, CC BY-ND
A Model for Coastal Restoration<p>Repairing damaged ecosystems is such an urgent mission worldwide that the United Nations has designated 2021-2030 as the <a href="https://www.decadeonrestoration.org/" target="_blank">U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration</a>. We see the success we have achieved with eelgrass restoration as a prime model for similar efforts in coastal areas around the world.</p><p>Our project focused not only on reviving this essential habitat, but also on charting how restoring seagrasses affected the ecosystem and on the co-restoration of bay scallops. It provides a road map for involving scholars, nonprofits organizations, citizens and government agencies in an ecological mission where they can see the results of their work.</p><p>Recent assessments show that the restored zone only covers about 30% of the total habitable bottom in our project area. With continued support, eelgrass – and the many benefits it provides – may continue to thrive and expand well into the 21st century.</p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Jessica Corbett
Leaders of climate and conservation groups on Tuesday welcomed House Democrats' introduction of landmark legislation that aims to address the ocean impacts of human-caused global heating and reform federal ocean management—recognizing that, as Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva put it, "a healthy ocean is key to fighting the climate crisis."
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By Julia Conley
A federal judge in Washington, D.C. late Sunday struck down the Trump administration's proposed changes to the SNAP benefits program, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of people from losing badly needed federal food assistance.
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