5 Things Immigration, Gay Marriage, and Gun Control Have That Climate Change Doesn't

Amy Harder
National Journal

The amount of change happening in Washington right now is impressive. Congressional leaders are debating legislation on gun control and immigration, and lawmakers from both parties are coming out in support of gay marriage. This kind of sea change can’t happen right now with energy and climate policy. Here are five reasons why.

1. Humanizing policy. Despite what Candy Crowley might say about “climate change” people and despite the message conveyed by the American Petroleum Institute with its “energy voter” campaign from last year, energy and climate policy does not embody itself in human beings. Contrast that with immigration, gay marriage, and gun control. Hispanics, and the U.S. companies who employ them, want immigration reform. People whose family members or close friends are gay want them to be able to get married. Surviving victims of gun violence and family and friends of those killed want Congress to do something, anything, to crack down on guns. The political benefits of these human elements are reflected in effective advertising and lobbying that pull on people’s heart strings. The connection between human beings and what Washington can or should do with energy and climate policy is less tangible.

2. Electoral consequences. This is the biggest reason why the Republican Party, which got just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2012 presidential race, wants to do something on immigration. For energy and environment policy, these consequences have either not materialized at all or the consequences have negatively affected candidates seeking to change the status quo. To wit: In the 2010 midterm elections, when the House flipped control from Democrats to Republicans, several red-state Democrats, such as former Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., lost their seats in part because of their votes in favor of legislation that created a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, which the scientific consensus agrees causes global warming. “Frankly, a lot of us believe Republicans are in the majority because of cap-and-trade,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said in a recent interview with National Journal Daily.

3. Agreeing on the problem. As long as the leaders of the Republican Party deny that Congress must act to address global warming, not enough political momentum will exist to move energy and climate policy forward. Washington cannot solve a problem whose definition it cannot agree on. Contrast that with immigration, gun control, and gay marriage. Lawmakers from both parties agree on the problem with immigration and gun control. This doesn’t necessarily mean Congress will pass meaningful legislation on either one of these contentious issues, but it has clearly set the stage for meaningful legislative momentum. On gay marriage, both the majority of the public and more and more lawmakers are agreeing that there doesn’t seem to be a problem at all with gay people having a right to marry someone they love.

4. Cultural roots. The issues of marriage, immigration, and gun control are rooted not in science, but culture. Climate change, and its connection to fossil fuels, is instead chiefly rooted in science. Almost all scientists around the world agree humans’ use of coal, oil, and natural gas is causing global warming, but the science is not yet quite as clear or settled when it comes to how global warming affects people on a more granular level by way of extreme weather such as droughts, more intense storms, and heat waves. As long as that scientific consensus is not strong, Washington will find it hard to gain momentum on big energy and climate legislation. People already find it hard to wrap their heads around how climate change affects them personally, and unsettled science doesn’t help make that clearer. Some experts say that by the time the scientific consensus about the connection between global warming and extreme weather is crystal-clear enough for political momentum, it will be too late to do anything about the most adverse effects of climate change. Some people think it’s already too late.

5. Taking your time. Advocates for immigration reform have been grappling for reform for some 30 years. For gun-control advocates, 1994 was the last time any major legislation was passed in their favor (and that legislation, the assault-weapons ban, ended up hurting Democrats politically in the 1994 elections). Gay-marriage supporters first started fighting for their cause in the early 1970s. Congress last passed major energy legislation in 2005 and 2007. The last time it passed major environmental legislation was the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. Congress first started debating substantive legislation to address global warming some 13 years ago, at the start of this millennium. That’s longer than some political careers, but in Washington legislative speak, it could be considered normal. “There was one time I put a clean-air bill on the floor,” said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the longtime chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee during the 1980s and '90s. “Everyone patted me on the back and said: ‘Oh, Dingell, you’ve got this bill through in 13 hours. How’d you do it? I said: ‘Oh, it was really simple, it only took me 13 years to get that damn thing to where I could get it through in 13 hours.’ ” He didn’t mention the bill by name, but Dingell was referring to those 1990 amendments of the Clean Air Act.

In other words, just be patient, energy and climate watchers. It’s not your time—right now.