Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

2019: The Year Congress Believes in Climate Change?

By Keelin KellyPublished February 21, 2019

A firefighter looking at a forest fire in San Diego
After passing a sweeping conservation bill in the Senate, is Congress finally coming around to greener legislation?

Lately, it seems the only two things Congress can agree on is how divided they are and how terrible they are at working with one another. Moreover, the last thing anyone thought Congress would work together on is a public lands conservation bill that designates 1.3 million acres in Utah, New Mexico, Oregon and California as “wilderness.”  Federal law categorizes wilderness as the strictest form of federal land protection. The bill also includes protections of land in Montana and Washington state, classifies an additional 500 miles of river as wild, scenic or recreational, and includes three new national monuments.

No, the vote in the Senate was not even close to being divided. Passing onto the house with a confirmation of 92-8, even Mitch McConnell praised the bill as being a “diverse coalition of many advocates for public lands, economic development, and conservation.” While it still has to be voted on in the House, it is predicted to have similar rates of success. As my environmental law professor so optimistically reminded us, “There has to be a catch.” But does there have to be?

Unlike the majority of the world, climate change and conservation are highly contested, politicized subjects in the United States. Our country is divided over something integral to society’s longevity, something that the rest of the world seems to agree with despite their own party politics. Why is this the case? Besides the fossil fuel influence that seeps into our government, the United States has protected vast amounts of land, established deep bureaucracies, and passed acts to ensure that our sacred lands are not touched. Legislation such as the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act have permanently altered the way the federal government deals with land, arguably for the better (unless you’re Chevron or the Koch brothers). So why does Congress resist passing legislation directly addressing climate change?

If Congress can pass a land conservation deal as large as this one, the optimist in me thinks there may be some hope in bipartisanship solutions to climate change. With proposals like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s ‘Green New Deal’, climate change is certainly on the agenda of Congress’s freshman class. Yet, the democratic leadership has been publicly reluctant in accepting the new direction of the party. If the party that supports climate change remediation policies cannot agree on a way to address climate change, how can anyone expect the entire country to come together? Despite current leadership, 7 out of 10 Americans supported staying in the Paris Accord in 2017, and over half of Americans believe that “global warming is affecting weather in the United States”. As wildfires continue to burn towns in the Southwest, hurricanes flood homes, and winter storms take lives, the time for the federal government to act was long ago. However, there still may be hope when bipartisan bills like the land conservation bill. If the government can find a way to bridge the divide between the general public’s perception of climate change and the policy actions taken to prevent it, the earth’s fate may not be as desolate as it appears.