The environmentalist who spearheaded the grass-roots fight against the Keystone XL pipeline said yesterday that the political winds on climate change are starting to shift.
Bill McKibben, co-founder of the group 350.org, credited Democrats for raising the profile of climate change on the presidential trail.
"Four years ago, neither Obama nor Romney thought it was in their interest to even mention climate change, for various reasons," McKibben told E&E Daily after appearing at a Capitol Hill rally with Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president (E&ENews PM, Nov. 4).
"This time around, the Democrats have decided it’s a powerful issue that’s going to work for them and Republicans are going to have to figure out … you know, ‘I don’t believe in physics’ is no longer a useful political position."
McKibben also pointed to Sanders’ surging popularity to illustrate growing voter concern on climate.
"As he’s demonstrated, there are a lot of Americans who really care about this stuff," McKibben said of his fellow Vermonter. "The political mythology for a long time was that no one really cared about it, that it would be a dumb thing to run for office talking about it all the time."
Democrats have repeatedly pointed to polling that shows widespread voter concern about climate, especially among the key demographics of young and Latino voters.
"I was there when Bernie announced, and the first thing he said was the biggest problem facing our planet is climate change, and he’s kept saying it over and over and over again," McKibben said. "The response has demonstrated that there is a not insignificant number of Americans that agree with him, and that doesn’t surprise me in the least."
McKibben’s comments come as Republicans in both chambers are showing signs of more engagement on climate and the environment. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) this summer penned an op-ed calling for a new conversation on climate, although he eschewed the regulatory approach pushed by the Obama administration (E&E Daily, July 30).
In September, a bloc of moderate House Republicans introduced a resolution pledging to work "constructively" on climate (ClimateWire, Sept. 17).
And just last week, four moderate GOP senators — including presidential candidate Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — formed a "working group" focused on energy and environmental issues (Greenwire, Oct. 29).
McKibben saluted the GOP overtures.
"I’m glad to see that there are some Republicans starting to move in this direction," he said. "Look, the environmental and conservation movement in this country over the 20th century was as much a product of Republicans as Democrats; the 21st century is a big aberration in that regard — let’s hope it’s not permanent."
But environmentalists also noted that the four Republican senators behind the working group — which also includes New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, Illinois’ Mark Kirk and Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander — all voted with their GOP colleagues yesterday on a disapproval resolution to block U.S. EPA’s Waters of the U.S. rule (Greenwire, Nov. 4).
"It’s a little concerning, and rather confusing, that just days after forming a Republican environmental caucus in the Senate, every single member of that group voted in favor of two blatant attacks on clean water," said Sierra Club Legislative Director Melinda Pierce in a statement. "You can be sure we will be watching to see how they vote on future [Congressional Review Act] attacks that have been introduced to overturn the Clean Power Plan and the new smog standards."