The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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The Climate of Congress

Some weeks ago, I wrote about the necessity of a nation-wide push to put climate-sane people in Congress and in state and local government, not just the White House (though the White House is critical, too). At the time, I did not know whether such a push was in progress. I simply hadn’t looked into it, yet. Now, I’m happy to report that the League of Conservation Voters has things well in hand. They could use donations, though. For more information, read their Plan of Action, here.

I also said I’d write a series about which races are actually important for climate. I’ll start with the Senate.

The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) lists several states where they are targeting Senate races. They also, helpfully, provide environmental voting scorecards on all legislators, meaning that if someone has served in the Senate or House already, we don’t need to rely on his or her campaign promises, we can just look at a score derived from the actual voting record.

As I’ve explained before, this blog is neutral on all issues besides climate. I understand you might have additional concerns, and so do I, but we’re ignoring those for the purpose of this discussion.

US Senate

34 Senate seats are up for election this year, ten of which are currently held by Democrats. The Democrats need to hold all ten and gain five more, in order to take control of the Senate (if Clinton wins the Presidency, the Democrats can win the Senate with only four additional seats, as Vice President Tim Kaine will have the tie-breaking vote).

Fortunately, that’s doable. Only two of the ten contested Democrat seats are considered vulnerable, according to the Cook Report, and one of those races is currently considered “likely” to go Democrat. Meanwhile, eight of the Republican seats up for election are considered “toss-ups,” and two others only “lean” Republican. Three more are considered “likely” to go Republican, but are still competitive.

There are some complications. For example, Kelly Ayotte, of New Hampshire, is one of only four Republicans who voted last year to affirm that yes, humans are causing climate change (the others are Susan Collins, of Maine, Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, and Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, none of whom are up for re-election). Her lifetime score is 35%, which is pretty dreadful, but it’s better than many of her fellow Republicans’, and her score for last year alone was much higher–56%. So she’s getting better. Party membership alone does not guarantee a person’s stance on climate, and we do need to foster a genuine Conservative environmentalism, as I have argued before. So, we can’t just say Republicans, bad, Democrats, good. We have to look at candidates individually.

LCV’s list of target states is Nevada, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. First two are the two Democrat seats that are competitive. The other six are currently Republican.

So, who are these people? What is happening in these races?


Democratic incumbent, Michael Bennet, faces Republican Tea Party favorite, Darryl Glenn, who is currently the El Paso County Commissioner. Since Colorado in general leans slightly to the left, current thinking is that Mr. Glenn is too far to the right for the state and cannot unseat Mr. Bennet.

Mr. Bennet’s lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters is 87%. His record is marred by several anti-environment votes (as opposed to skipped votes), including consistent support of the Keystone XL Pipeline, but many of his environmental votes are in the areas of climate change and clean energy. While he has been roundly criticized by environmentalists for supporting the pipeline, he has been endorsed by both the LCV Action Fund and the NRDC Action Fund. He seems an imperfect but able ally.


Florida’s Democratic primary isn’t until next week (August 30th), and the fight between the front-runners has been negative and nasty. The incumbent Republican is Marco Rubio, His lifetime scorecard with LCV is precisely 6%. He is well-known as a climate denier. Whoever runs against him had better win.


Republican incumbent, Mark Kirk, is facing Democrat Tammy Duckworth. The Cook Report considers the race a “toss-up,” but Illinois leans Democrat, and some thinkers estimate the chance of an upset as very good.

Fortunately for us, Ms. Duckworth is currently a House Rep. so both candidates have LCV score cards. Ms. Duckworth’s lifetime score is 85%, while her score last year is an even better 89%. A note on her scorecard indicates that she missed votes in 2015 while she was on maternity leave but read a statement into the record saying that she would have voted pro-environment had she been there. It is unclear to me what that means about her actual voting history–would her score be even higher had she not been absent? Does her score reflect votes she didn’t actually make? In any case, she’s a climate hawk with good name recognition and a fair shot at winning.

Mr. Kirk has a lifetime score of 57% and a score last year of just 40%. In other words, despite not believing that humans cause climate change, he could be worse. Ms. Duckworth will be better.


This is Senator Harry Reid’s seat, but the Senate Minority Leader is retiring, so the race is open. It’s also the one currently Democratic seat currently considered a toss-up by Cook.

Republican Joe Heck is now a member of the House of Representatives. He is also a member of LCV’s current Dirty Dozen, a list of the 12 elected officials the organization really, really wants to defeat–and thinks it can. LCV doesn’t list people it thinks are hopeless. Not surprisingly, his lifetime score is 6%. Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto is currently Nevada’s Attorney General and therefore doesn’t have a voting record LCV can score, but she does have their endorsement.

North Carolina

Republican incumbent, Richard Burr faces two challengers, Democrat Deborah Ross, and Libertarian Sean Haugh. The race is considered a toss-up by the Cook Report. Mr. Burr’s LCV score is a ridiculous 4%–one wonders if perhaps his few pro-environment votes were accidental–so while I haven’t found any figures for Mr. Haugh, he would probably be at least marginally better from our perspective.

Ms. Ross would definitely be better–she won LCV’s endorsement even before winning her state’s primary, and as a member of her state’s legislature, she earned an amazing 95% pro-environment score.


Republican Rob Portman is running for re-election against Democratic challenger, Ted Strickland. This is one of the races the Cook Report considers a toss-up, and while the LCV seems to be getting involved, so have the Koch brothers, through a group called Americans for Prosperity Ohio.

Mr. Portman has a record with the League of Conservation Voters going back to 1993. That means there are Ohioans in their 40’s who have never voted without him being on the ballot. And in all that time he’s racked up a lifetime score of just 20%. His score last year was only 8%, which could mean he’s actively getting worse. But Mr. Strickland also has an LCV score, for while he isn’t in office currently, he has been in the past–he earned 77%. So, while isn’t the world’s fiercest climate hawk, he’s certainly got Mr. Portman beat.

Let’s see if he can win on Election Day, too.


Republican incumbent, Pat Toomey also faces two challengers, Democrat Katie McGinty and Independent, Everett Stern. The race is another toss-up, according to Cook.

Mr. Toomey has a lifetime LCV score of just 7% and his score for 2015 is actually 0%. Not surprisingly, he is another member of the Dirty Dozen–which means LCV considers him beatable.Mr. Stern has no LCV score, not having held previous elected office (his background is in business and advocacy), but he is running on a platform that includes expanded fossil fuel exploitation in Pennsylvania and he is against President Obama’s “constraint” of the industry.

Ms. McGinty doesn’t have an LCV score, either (this apparently would be her first elected office, although she has held appointed positions at both the state and national level for decades), but she did earn its endorsement even before winning her primary.


Republican incumbent, Ron Johnson faces Democratic challenger, Russ Feingold. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the race is a re-match. Mr. Johnson defeated Senator Feingold in 2010. Mr. Johnson is not exactly a climate hawk–his lifetime LCV score is 4%, and his score in 2015 is 0%. He’s another of the Dirty Dozen. Mr. Feingold, meanwhile, earned an incredible 95% back when he was in office. Hopefully, he can get back there, soon.

Bottom Line?

The bottom line is that if all eight of the above-mentioned pro-climate candidates win, the Senate will once again be Democrat-controlled and will have exchanged six climate deniers for six climate hawks. If not all of them win?

The most vulnerable seat is Harry Reid’s since there is no incumbent running. If Joe Heck wins that one and the Democrats win all the others, the Democratic majority holds. If Michael Bennet in Colorado loses as well, Democrats will only retain control of the Senate if their party also wins the White House (which they must, but that’s another issue). There are a few other Republicans who could lose and give the Democrats a larger margin of victory, but it’s unlikely, and anyway I don’t yet know how strong those Democrats are on climate. So, these eight races are the important ones, the ones that need national support in order to get climate-sane people into office.

The winner of the Florida primary, plus Michael Bennet, of Colorado, Tammy Duckworth, of Illinois, Catherine Cortez Masto, of Nevada,  Deborah Ross, of North Carolina, Ted Strickland, of Ohio, Katie McGinty, of Pennsylvania, and Russ Feingold, of Wisconsin–these are the people to watch and support.






How Normal Is this Abnormality?

Ok, I was going to write about politics or something this week, because we all know climate change causes extreme weather already so why should I have to write the same post about floods and droughts over and over and over and over again, but really? Baton Rouge? There’s a time and a place for just acknowledging what’s going on because people are dying down there. One area resident, who also happens to be the Louisiana state climatologist, told Scientific American (see previous link) the scale of devastation was like that of Hurricane Katrina and that “This is a pretty big deal, many, many, many homes flooded; it is hard to capture that in any one scope of a camera. It’s worse than it appears on television.”

So, however bad it looks to us from the outside? It’s worse than that. We’re going to be coping with the effects of this storm, as a nation, for years.

Again, according to Scientific American (same link!), this specific event can’t be linked to climate change, but extreme weather in general, including flooding, is a sign of climate change. That’s the standard story, and I’ve told it before. But I don’t actually think it’s true anymore. Not in this case, anyway.

The thing is, the reason this storm has been so achingly, awfully bad is that a high pressure zone sat itself down on the East Coast and refused to move, so, therefore, this storm full of Gulf Coast moisture had nowhere to go and just dumped all of its water right there on Louisiana (same link again!). And the thing is, I’ve heard that before.

It seems like every severe weather story I hear lately is the direct result of a blocking high.

So, I went looking around on the internet for a while, trying this search term and that, and finally found an article explaining that yes, stationary high pressure zones, caused by an erratic jet stream ARE the major proximate cause of many different types of extreme weather and, yes, these highs ARE getting more frequent. Because of climate change. Granted, the author was talking about winter extremes, but I see to reason to suppose the same mechanism might not work in the summer, too. The exact mechanism for the more erratic jet stream is still being debated, but seems to have something to do with the fact that the Arctic is warming faster than the lower latitudes are.

So, why did it take me twenty minutes online to find information Scientific American said didn’t exist? I don’t suggest a conspiracy–we’re probably looking at the result of a legitimate editorial decision about how much detail to get into for a popular market article. Also, what, exactly, it means to say a weather event was or was not caused by climate is a bit philosophically murky, anyway.

In the meantime, there are also various droughts (if you click on that link more than a week after I post this you won’t see the information I used, but rather the new, updated drought map. I wish I knew a way around that, but I have bigger fish to fry at the moment).  Some of these droughts are garden-variety, others are severe and unprecedented. California continues to just plain dry up. It’s horrible. Part of Massachusetts are in an Extreme Drought for the first time since the category came into existence (in 1999, but still!). There are other examples. But I’m unable to find out if any of this, except California, are really unusual. Is the US having bizarre weather at the moment?

It’s an important question. Somewhere the weather is always extreme. I don’t know if that’s literally true, but it must be nearly so. It’s a big planet, and a couple of extremes somewhere at any given time is about what you’d expect. Put another way, a certain amount of abnormality is normal. So, if we’re going to talk about evidence of climate change seriously, it’s not enough to just see what extreme weather is making the news lately–we have to know if the extremes we’re seeing are themselves unusual in some way.

It’s like temperature.  It’s easy to notice that it’s hot today, but to know what that heat means, you’ve got to look at it in context–is today’s high above or below the average for your area at this time of the year? 80° F. is just not that impressive in Delaware in August, for example, even if you, personally, are over-heated. Human perceptions of “normal” are easy to fool. So, are we looking at a normal level of abnormality this week or not?

I haven’t been able to find out. Really, what I’m looking for is an extreme weather index, a site that keeps track of, perhaps, the number of weather records broken this week or the number of events labeled “extreme,” and color-codes each part of the country according to whether that number is typical or not. And there is something like that–the Climate Extremes Index, by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Except it hasn’t been updated since July of 2015.

This is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration we’re talking about. You’d think they’d be on this sort of thing.

Maybe the up-to-date website I want is out there somewhere and I just don’t have the right search term yet or something. I’m not saying the information doesn’t exist, only that it’s disappointingly hard to find. It’s not on the tip of my search engine. That tells me most people aren’t asking the question.

And that is scary.

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Climate Campaigns

I could write about the recent flooding in Ellicott City, Maryland, which is apparently yet another unprecedented example of extreme weather reminding us that the climate no longer makes sense.  But really, we know this stuff already. So, I want to talk about politics.

I’m not going to stop doing science posts, or any of the other categories you’re used to my covering, but I’m planning on starting a new series on climate policy, vulnerability, and electoral politics in each state. I don’t know how many I’m going to get through by November, especially as I won’t do one every week, but I’ll do as many as I can. We put so much national attention into the Presidential elections, when the reality is that the President can’t do much of anything for the climate without a cooperative Congress. And which party takes the Congress depends largely on how Congressional districts are drawn, a process done, generally in a very partizan way, by the state legislatures every ten years. So, “down ballot” candidates matter a lot for the planet and we hardly ever hear about them.

We need to find ways to think about and support local races as national races, because that’s what they are.

Consider that we need a climate-sane majority in both houses in order to have a strong, climate-sane energy and transportation policy. Consider also that not every Congressional race is going to be competitive this year and not every competitive race will involve a climate-sane candidate. The climate-sane Congress we need nationally is therefore dependent on a small number of local races. If a national environmental advocacy group can identify those races and funnel money and strategic expertise towards those climate-sane candidates, we would have a good chance of taking Congress.

Is such a national campaign underway? I don’t know yet. But I can find out. And, if not, maybe this blog series will help support such an effort?

Stay tuned.