The Climate in Emergency

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


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What to Do Next, Part II

It’s easy enough to say, as I did last week, that we should ask the Senate to block President-Elect Donald Trump’s EPA pick, on the grounds that Myron Ebell is a raging climate denier. But how, exactly, does one actually do it?

If you’re like me, you may have a vague idea of how these things work, but still have an overwhelming number of questions that sap your confidence when you try to get on the phone with elected officials. In the interests of giving us both courage, I’ve done some research that should clear up a few points.

There has been a lot in the news lately about Mr. Trump picking, or considering picking, a lot of people recently, and some of those picks are being contested. Some of these–cabinet positions and others–require Senate confirmation (these are called “presidential appointees with Senate confirmation,” or PAS), but others don’t. The transition team members do not require approval, nor do staffer positions like senior adviser, the position to which Steve Bannon has been appointed.

Now, Steve Bannon is a well-known racist and anti-Semite and his appointment has raised vociferous objections both within Congress and elsewhere, but there is little anyone can do because this is just Mr. Trump’s call to make. There are ways to apply political pressure to get Mr. Trump to change his mind. Besides petitions addressed to the President-elect himself, the Senate can hold one or more of Mr. Trump’s cabinet appointments hostage until Mr. Bannon is fired and replaced by someone better. You have the option of asking your senators to do just that, although personally I think that may be a waste of political capital. Your call.

But the head of the EPA is a PAS, as are several other key spots, and your senators are responsible to you for whom they approve and how and why. The electorate has a lot of leverage, here.

You can sign petitions, like this one, and this one, against Myron Ebell, but don’t rely on petitions alone. For one thing, petitions aren’t always delivered. There was a petition on the White House site against Mr. Ebell that had collected a lot of signatures but which the White House has simply taken down–that site is designed as a way to communicate with the current President, not the next one, and the current President cannot appear to resist the peaceful transfer of power in any way. Besides, petitions do not have half the impact of phone calls. You just need to know whom to call about what.

(There are actually well over a thousand PAS positions, most of which doubtless either get rubber stamped or left unfilled. Our energy needs to focus on the most important).

The Process in the Senate

The Senate confirmation process begins for each PAS with an investigation and vetting process within the executive branch. After that process chooses a nominee, the president sends written notification to the Senate, where the nomination is read on the Senate floor, assigned a number, and passed into a committee for discussion.

Which committee handles the nomination depends on the position. For example, anything within the US Department of Defense goes through the Senate Armed Services Committee. Some positions must go through more than one committee. You can find a list of which committees have jurisdiction over what, here.

Committees may conduct their own investigation of the nominee if they need additional information and, following discussion, can report to the Senate on the nominee favorably, unfavorably, or without recommendation. The committee also has the option to take no action at all. Committees do not have the authority to actually halt the nomination process, but the full Senate rarely acts against the recommendation of the committee.

The nomination for head of the EPA is handled by the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. I am unclear on whether the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works might have jurisdiction also–it looks like it might.

After the nomination passes out of committee, the Senate must unanimously agree to the date and time for the confirmation hearing. A single senator can stall the process by refusing to agree–I don’t know whether that is ever actually done deliberately. Once the hearing begins, debate can continue until the Senate votes to stop. That vote requires a super majority (two-thirds), but the actual confirmation vote is by simple majority (half plus one). The Senate may confirm, reject, or take no action on the nomination. Confirmations are sent to the President for signature. Any nominations left pending when the Senate goes on a recess of over 30 days automatically expire. The President may resubmit the nomination later.

So, to block a nomination, there are a couple of options: the relevant committee can report unfavorably on the nominee; the Senate as a whole can reject the nomination; or the entire process can be delayed until the next long recess by means of various obstructionist methods (filibuster, excessive investigation, arguing over scheduling, and possibly others).

The Senators

All senators have a voice in the process, so call your senators and voice your opinion. However, it’s worth also calling the senators on the relevant committee–they might not listen to you if you’re not a constituent, but a large number of calls should still mean something. The membership of each committee is easy to look up online.

Now, the confirmation process won’t start until after the inauguration, but you can start calling senators now–except remember some current senate members will lose their seats come January. Strike them from your call list and call their successors once they take office. Remember, also that committee appointments do not automatically get passed down with the senate seat, so the person who beat a committee member in the election will not necessarily take that spot on the committee. You’ll just have to look it up when the time comes.

If all this sounds like a lot to look up, don’t worry–I’ve done some of the grunt-work for you. Notice that the names of both the committees I mentioned earlier are hyperlinks. Those links go to the websites of those committees, which list current committee membership–and each name on that site is in turn linked to that Senator’s website, which includes contact information. “Contact me” links on the site likely lead to email forms. You want phone numbers, so look up the senator’s office locations instead. If you are a constituent, call the office closest to where you are registered to vote–your call will have a bigger impact that way.

And I can tell you that nobody on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources is leaving office this time. You can call all of them now. On the Committee on the Environment and Public Works (which may or may not have jurisdiction, remember), two are retiring, Republican David Vitter, and Democrat, Barbara Boxer. You can call everybody else now.

The Nominees

Since the nomination process hasn’t officially started yet, technically, there are no nominees. Myron Ebell is simply the likely nominee.  Other names being discussed for the position are Robert E. Grady and Jeffrey Holmstead. I have not yet looked either of them up, but since Mr. Trump has been rather vocal about wanting to gut the EPA, it’s a safe bet that whomever he wants for the job should not have it.

There are other nominations also worth taking a look at, for both environmental reasons and otherwise. The Secretaries of the Interior (whose responsibilities include the National Park Service), of Agriculture, and of Commerce (whose responsibilities include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which carries out a lot of climate research), plus the US Trade Representative and the UN Ambassador all bear special attention and should not go to climate deniers.

You can find a list of appointees and potential nominees here. It is current as of this writing, though I don’t know how frequently it will be updated. Note that the list includes both PAS and non-PAS positions.

A Few Closing Words

First, if you hate using the telephone, you have my sympathy, but we really need to just do it this time. If the idea of calling a senator specifically worries you (and it does me!), take heart. You won’t talk to the senator personally–a staffer will write down what you are calling about and whether you are for or against, and if you got tongue-tied or awkward, that friendly staffer will never mention it to anyone. Seriously, staffers are, as a rule, helpful, friendly people who will do whatever they can to help you get your message through as long as you are friendly with them. And that’s true even when you’re calling to disagree with the senator in question. Seriously, staffers are cool people.

Second, since the push to block Myron Ebell and others is most likely going to be led by Democrats, some people may cry foul, saying that the Democrats didn’t like it when Republicans blocked President Obama’s nominations. I want to be very clear that I am not advocating that sort of blockage. The Republican leadership has repeatedly attempted to block Mr. Obama’s actions simply because they were Mr. Obama’s. This included promising to block certain appointments before even finding out who the nominee was. We shouldn’t do that.

I am not advocating blocking Mr. Ebell because Mr. Trump may nominate him but because Mr. Ebell is a climate denier and thus unfit for the job. Barring action from the Electoral College, Mr. Trump will be President, and thus will have to appoint someone to head the EPA. The EPA needs a head. We gain nothing whatever from preventing the president–any president–from doing his or her job. But it is our job to make sure the president’s duties are executed in a sane, legal way, and that includes retaining a functional EPA capable of doing something about climate change.

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Waking Up to Trump

When I was small, I sat with my parents one night listening to election returns on the radio. My parents had told me whom they voted for (they both voted the same) and that they very much disliked the opposing ticket. They probably told me why as well, but I didn’t understand. As I watched them listen to the radio that night, I saw their faces frown. And frown and frown some more.

“What happens if he gets elected?” I asked.

“Remember that movie we saw last week?” my Dad asked, referring to a film about failed terrorists who were carried away kicking and screaming by the police. “Well, if he gets elected, that will happen to us.”

Let me explain that my parents were not terrorists, nor were they criminals. I believe my father was afraid that some serious and unConstitutional government over-reach might occur. Why he thought that overreach might grab us, I do not know, nor do I understand why he thought it was a good idea to pass these thoughts on to me. It doesn’t matter.

What does matter is what went through my mind when the candidate in question was elected.

“Oh no!” I thought to myself, worry rising quickly to panic. But as soon as I realized what my Dad’s words really meant–the end of life as I knew it–a kind of switch flipped in my mind and I calmed right down. I didn’t put the matter into words, but if I had, it would have been something like “well, that’s so awful it can’t possibly happen, therefore I don’t need to worry about it.”

I was, as I said, very small, but my impulse was a broadly human one. The temptation is going to be very strong to tell ourselves Donald Trump’s election can’t be ‘game over’ for the climate, that’s too horrible, so I’m not going to worry about it, much.

Well, it can and it might be–but at the same time we don’t have anything to lose by fighting like hell on this one, and we might just pull a miracle out after all. The question I want to address with this post is therefore ‘what does fighting consist of? What can we do now?’

We can think clearly about our objectives. We can examine our options.

We can come together to protest Mr. Trump’s election–not that doing so will oust him, but it will show solidarity to those who fear his presidency, many of whom are feeling very alone right now. And coming together is a good way to build moral and to network. A good place to start is the National Women’s March on DC, on January 21st. As far as I can tell, men are welcome, though the focus is women’s issues.

We can try to actually oust Mr. Trump, but it’s a long shot. Impeachment won’t work, he has to do something wrong while in office first (prior transgressions don’t count), and some of us would rather not wait. Anyway, removing Mr. Trump from office would simply inaugurate Mike Pence, who is not really any better. But it is possible for the Electoral college to actually choose someone else. That’s a long shot, and if it did work would trigger a serious backlash, but this is actually what the Electoral College is for–it’s a safety valve in case some unqualified, potentially disastrous person wins the election by charisma. So, there is a petition you can sign.  You can also contact individual electors and ask them to vote for Ms. Clinton (Or Ms. Stein, or Mr. Johnson, if you really want). Please be polite when you ask.

We can work to shield and support people made vulnerable by either Mr. Trump himself or his supporters–members of racial and religious minorities, refugees, LGBT folks, many women. We can work together to block Mr. Trump’s more disastrous appointments, orders, and other actions (and make no mistake, he has promised several disasters). We can play defense as hard and fast as we can. We can make progress where possible.

And we can be kind to each other.

This is not currently a nation of kindness, of communication. Many, perhaps most, Trump supporters feel disenfranchised, unheard, and denigrated, that’s why they voted for Mr. Trump. The Trumpers, in turn, are not–many of them–being kind. They are not listening.

Lest I be accused of justifying hatred, let me point out that the fear and rage that fed the Trump movement is misdirected and dysfunctional, and nobody who finds themselves on the wrong end of it owes anything to their abusers. Yes, abusers. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone’s not out to get you. The mostly rural people who swept Mr. Trump into office are absolutely right to feel ill-used, because Mr. Trump and his ilk are ill-using them. And that is not fair and it is not right. I’ve written about this before, in the context of climate deniers and climate skeptics. Same problem. The point is this country is hurting every which way right now, and some people are hurting others in their pain. Collectively, we need to stop doing that. Unless you are currently fighting to be heard yourself, it’s time to really listen. And everyone needs to be kind.

I need to acknowledge that I’m not confining myself strictly to climate, though that remains my focus  overall. It is Mr. Trump’s promise to undo President Obama’s climate legacy that motivates me to write this post and do this research. But Donald Trump’s other transgressions are too serious and too frightening not to acknowledge. He is not a normal statesman and the opposition to him is not normal party politics. Even many within his own party are deeply frightened and offended by him. If you lean Republican, let me assure you that the political neutrality neutrality of this blog on issues other than climate remains intact. If you are a Trump supporter, let me say I will not attack you personally on this site and that I firmly believe Mr. Trump is not going to look out for your interests, either.

In subsequent posts I’ll get into detail and provide resources, links, to-do lists, especially for blocking, protecting, playing defense to win. Now, as my very wise husband just said, it is time for sleeping. And then tomorrow it will be time to wake up.


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Single Issue Voter

As the Republican National Convention proceeds, I’m not hearing anyone talk about climate change. Meanwhile, this summer the nation has already coped with violent storms (including tornadoes in Maine yesterday), multi-day killer heat waves  giving us yet another record-breaking June, droughts, and frightening floods. All part of the new and progressively destabilizing normal.

This blog is neutral on all issues other than climate change, but I do personally care about other issues. I am aware than my readers also care about other issues, some of which are life-and-death matters in various ways. But climate change is different. On every other topic, mistakes now mostly hurt the people of now. Correct the problem, and the damage will ease and then heal. Climate change, in contrast, will cast a shadow lasting for many generations. Some of the damage will simply not be reversible.

I suspect most regular readers of this blog are politically liberal, but I hope I have some conservative followers as well. To you I say please notice what the Republicans are ignoring. Vote Democrat or vote third-party this time—push your political leaders into taking climate seriously or else. National security, public health, the economy, all those other issues ultimately depend on our successful handling of this one.

We (meaning climate-sane people) must take both the White House and the Capitol Building this cycle. If we don’t, climate-denier leaders will undo whatever good we have managed to win so far. We’ll have to start over in four years or eight years. We’re running out of time.

Conservation used to be a Republican value. It could be again. Why allow all climate-sane solutions to be Democrat ideas?

Come on. We need you.