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Opinion: The Senate’s climate change inaction ought to be the scandal of the century

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W-Va.)
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is considered the key Democratic vote on President Biden’s climate agenda.
(Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022. Let’s take a look back at the week in Opinion.

I love reading subscriber emails, even from regulars who offer criticism in a way that I can charitably call, well, uncharitable (you know who you are). One of the more frequent raps on me, especially during the pandemic and Donald Trump’s presidency, is that I take a “sky is falling” view of whatever I happen not to like. Take last week’s newsletter, in which I expressed concern that our refusal to consider business shutdowns to slow the Omicron-driven spread of COVID-19 probably meant that if any places would close in this wave, it would be schools — and the thought of more Zoom tantrums triggers a kind of PTSD-fueled foreboding for parents such as me.

Some of you said I was fear-mongering. Fair enough. But if you find my thoughts on the pandemic or politics or authoritarian Republicans annoying, brace yourself for a rhetorical meltdown on climate change.

What triggered this was The Times Editorial board noting the yawning gap between the public’s increasing alarm over climate change and Congress’ tendency to do little more than talk about it. I’d go a few steps further than the editorial board: The federal government’s failure to enact policies with the explicit purpose of ending fossil fuel use to spare our ecosystems needless upheaval and misery is nothing short of an epic national scandal, one that will soon be treated by historians with the same contempt as the appeasement of Hitler at Munich or the lies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. That acting decisively to avert certain catastrophe — mind you, worse than what we’ve already come to regard in California as the “new normal” of wildfire hellscapes and water shortages and 2,500-year-old Sequoias reduced to kindling — is no longer out of step with public opinion makes Congress’ timidity seem almost malicious.

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There is plenty of speculation about the possible financial conflicts of interest that might motivate a certain Democratic senator from a certain coal-producing state to withhold his support of President Biden’s Build Back Better climate proposals. The facts provoking questions about these possible conflicts have been reported, and the relevant lawmaker should answer those questions forthrightly. But I have to wonder if the foot-dragging on climate change is just another example of senators being hidebound and blackmailed by their own tradition, something we’re seeing play out right now on voting rights and the filibuster.

And being really stupid on climate change is a Senate tradition.

The Senate, after all, is where Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma famously brandished a snowball he found outside the Capitol as “very unseasonal” (it was February) and used it to question if 2014 really was the warmest year on record. (It was then, and it has since been eclipsed by every year since then.) The Senate has also been the scene of multiple attempts by Republicans (notably Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson) to outsmart climate scientists that only showed the senators to be comically ignorant or intellectually dishonest. It’s where non-scientists use the patina of the “greatest deliberative body on Earth” to pass off nonsense that would get them laughed out of a lower-division science class for college athletes.

Johnson, Cruz, Inhofe, Joe Manchin — they’re all distinguished colleagues in the Senate, each with the same power and vote as more humble members who defer to climate scientists and don’t quite regard cheap gasoline as every American’s birthright. This is only partly to decry the fundamentally unrepresentative nature of the Senate, but mostly to suggest that the upper chamber’s self-regard and zealous insistence on maintaining comity and tradition is really laundering toxic anti-intellectualism that, in the case of climate change, could kill us.

It isn’t exactly climate change, but it’s still a really big deal in California. Gov. Gavin Newsom rejected Robert F. Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan’s parole, and he took to The Times’ op-ed page to explain why: “Sirhan is now 77 years old, but he remains a potent symbol of political violence. In the past, terrorists took hostages — and ultimately killed some of them — in Sirhan’s name. Despite inciting violence in the past, recently Sirhan laughingly dismissed the current relevance of his status as an ideological lightning rod. He does not understand, let alone have the skills to manage, the complex risks of his self-created notoriety. He cannot be safely released from prison because he has not mitigated his risk of fomenting further political violence.” L.A. Times

“How the Los Angeles Times refreshed a newspaper staple” — Poynter has a wonderful and much-appreciated write-up on Hear Me Out, a letters to the editor feature I’ve been working on with Acting Editorial Page Editor Terry Tang and Karen Foshay and Jamie Novograd of L.A. Times Studios. We’re exploring new ways to give our readers a platform to tell their own stories, as described by Foshay in the Poynter article: “I think what the videos do is they allow the letter writer to expand on their experience beyond 200 or 300 words. You get to meet the person and hopefully you see a little of the human behind their story and their experience, and you might understand where they’re coming from.” Poynter

Get vaccinated. Stay calm. It’s looking like we all might get COVID someday. Columnist Robin Abcarian examines the arguably fatalistic outlook taking hold on Omicron: “Many of us have gone from knowing a few people who have fallen ill or, sadly, even died from this insidious virus, to hearing daily about friends and family members who have become infected. Most everyone in my circle has been vaccinated; the adults have been boosted. So when they have contracted a breakthrough infection, they feel almost nothing or feel flu-ish for a few days. Anecdotes are not data, of course, but the way we are experiencing and thinking about COVID has definitely changed.” L.A. Times

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Neighbors of homeless encampments aren’t just grousing. Activist Soledad Ursúa has a (housed) view of homelessness from Venice: “Just because RV and encampment fires have become commonplace in Venice does not mean that the voters have accepted this dereliction. Another RV, which had been parked near my home for the past year and a half, exploded in flames on Dec. 18. Someone graffitied the charred remains with the name ‘Boninville,’ an homage to Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin, whose constituents are trying to recall him, frustrated by the homelessness crisis.” L.A. Times

The Omicron surge makes the case for California’s single-payer healthcare proposal. Dr. Rupa Marya, who teaches at UC San Francisco, says administrative bloat and profit-seeking must be removed from a healthcare system crushed by COVID-19: “Before the pandemic, corporate health systems closed hospitals to consolidate, leaving many rural Californians without vital services. Such moves have contributed to making healthcare services in California, even accounting for wage differences, among the costliest in the country. Although politicians have been slow to react, healthcare workers have voted with their feet. During the pandemic, staffing cuts to save health systems money left remaining nurses with inadequate support to care for their patients and themselves, driving many to quit. Almost 20% of healthcare workers have left their jobs, and hiring is a struggle. The workers who remain are overburdened.” L.A. Times

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As always, you can share your feedback by emailing me at paul.thornton@latimes.com.


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