Democratic Senators Say ‘There Is a Path’ to Passing Major Climate Legislation

In a two-panel CNN Citizen event at GW, Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ed Markey stressed the importance of government action to meaningfully address climate change.

Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ed Markey discussed the importance of reducing American reliance on fossil fuels. (Maansi Srivastava)
Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ed Markey discussed the importance of reducing American reliance on fossil fuels. (Maansi Srivastava/GW Today)
April 11, 2022

By Ruth Steinhardt

Democratic Senators Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) are optimistic about the possibility of passing a meaningful climate and economic bill this year, they told CNN Chief Climate Correspondent Bill Weir Thursday at the George Washington University. 

Heinrich said he is now “dramatically more optimistic” about climate action passing the Senate than he was after Democratic colleague Joe Manchin of West Virginia opposed the White House’s Build Back Better bill at the end of last year.

“We’re certainly not hovering near 100 percent, but I think we’re well above 50 percent that we can get something together that will be maybe not as expansive as many of us had hoped, but deeply meaningful on climate,” Heinrich said. “We’re all continuing to talk with Senator Manchin and certainly he has some has been supportive of a number of these things…so I think there is a path there.”

Markey and Heinrich comprised the first of two panels joining Weir at the Jack Morton Auditorium before a GW audience that evening. The event was part of a series of in-person CNN events being held at GW in expansion of the network’s civic engagement platform, CITIZEN.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to skyrocketing gas prices worldwide, lending urgency to the issue of decreasing dependence on fossil fuels, Markey said: “I think it's very clear over the last six weeks that our addiction to oil is a conduit for conflict.”

But the kind of government subsidies and tax breaks that have long buoyed the oil, coal and gas industries can just as effectively elevate green technologies, Markey said, making environmentally friendly energy options more financially appealing to American consumers than nonrenewable fuels.

“For 100 years the oil and gas industry have had tax breaks from the American people, and now when we talk about tax breaks for our technologies, they call it socialism,” Markey said. “All we’re saying is, you’ve had tax breaks for 100 years? Give us some of that socialism for wind and solar and electric vehicles and batteries, and we will bury that industry in a generation…but we need those tax breaks on books so that it’s affordable in the near term.”

Passing this climate bill would result not only in switching 40 to 50 percent of American power to renewable sources by 2030, but would also create millions of jobs, Markey said. “We will have environmental justice finally in our country, and we will in the bargain be saving not only our own country but the planet from the dangerous consequences of climate change.”

Clean energy implementation will manifest on numerous fronts: “silver buckshot” rather than a “silver bullet,” Heinrich said. That might mean not only funding wind and solar farms but also increasing the market share of electric vehicles, building better-insulated homes that require less expensive temperature regulation and replacing inefficient home appliances with environmentally friendly ones, as well as federal support to green industries that will make these changes palatable to consumers.

If replacing an inefficient water heater with a clean new one, for instance, the customer wants it “at the same price,” Heinrich said. “You don't want to have to wait for a tax credit; you want it at the point of sale. And then we'll rapidly be able to accelerate these changes that will permeate everything and give us a much better, cleaner world for our kids.”

“We have to lift our gaze to the constellation of possibilities in the deployment of these energy technologies in a way that we had never had before,” Markey said.

Climate justice activist Magnolia Mead, CNN Climate Reporter Ella Nilsen and American Conservation Coalition Vice President of Government Affairs Quill Robinson joined Reid for a follow-up panel, discussing youth activism on both sides of the political spectrum as well as how media analysts should approach climate reporting. 

Mead stressed the ongoing and urgent human impact of climate change, particularly in the Global South.

“We need to stop subsidizing this industry that’s killing so many, and we need to start investing that money in renewables so that Americans can afford things like solar panels and don't have to rely on the fluctuating gas prices that we’re seeing right now,” she said.

Nilsen addressed the question of Manchin’s support for climate legislation, pointing out that lawmakers seeking his support have some leverage particularly in the form of lithium and nickel mining, materials required for green energy storage technologies.

 “He often says he wants an ‘all of the above’ energy approach, and I do think that that clean energy fits into that all of the above,” she said. “But he also may be looking for new money for new fossil fuel infrastructure, which could rub some folks in the Progressive Caucus in the House the wrong way.”

Robinson said now is an opportunity for climate action “on a bipartisan basis that will be durable.”

“When you think about conservative communities in America, they're often the people who are closest to the land,” Robinson said. “They’re farmers, they’re hunters, they’re anglers, and so while ‘climate’ may sometimes be a bit of a turn off and seem like a progressive issue, conservation isn’t. Protecting the environment isn’t. Who cares more about the environment than a farmer who draws their sustenance from the land?”

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