Why Climate Catastrophe Is a Constitutional Crisis

September 20th, 2020 - by Jeet Heer / The Nation

The Electoral College and the Senate both marginalize states that are the hardest hit by climate change.

Jeet Heer / The Nation

 (September 14, 2020) — he West Coast of the continental United States is on fire, producing images of apocalyptic desolation running from California to Oregon to Washington state. An entire time zone is burning.

“Across a hellish landscape of smoke and ash, authorities in Oregon, California and Washington State battled to contain mega-wildfires on Sunday as shifting winds threatened to accelerate blazes that have burned an unimaginable swath of land across the West,” The New York Times reports. “The arrival of the stronger winds on Sunday tested the resolve of fire crews already exhausted by weeks of combating blazes that have consumed around 5 million acres of desiccated forests, incinerated numerous communities and created what in many places was measured as the worst air quality on the planet.”

The intensity and immense geographical scope of the fires are due to climate change, but the crisis is not bringing the country together to tackle the problem. President Donald Trump continues to serve up polarizing lies. In a Saturday rally in Nevada, Trump blamed the fires on “forest management.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti responded by telling CNN, “This is climate change and this is an administration that’s put its head in the sand.” Garcetti added, “This is not about just forest management or raking. Anybody who lives here in California is insulted by that, quite frankly, and [Trump] keeps perpetrating this lie.”

Trump will be visiting California on Monday, a trip that came only after much criticism of the president for neglecting the crisis. “California and the West have been on fire, but President Donald Trump went more than three weeks without mentioning it,” Politicoreports. “During that time, Trump tweeted, golfed, held news conferences and appeared at campaign rallies.”

This abandonment of the West Coast is partially a reflection of Trump’s cynically transactional governing philosophy. Trump lavishes attention on states that voted for him while treating Democratic-leaning states as enemy territory. Trump lost the West Coast states by double digits in 2016: California by 30 percent, Oregon by nearly 11 percent, and Washington by 16 percent.

But the abandonment of the coastal states is rooted in a structural problem that goes well beyond Trump’s personal psychology or even the Republican Party’s embrace of climate change denial. The political order created by the American Constitution makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the United States to adequately respond to climate change.

Both the Electoral College and the Senate marginalize the states that are most immediately effected by climate change and give undue political weight, amounting to a veto power, to states that can delude themselves into thinking that action on climate can be delayed.

As lawyer George Conway, a Never Trump Republican, tweeted on Friday, “Were it not for the Electoral College, many people would be paying a lot more attention to the wildfires ravaging the West Coast of the United States.”

The science fiction writer William Gibson once observed, “The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.” One might say the same for climate change: It is already here, but not evenly distributed. In the United States, the areas that are suffering the most immediate problems are coastal states, which are dealing with not just the fires of the West Coast but also hurricanes and rising sea levels. These coastal states tend to be Democratic or swing states.

The Republican Party dominates the inland states, where climate change is a more distant problem, likely to lead to desertification over decades. This means it’s unlikely that there will be any bipartisan consensus to deal with climate for years to come, by which time action might be too late.

Writing in The Washington Post in 2016, Todd Cort, faculty codirector for the Center for Business and Environment at Yale, noted, “The electoral college, which provides for stronger voting power per person in more rural and less populated states, has elected four U.S. presidents who clearly lost the popular vote (1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016).

Two of those elections have occurred during the period in which we have known about the causes and impacts of carbon dioxide emissions and climate change and in both cases, the impacts of those elections have very likely had profound impacts on our actions to address the challenge.”

In this century, the Electoral College has twice given the United States presidents who have been retrogressive on climate. George W. Bush pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol and rolled back regulations on coal-fired power plants. Trump abandoned the Paris Agreement, gutted Obama-era environmental regulations, and repeatedly dismissed climate change as a “hoax.”

As Cort concluded, “The electoral college will have a lasting legacy on all of our lives through climate change. The combination of two administrations headed by presidents who lost the popular vote has and will slow our progress down, and that delay contributes to an ever worsening global climate problem.”

The Senate, in the same way, marginalizes large states. California, which has nearly 40 million residents and where climate is a pressing issue, has the same number of senators as Wyoming, where the population is roughly 575,000. Add on the necessity of getting a supermajority to beat the filibuster, and you effectively have a veto on any serious climate action.

The Obama administration’s ambitious cap-and-trade bill of 2009 passed in the House of Representatives but didn’t make it to the Senate floor since it couldn’t get a filibuster-proof majority, especially since some Democratic senators also opposed it.

The usual arguments against the Electoral College and the filibuster are small-d democratic in nature. These are mechanisms that block majority rule. That’s true enough. But the push against them now includes an environmental dimension. In a normal period the United States managed to survive with these anti-democratic mechanisms, but climate change is too big an existential threat to allow them to continue. Getting rid of the Electoral College and the filibuster is now a matter of survival.

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent at The Nationand the author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014).

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.