Climate Change and the Constitution

By Sylvia Neely

Climate change is a big problem and it calls for big solutions. No matter how conscientious we may be at reducing our personal greenhouse gas emissions, ultimately we need to find solutions at a national level to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. This effort must be bipartisan, for both practical and ideological reasons.

Even if we imagine a victory by Democrats in 2020, giving the party most closely identified with climate change control of the House, Senate, and Presidency, it is unlikely that Democrats would have 60 votes in the Senate to override a filibuster. Therefore, passing laws to deal with climate change requires the support of Republicans as well as Democrats. We need a solution acceptable to both political parties.

This is not surprising. Our founders worried about tyranny, about concentration of power, and wanted to make sure that no group would undermine basic liberties. Political scientist Julia Azari, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, notes that “the American political system, with its many points of conflict, was not designed for the purpose of handing one or another party total victory. It was designed for compromise—and without parties in mind at all.”

On September 17, we celebrate Constitution Day to commemorate the day in 1787 when the delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed our basic governing document. Our Constitution has survived for 232 years because the citizens repeatedly found ways to make it work effectively. We still revere the purposes for which it was created: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Their words emphasize “Union,” “common defence,” and “general Welfare.” They believed we could establish a political system that fosters the common good, preserves individual freedom, and will bequeath those benefits to those who come after us.

The American political system assumes that we will cooperate by designing laws that take different political views into consideration. Common sense should also point us in the same direction. Are we really so confident in our own opinion that we ignore the views of others?

In a matter of such importance as climate change, is it not essential that we get the best advice possible? Experts in science tell us that climate change is happening, that it is dangerous, and that we should act swiftly. Experts in economics tell us that an effective first step is to put a price on carbon and give the money raised to the people in the form of a dividend. Morality teaches us that public policy must be crafted to bring about the greatest good of the greatest number and that we should protect the well-being of the less powerful in society. Our own self-interest should guide us to find the least disruptive and most effective approach.

The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (HR 763) is a bill currently before Congress that addresses these concerns. It should receive your support, no matter your position along the political spectrum, because it stands a chance of passing in Congress. This bill alone will not solve the climate crisis, but once carbon is priced correctly, further government action and the innovations of private enterprise will be easier to achieve. Working together, “We the People of the United States” can do this.


Sylvia Neely is group leader of the State College Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

This Op-Ed was published September 15th in the print version of the Centre Daily Times.

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