The U.S. Senate on Thursday completed its most momentous week on climate change in years, loudly swatting down an ambitious proposal to overhaul America's economy to halt carbon emissions, while at the same time taking baby steps toward bipartisan agreement on the threats posed by a warming planet.
The Republican-led chamber on Tuesday rejected the Green New Deal, a resolution to stop greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and rewrite America's social contract through a vast expansion of federal mandates.
The measure received zero votes in favor, as four Democrats joined a unified Republican caucus in opposing floor debate, while all other Democrats, including the resolution's sponsors, voted "present."
Despite the defeat, environmental activists found reasons to cheer.
"We're delighted to see momentum in the U.S. Senate — this debate on climate change has been largely stalled for some while," Elizabeth Gore, Environmental Defense Fund senior vice president for political affairs, told VOA.
Acknowledgment from McConnell
While engineering the swift demise of the Green New Deal, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky acknowledged that global warming is a genuine threat, breaking from President Donald Trump, who repeatedly has dismissed the scientific community's warnings as "a hoax."
Asked by reporters Tuesday whether he believed climate change was real and man-made, McConnell said, "I do. The question is, how do you address it?"
Republicans lambasted the Green New Deal as a socialist pipe dream, arguing that eliminating combustion engines in a decade would destroy the U.S. economy and eradicate many Americans' way of life.
"We need tractors to plant our crops. We need combines to harvest our crops. We need trucks to get it to the [grain] elevator — all of which are going to be pretty hard to operate if you don't have fuel-fired engines," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.
Instead of costly governmental intervention, Republicans urged an unleashing of American innovation.
"We should use American research and technology to provide the rest of the world with tools to create low-cost energy that emits fewer greenhouse gases," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Monday, when he unveiled a proposal to double federal funding for low-carbon and carbon-free energy projects and research.
Alexander said his plan "would create breakthroughs in advanced nuclear reactors, natural gas, carbon capture, better batteries, greener buildings, electric vehicles, cheaper solar and fusion."
Senate Democrats mostly derided the Republican moves as too little, too late.
Noting McConnell's acknowledgment of climate change, Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York somewhat sarcastically remarked, "Hallelujah. He answered 'yes.' "
Others criticized an innovation-only strategy for combating global warming.
"Republicans want to solve this problem with belief in the 'innovation fairy' — that the innovation fairy is going to come and sprinkle innovation pixie dust on this problem and make it go away," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. "If you put a price on carbon [emissions], you will see innovation happen in a minute. But you can't just say the word 'innovation.' You've got to change the economic structure that will allow innovation to develop."
By contrast, Gore applauded any nascent bipartisan meeting of the minds on climate change.
"Acknowledging you have a problem is the first step in solving it," she said. "Mitch McConnell has acknowledged something that has not been fully embraced by members of his party in recent years. I welcome the new voices to the table."
Public opinion polls show Americans increasingly concerned about the effects of climate change, with a recent Reuters poll finding 72 percent of the public viewing warming temperatures as a threat.
Optimism, but not in short term
"I think a lot of what we saw in the Senate this week on climate change was both sides of the aisle responding to the broader political environment," political analyst Molly Reynolds of the Washington-based Brookings Institution said. "If the Congress has the potential to act at all on large[-scale] climate legislation, it will almost certainly need some bipartisan support."
But Reynolds added that prospects for sweeping legislation were dim for now.
"I'm not terribly optimistic about major legislation in Washington on anything over the next two years, climate or otherwise," she said. "We have divided party control of Congress, and we are already well into what is going to be a contentious campaign for the White House in 2020. Those just aren't terribly ripe conditions for much legislating on climate change."
Senate Democrats all but conceded that point in unveiling their caucus' special committee on the climate this week, suggesting that action was unlikely, so long as they were in the minority.
"The truth is, we're preparing to lay the predicate for action when and if Chuck Schumer becomes the majority leader of the Senate," Hawaii Democrat Brian Schatz told reporters.
Moments after blocking debate on the Green New Deal, the Senate took up a bill to fund federal assistance to U.S. communities struck by climate-related natural disasters, from hurricanes to wildfires to flooding.