Storytime lessons from the Senate’s climate all-nighter

The Democratic sleepover at the US Senate this week, designed to bring attention to climate change, saw Dr Seuss appropriately at the forefront of an environmental debate.


“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. [It's not]” Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) said around 11:20pm on Monday during the early stages of an all-night Senate session meant to bring attention to climate change and lay the groundwork for future legislation.

Thirty senators took part in the event, taking turns on the Senate floor through the 15-hour marathon.

Markey was reading from The Lorax, Dr Seuss’s 1971 polemic against pollution in which the greedy Once-ler, a blatant symbol of big business, cuts down all the trees, polluting water and air and rendering the once bountiful land unlivable. The Lorax warns the Once-ler about the devastation he’s causing, however his entreaties go ignored. The Lorax came out during the early days of the environmental movement, less than a year after the first Earth Day.

Markey chose a passage from the end of the book in which the Once-ler realises the true impact caused by his lack of foresight. He then added his own thoughts, saying that what the senators were engaged in was not just a one-night stand of attention, but the next step in pursuing the right thing for subsequent generations looking to the chamber for leadership.

“This is a moment, the science is clear, the economics is clear and now the politics is clear,” said Markey. “We’re going to have a big fight about this in 2014. Future generations are going to look back and know that we had debate about the most important issue facing the planet.”

Throughout the night senators echoed Markey’s sentiments. Yet without the support of any Republicans and with so many looming issues, such as the Keystone XL pipeline, as well as the standard distractions of an election year, legislation was not on the table. Gathering attention and showing support were the primary objectives of the session, which didn’t interrupt regular Senate proceedings in any way.

Graph for Storytime lessons from the Senate’s climate all-nighter

“Tonight is not about a specific legislative proposal,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), one of the organisers of the event and a founder of the Climate Action Task Force. “It’s about showing the environmental community, young people, and anyone paying attention to climate change that the Senate is starting to stir and we want to get some actions going.”

Peter Dreier, chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College, has written about Dr Seuss. “What most people don’t realize is that Theodor Geisel, who used the pen name Dr. Seuss, was actually very political and very progressive,” he told ThinkProgress. “Many of his books have a message about the abuse of power or misuse of authority.”

The debate in Congress around climate change right now is in many ways one tethered to the misuse of authority. Republicans argue that the Obama administration is overstepping its authority by authorising the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other stationary sources – the same type of industry that dooms the Lorax’s homeland. Democrats wager that the Republicans are in lockstep with industry, shackled to their large donor-fueled pockets and powerful lobbyists, and are making decisions for short-term political and financial gains rather than long-term prosperity and sustainability. While climate change is a global problem requiring global cooperation, environmental issues are often very localised, acutely impacting the plants, animals and people in the neighborhood. Dr Seuss was always one to stand up for the marginalised, as indicated by the famous line in his 1954 book Horton Hears A Who!, in which he writes “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) kicked off the all-night session by pointing out the outsized influence that powerful climate change deniers, often associated with the fossil fuel industry, hold over some in Congress. “It’s time to stop acting like those who ignore this crisis – the oil baron Koch brothers and their allies in Congress – have a valid point of view,” Reid said. “But despite overwhelming scientific evidence and overwhelming public opinion, climate change deniers still exist. Climate change exists and it’s time to stop denying it.”

Political organisations linked to the conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch raised at least $US407 million in the last election cycle, almost matching Mitt Romney’s campaign funds. The Koch brothers make a lot of their money refining petrochemicals.

“I’m trying to find a Republican – somebody, anybody – who will raise an objection to two brothers trying to buy America,” Reid said last week. “I’ll settle for even one without much seniority over there. Anybody that will stand up to two individuals who stand for everything I don’t.”

In September, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) staged his own personal overnight session in protest of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Cruz has attended Koch-organised events a number of times, and appears to have an ongoing rapport with the brothers as he considers his next political move.

Around 8pm, during the Cruz’s September talkathon he read the entirety of Dr Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham to mark his daughter’s bedtime – saying she rarely chose the book, but tonight he would choose for her. In his choosing Green Eggs and Ham for part of his protest, Dreier said that Cruz “clearly missed the message:”

“At least Markey got it right. Cruz was trying to criticize Obamacare, but Green Eggs and Ham is really about not being critical until you’ve tried something. Whereas The Lorax is Dr Seuss’s critique of corporate exploitation of the environment and warning about destruction. In Green Eggs and Ham, the man is finally persuaded to try the offending eggs and ham, and, much to his surprise, he loves them.”

Dr Seuss would likely be pleased that his works are being used to bring attention to climate change – but he would be most satisfied if children like Ted Cruz’s daughter pick up the books and decide for themselves what’s right and what’s wrong.

“Dr Seuss became popular during the baby boom,” Dreier said. “And I think his message about standing up for self had something to do with the emergence of the protest movement in the 60s and 70s. People understood his outrage even if they didn’t get all the metaphors.”

Originally published on ClimateProgress. Reproduced with permission.

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