If we plan on making real progress on beating back climate change, we’re going to have to work together. That means working across not just international borders, but party lines, aggressively pursuing realistic solutions that will make a difference. Democrats like me have always worked hard to not only be leaders on responsible environmental stewardship, but to seek common ground on climate action and effective solutions.
As a former member of Congress and a state representative from the coastal state of Louisiana, I’m well aware of the threats of sea level rise and other natural disasters like hurricanes. Climate change has been a constant point of dialogue in the Louisiana state House and amongst the congressional delegation since I started serving decades ago. We have low-lying areas that are particularly vulnerable to flooding, hurricanes and other events made worse by climate change.
One thing I learned early in my career, though, is doing something is not the same as doing the right thing. When it comes to solving climate change, we have to improve the way America powers its electric grid; fuels cars, buses, and planes; and cools and heats homes, and do it in ways that work for the American people—not against them. And, the answers may be different in different parts of the country. Each state powers its communities in different ways and has different priorities. For that reason, finding solutions that work across the country—and can pass in Congress—has proven difficult.
That’s why many serious policymakers oppose today’s climate litigation, which seeks to blame energy companies for climate change by making them pay for climate damages. These lawsuits seek to circumvent Congress, and have state judges decide national energy and climate policy. My good friend Charlie Stenholm, a founder of the Blue Dog Democrats, explained that blaming energy companies may be convenient for some, but is “at odds” with reality. As he said, energy companies are part of, and working on, important climate solutions.
Unfortunately, some elected leaders are abandoning the hard work that needs to be done, throwing up their hands, and joining these lawsuits. Since 2017, about two dozen local and state governments have filed climate lawsuits. This litigation campaign was led early on by San Francisco, New York City, and lawyers trying to turn a buck off our climate change problems. Federal judges in New York City and northern California ruled to dismiss those cases because they understood climate change cannot be solved in courtrooms, but that hasn’t stopped this litigation campaign.
The narrative around these lawsuits is particularly troubling—and false. First, they claim that climate change is somehow the fault of the energy industry because it knew its products were causing climate change and continued to sell them. Let me suggest something. We have all known about the impact of climate change, but we also needed these companies to produce energy for the American people. Let us not forget the energy shortages in the 1970s, rolling brown-outs in California in the 1990s, and the devastation our Texas neighbors experienced when their electric grid failed earlier this year.
Second is that because Congress has not enacted meaningful climate legislation, we should let state judges do Congress’ job. Enacting complex policies that can help solve one of the most vexing, pressing political problems of our lifetimes is not something that can be passed off just because it is hard. What may work in New England or the West Coast may not work in Louisiana. Arriving at and passing the right legislation requires old-fashioned bipartisan dialogue and compromise.
These views are shared by the majority of Americans on both sides of the political aisle. The Manufacturers’ Accountability Project , an advocacy group representing the manufacturing community, commissioned a national poll, which found 72% of respondents believe the best way to pay for climate-related harm is through federal solutions. Only 2% said suing companies is the best path forward. Of those polled, 37% were Democrats and 31% were Republicans, reinforcing the need for bipartisan federal solutions.
To be clear, since the 1980s when I was first elected to the Louisiana state legislature, there has always been an understanding that climate change is a problem and action is needed to address its risks. The problem has been agreeing on the best path forward given the philosophical and regional differences on energy policy. That’s not the fault of the energy companies or the environmental groups who would not sign off on solutions that did not meet their ideological tests. Energy production and environmental causes are not mutually exclusive.
What we need are policies that can bring people together, namely facilitating public and private investments in new energy technologies. There are a lot of promising ideas out there, from capturing carbon to expanding capacity of renewable energy sources to making products more efficient. Some technologies may work and others may not. But one thing is for sure, nothing will be solved by lawsuits. The litigation provides an expensive distraction from the monumental task that lies ahead.
—Charlie Melancon is a former Democratic member of Congress and former Louisiana Secretary of Wildlife and Fisheries.