Climate Change Is On The Ballot This November

17:16 minutes

ed markey stands at a podium that says "green new deal" flanked by people to his right, including alexadria ocasio-cortez
Massachusetts senator Ed Markey speaking about the Green New Deal. Credit: Senate Democrats, via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

With record heat and fires raging in the American west, and the Gulf Coast facing still more hurricane activity, is climate change becoming a more prominent issue for U.S. voters? 

Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts thinks so. He recently repelled a primary challenge in what he calls “a referendum on the Green New Deal.” Now, just weeks before the November elections, candidates from both parties are forced to confront hazards worsened by climate change.

Senator Markey joins Ira to discuss the Green New Deal, energy options, and environmental policy priorities for this election year—and many years to come. 

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Segment Guests

Ed Markey

Edward J. Markey (D, MA) is a US Senator representing Massachusetts.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. When Senator Ed Markey, a four-decade member of Congress, won a recent primary challenge in Massachusetts, many people saw it as a symbolic, if not explicit, public support of the Green New Deal. After all, Senator Markey was the sponsor of the Green New Deal in the Senate, and his election proved that the Green New Deal was popular among young voters and progressives.

Now, with the West Coast burning out of control as a consequence of climate change, record triple-digit heat, and hurricanes, are our environmental priorities finally going to change? Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts is with me today to talk about where he sees environmental policy going in the years ahead.

Senator, let me begin with the elephant in the room, and this is the inferno that is roaring out of control in states in the West. Is there any doubt in your mind that these fires are linked to climate change?

ED MARKEY: I have no doubt whatsoever that it’s linked, and it is only intensifying to preview of coming attractions. What we’re seeing today is just a foreshadowing of even worse fires in the West and in other parts of our country. We just have to accept the science and begin to take the preventative care which is necessary, meaning that we need a renewable energy revolution led by the United States, because what’s happening here is going to be happening in the rest of the world as well. And we have a responsibility to be the leader and not the laggard.

IRA FLATOW: But do you think that there’s going to be any more action in the Senate due to what we’ve seen, the fires, the triple-digit heat? Or is it just going to be more of the same?

ED MARKEY: I think we have reached a turning point. My race against Congressman Kennedy was a referendum on the Green New Deal. It was a referendum on the kind of change which we need in our country to deal with the magnitude of the threats which we’re seeing.

And it’s hurricanes. It’s glaciers melting. It’s the firestorms, which we’re seeing all over the West. It’s all coming together in one huge story line. And my belief is that climate is on the ballot this November.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk a bit about your primary victory. And why do you think that is something that other senators, other people running locally should use as a model for how to actually attract voters?

ED MARKEY: We made a decision that climate change, the climate crisis, the Green New Deal could be at the center of a Senate campaign, and that we could use it as a way to activate young people, especially. And so in the under 35 population voters, what we found was that by 71% to 29%, they were voting for me. And the Green New Deal was a central reason for that.

But in addition, we also found that we could dramatically increase the turnout amongst under 35s in Massachusetts, and we did it, just turn out that was unexpected from the experts’ perspective, but we broke the all-time record for most votes in a primary in Massachusetts history statewide. And a big part of it was our attempts to actually increase turnout based around this whole issue set of whether or not the climate issues were able to galvanize support.

So our pitch was we were going to save all of creation by engaging in massive job creation. It resonated with the Sunrise Movement, with 350.org, with all of the traditional environmental groups, and it turned into a movement more than an election, and the turnout reflected it. And we largely believe that’s why I was able to have such a large margin of victory over Congressman Kennedy.

IRA FLATOW: You saying that backs up what I’ve heard from young people who tell me that unless serious climate crisis issues are on the ballot, they’re staying home.

ED MARKEY: I think that we should listen to them. Young people want to lead us, and we should let them lead us. We should understand that their issues are the issues of the future. And if we want to excite them, we should be talking about the issues of the future. We should be trying to convince them that we understand that there has to be an intergenerational compact that is put together to deal with these issues.

That’s what I did with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when we drafted the Green New Deal. That’s what I did when I partnered with Varshini Prakash and the Sunrise Movement in our efforts to build this campaign based around climate change issues. And if other politicians want to move to the future, want to increase turnout, want to excite young voters, then they should listen to them and let them lead politicians into the future.

IRA FLATOW: Why do you think Governor Jay Inslee, who based his whole run for the president on one issue and that’s climate and clean energy, did not get that same kind of traction that you got in your primary run?

ED MARKEY: Well, I love Jay, and he’s a great friend of mine, and he endorsed me wholeheartedly in my race. Jay did a phenomenal job in this presidential primary process as an educator. And all issues go through three phases– political education, political activation, political implementation. And so to a very large extent, what Jay was talking about a year ago in the presidential primaries is now what is becoming the agenda of the Democratic Party nationally.

So it got incorporated into this larger agenda. And I think that we should be thanking Jay for that leadership, in the same way we should be thanking the Sunrise Movement, the 350.org movement. Sometimes you can be right, but too soon. And right now I think people are realizing, as we’re looking at this confluence of crises related to climate that are occurring in the United States and around the world, that Jay’s message is one that’s now being embraced by mainstream Democrats everywhere.

IRA FLATOW: I was shocked the last presidential campaign debates in 2016, not one question was asked about climate change. Do you think that, hey, maybe it’ll make it onto the agenda this year?

ED MARKEY: Well, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and I had lunch the first week of December of 2018, we sat down with the goal of drafting a Green New Deal which would ensure that we did not have a repetition of 2016, which, as you said, had no question being asked of Hillary or of Trump about climate change. We introduced the Green New Deal resolution on February 6 of 2019, and nothing has been the same since then politically. It caused a firestorm on the right. Fox News, Trump, even some conservative Democrats, they were calling it socialism.

But again, we then had an opportunity to have the debate because, after all, what are tax breaks for the oil, gas, and coal industry for 100 years out of the pockets of the taxpayers of our country, if not socialism? And we were able to say immediately, give us some of that socialism for wind, and solar, all-electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, for battery storage, technologies for energy conservation strategies for the agriculture, industrial, commercial sectors in our country, and we will bury the fossil fuel industry within a generation. So once we introduced the Green New Deal, the debate was on. And now we reach the last few weeks before an election in the United States, and climate change is no longer an avoidable topic.

IRA FLATOW: The list of energy topics on the Green New Deal does not really include nuclear power. What are your thoughts on where nuclear energy might fit into a decarbonized economy?

ED MARKEY: Well, nuclear power is not excluded. Nuclear power right now produces about 19% of all electricity in the United States. There are two power plants being built down in Georgia and South Carolina, electric utility right now, that were supposed to cost $12 billion, but which now costs $28 billion, which is a very expensive way to boil water to generate electricity.

So increasingly what’s happened is that nuclear power has met its maker in the marketplace. The costs for wind and solar energy efficiency have now collapsed. They’re very low. Nuclear power is still very expensive. And while nuclear power is not excluded from the future, it has to find a way, if it wants to be competitive, to be able to construct and operate plants at a much higher level of efficiency.

And those power plants being constructed down there right now, I think, are a warning signal to electric utility executives all across the country that if they move to wind and solar energy efficiency, other renewable energy resources, they’ll be able to get those construction projects finished very quickly and at a cost that is affordable for the consumers in those states.

IRA FLATOW: One of the environmental topics that’s been an issue on the presidential campaign trail already is fracking. The president is supporting it. Joe Biden has recently said he would not ban fracking if elected. Is fracking here to stay?

ED MARKEY: Fracking on public lands should be banned immediately. Going forward, if we move as quickly as we can to an all-electric vehicle model, which I think is possible, we have to put the tax and regulatory policies in place, if we move to a massive deployment of wind and solar, then we can very, very quickly reduce the amount of oil which is consumed in our country. We put 70% of all the oil that we consume into gasoline tax.

If we move the whole fleet very rapidly towards an all-electric or a plug-in hybrid model, then I do believe we can reach a day very quickly where we do not need to authorize any additional fracking in our country. And I do think that day’s going to arrive very soon. All of the motor vehicle companies, not only in the United States, but in the planet, now have a design for electric vehicles that is going to telescope the time frame that it takes for us to have this revolution.

IRA FLATOW: I recall not too long ago when offshore wind was very controversial in your home state, in Massachusetts. Do you think now that offshore wind is part of the energy mix?

ED MARKEY: Offshore wind is going to play a huge role in the future. We right now have a project, Vineyard Wind, which has been delayed by the Department of Interior. We have to resolve a few issues with the fishing industry. But once we resolve that, we’re going to move quickly from 800 megawatts to 1,600 megawatts to 3,000 megawatts to 10,000 megawatts off of our coastline.

It’s going to create tens of thousands of new jobs. We’re going to need long electric cords in order to bring that energy in and plug it into Hyannis, or Plymouth, or New Bedford, but it’s going to substitute very rapidly for the existing electricity infrastructure in Massachusetts, in New England, all along the East Coast and in our country, and it’s going to happen very rapidly. And ultimately, these will be good union jobs, and they are going to replace the need for new pipelines to be bringing in natural gas into New England and other parts of the United States.

It’s going to happen very rapidly. The technologies have developed dramatically over the last five to 10 years. Each one of those wind turbines can now produce five to 10 megawatts of electricity in a way that was almost unimaginable 15 years ago. So like electric vehicles, like solar, like wind, onshore, all of this is happening very, very rapidly.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday from WNYC studios. In case you just joined us, I’m talking with Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts about environmental priorities for the election year and beyond.

I know you’ve been working on environmental issues for 40 years now. You sound like you’re just getting started.

ED MARKEY: Again, as I said, liberals are usually right, but too soon. And I think, to a certain extent, our time has come. I addressed the Democratic National Convention in 1980, prime time, 10 minutes. I was a young man. They gave me 10 minutes to lay out an energy future for our country.

And in it, I called for an entirely solar society in America. And I think that the time has finally arrived, and it’s young people leading the way. And I believe the policies are going to follow very quickly at the federal and state levels to implement that.

IRA FLATOW: So you think it’s going to be sort of a grass roots movement up instead of a top-down movement, perhaps?

ED MARKEY: I think the politics of 2020 are going to inject themselves into the congressional business of 2021. I think it’s going to be very clear that young people really want fundamental change, and they want it now. The age of incrementalism is over when it comes to responding to the climate crisis.

They’re looking every day at the lead two or three stories on their television stations, and they’re demanding change. And next year, there’s going to be a big IOU that young people are going to have and demand out of the political system. And I think it will have–

IRA FLATOW: A lot of what they’re seeing on their TV stations and online is the COVID epidemic and our response to it. Is there breathing room to worry about more than one thing at a time?

ED MARKEY: When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and I were drafting the Green New Deal, we made it very clear that it had to be done with intersectionality. It had to be done with a reference to communities of color, Indigenous communities, the front line communities in our country, because, obviously, Black and brown communities have always breathed different air than white suburban communities, which is why they have higher incidences of asthma, which is why they’re more vulnerable to the coronavirus. We are now calling them essential workers, because they can’t Zoom to work.

But the truth is that they are already exposed to higher level of asthma, and, as a result, they do contract coronavirus at a higher level. So a big part of what we are talking about is moving quickly to remove those pollution-creating facilities out of those front line communities, and then putting those communities at the front of the line to get the jobs to construct the new successor technologies that have to be installed. So we don’t have a choice.

We have to do this in a way in which we deal with multiple crises at the same time. The way to deal with it, the racial inequality, the economic inequality, the health care inequality is to ensure that we take this revolution in environmental justice and make sure that we provide the jobs and the safety for families across our country. And it has to be done simultaneously. We can’t avoid it. They’re Interrelated crises.

IRA FLATOW: Senator Markey, we have run out of time, unfortunately. We’ll have to have you back as things roll along.

ED MARKEY: Ira, can I tell you, I love your show. I learn so much from you, and it’s been my honor to be on with you today.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. Those are very kind words. Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts.

We’re going to take a break, and when we come back, we’ll dive into a new book on the history of so-called miracle cures for deafness. A spoiler alert– none of them really work.

I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC studios.

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