Photo:Jessica Paterson/Flickr

Profiles in Cowardice: Oregon Lawmakers Run Away from Climate Action. Literally.

, executive director | March 2, 2020, 3:59 pm EDT
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Several months ago, I kicked off a series of blog posts profiling the lack of courage so frequently demonstrated by our elected leaders, their appointees, and their compatriots in the corporate sector. I knew there would be no shortage of material. Cowardice is not limited by place, sector, or issue. It cuts across state lines and all areas of leadership.

For this series, I define cowardice as lacking the firmness of purpose to put the public interest first and foremost. Today’s post builds on that with an even more literal aspect of cowardice—running away.

Oregon lawmakers missing in action

Last week, 11 Republican senators walked off the job and took to the hills; they literally ran away in order to prevent a vote on a climate bill (SB1530) that would phase in tighter restrictions on carbon emissions. Not to be outdone and in a show of solidarity with their colleagues in the Senate, Republicans in the House walked out the following day. Their absence stopped all legislative business cold, thanks to a quirky provision in the state’s constitution which requires a quorum of two-thirds of the legislative body for a vote.

A large majority of Oregon voters elected Democrats to represent them; for now, Democrats hold a super majority in both houses, and Republicans are in the minority. That was the will of the Oregonian people, and their duly elected representatives were ready to vote and likely pass a climate bill last week. Instead of doing their jobs, fulfilling their responsibilities to the people of Oregon, and abiding by democratic norms and processes, the minority simply walked out, in essence holding democracy hostage. Caught in the hold-up were bills on homelessness, wildfire preparedness, and assistance for flood victims.

Republicans did the same thing last year on a similar climate bill, crossing state lines to thwart any attempt by Oregon state troopers to round them up and bring them back to work. And climate is not the only subject that has ruffled their feathers. They’ve walked off the job several times over the past two years—three times in the last nine months alone—to prevent votes on a business tax bill and bills on gun control and vaccines. Bills written with the public interest first and foremost in mind; bills that likely would have passed but for the cowardly runaway senators. (David Roberts of Vox provides more details and a powerful analysis of the situation.)

The climate clock is ticking

SB 1530 calls for the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to at least 45% below 1990 emissions levels by 2035 and to at least 80% below by 2050. It would require big greenhouse gas emitters to obtain credits for each metric ton of carbon dioxide they emit. It is a bill years in the making, already subjected to negotiation and compromise that has left it considerably weaker than where it started. And where it should be given what the science tells us about the urgency of action and the rapidly closing window to avoid the most catastrophic impacts. But it’s not nothing either. It’s a step in the right direction.

One can have an honest disagreement with the policy or with specific provisions in the bill. But is staging a walkout what the tax-paying people of Oregon want and deserve? No. People and organizations are calling on them to go back to work. Others are working on ballot initiatives that would threaten legislators who walk out with being tossed out of office. All are saying that enough is enough.

Unlike many of our federally elected leaders, the majority of Oregon’s lawmakers are stepping up to the plate with a cross-sectoral proposal for climate action. It deserves a vote. The missing-in-action legislators can run, but they cannot hide from the current and future impacts of climate change on their constituents.

Democracy is at risk

As much as I worry about the climate, I find myself equally worried about the fragile state of our democracy. In Oregon, we are witnessing how a small and demographically homogeneous minority can disrupt and hold the state hostage. Nationally, it appears that the fundamental institutions of our democracy—our elected and appointed officials, our laws and regulatory system, even the courts—are under threat.

Science, evidence, and facts are being ignored or discounted. Lies and disinformation circulate broadly. Our government agencies are being denigrated, sidelined, and hollowed out (see here, here, and here). Voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the unfettered and out-sized role of money in politics is undermining the basic function of democracy—representation of the people. All the people.

But I take heart in the courage of our stalwart and dedicated public servants who slog on and continue to work in the public interest day after day. I take heart in the courage and voice of ordinary people who speak up, speak out, and will help hold our elected leaders accountable. Unnamed though they be, these are the profiles in courage that inspire and give me hope. They (we) are the counterweight to cowardice.

Jessica Paterson/Flickr

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  • Chuck U. Farley

    No, the democRATS killed the important legislation by refusing to work on ANYTHING other than their private slush fund bill.
    For your information, the short session is NEVER supposed to be about introducing new bills, it is about fixing issues with budgets and existing bills.
    You disgusting TRAITORS in the democRAT party all need to be in prison for being domestic terrorists!

  • Robyn Rymel

    To the writer. Your ignorance and bias is appalling. These legislators are standing up for our rights and doing what we the people asked them to do. It’s people like you, that only see what you want to see. We have tried to reason with Kate Brown. She eill not put things to a public vote because she knows it will be shut down. She is a bully of the worst kind and you are feeding her and the evil minions that she leads. Do your research! Nothing can stop climate change. Do you remember when they said we had a hole in our ozone layer we’re all going to die (well you’re probably too young) but yet here we are because the Earth has a miraculous way of healing itself money cannot fix climate!!!!!

  • Bend_Girl

    My family of rural ranching, farming, and geo-spatial science members 100% stand behind our HONORABLE Republican Representatives and Senators….. Cap and Trade is about more taxes on lower and middle class Oregon TAXPAYERS. Shame on you and the total lack of utilizing objectivity and observation of all scientific facts when it comes to global warming… You and your colleagues are pushing UN Agenda JUNK science and hope you will be held financially, professionally, and socially accountable for the fear and harm you have caused.

  • Sherry

    In NO way would I call these Republicans “cowardice”. They have a job to do for their constituents and if they aren’t being allowed or LISTENED too, then their only recourse was to “walk”. Yes, these people are voted in to take care of the people of Oregon and we trust them to do it, but when one side is being staunchly stubborn, digging in their heels and again, not listening, does the other side just give up and let their constituents down? No! they don’t. This proposed SP 1530 was a total mess. It may have been worked on for the last 10 years, but looks like it needed 10 more. Oregon is not in a climate “emergency” and we do not abuse our state! As far as other bills not being addressed, because the Republicans walked (which I wholeheartedly SUPPORT), I would say is the Governor’s fault. She could have addressed the other bills that were up, first, and then addressed SP 1530. The Democrats knew there was a chance of a walk out, but still chose to handle it the way they did. Who’s fault is that? Why won’t they let the voters vote on it? Yes, you are entitled to your opinion, but I am also entitled to mine and your blog article is “rude” and you may want to gather more information from both sides of the story. As far as I am concerned you owe these men and women an apology! They are “doing the job they were asked to do” and should not be referred to as “cowardice” for doing it…

  • Debi Kelly

    How about Oregon’s citizens vote on such things…. this is not Califoregon!

    Elected officials are elected to govern, not rule. Your “article” is worthless!

  • Gene Gradwohl

    Did you know that over 30 amendments the Senators made were voted down with little or no discussion?
    Or that the Democrats own financial experts could give no estimates if the financial impact of this bill?
    Or that transparency was forbidden? The text of this bill wouldn’t allow Oregonians to know who bought credits, who sold them or the prices paid.
    Or the “consessions” offered were only temporary?
    Or that Oregon’s global carbon contribution amounted to 0.14%. Abounding error equal to $1.40 of $1000?
    Or that there was an “emergency” status arrarched to the bill that made it almost impossible to petition against it?
    Or the only real demand the Senators made was to refer this to the ballot so Oregonians could decide their own future?
    My guess is that the writer had no idea of the many serious flaws in this bill. If it was known and wrote it anyway is too shameful to contemplate

  • Teri Ottosen

    The Republicans are doing EXACTLY what we asked them to do. Polls show that greater than 90% of Oregonians believe this should go to the voters. The current administration is trying to cram this down the throats of the voters who DO NOT want it in their state. You obviously got your information from a one sided source. Please do your research and obtain information from both sides of the voters before spewing your misinformed venom.

  • Steve Hecker

    Op-Ed from Eugene Register-Guard today on this topic:

    The opponents of the Oregon cap and trade legislation who claim not to be climate deniers offer no alternative proposals to address climate change except that loggers and farmers are the true stewards of the land. The voodoo math they employ counts carbon sequestration in newly planted trees but somehow ignores the carbon releases involved in logging, road building, and decomposition of what’s left behind after clearcutting. It’s an excellent example of the disinformation this post addresses.