Years ago one summer, I was editing a column by the Washington bureau chief of a now long-vanished news syndicate. He was skeptical of the federal government in all its phases, so what he had to say surprised me.

The Senate was debating what eventually became the Clean Air Act of 1990, and then-Majority Leader George Mitchell was using all the powers of his office, and his considerable intellectual skills, to get it through the huge number of roadblocks caused by Senate rules.

The columnist wrote — in the midst of a heat wave more intense that any the nation’s capital had yet seen — that he sat by his young son’s bedside nightly, hearing him struggle to breathe because of asthma. For him, the moment for federal action had arrived.

A week later, the Clean Air Act cleared the Senate and became part of the nation’s laws — a monument to good environmental policy with a sound economic basis.

This summer, the nation bakes in unprecedented heat. The Phoenix metro area, with its five million people, has just endured a month in which the temperature hit 110 degrees every single day.

You might think there’d be some response in Washington, but there’s nothing. In a nutshell, this encapsulates the woeful state of our political system, which extends far beyond a former president who won’t accept that he lost the last election and wants “redemption” in the next one.


The last time a serious effort was made to update Mitchell’s herculean effort was 2009, when Democrats had a filibuster-proof Senate majority and what we now call a “trifecta” with the House and the White House. The bill barely made it out of committee, and never received final votes; Republicans took over after the midterm election.

Now, we hear not a murmur about any concerted response to global warming, even though the world’s climate is changing with dizzying speed and it’s clear that without U.S. leadership there will be no effective international response.

It’s now come down to what can be done solely through executive action, which frankly is not much. It amounts to even less now that the conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court has decided that corporate business interests shouldn’t be inconvenienced by a World on Fire — the title of Mitchell’s 1991 book.

The original Clean Air Act was steered to passage in 1970 by another Maine senator with great legislative skills, Ed Muskie. Back then, support for environmental legislation was bipartisan, with liberal Republicans helping overcome corporate lobbying to put the first effective federal regulations on what were then extraordinarily polluting cars and trucks.

By the mid 1960s, Los Angeles and other cities disappeared daily into a brown haze every summer. Congress responded, and California enacted even stricter regulations, which it’s preserved.

Mitchell’s bill addressed multiple objectives, especially the ozone hole created by CFC refrigerants that developed over the Arctic and threatened to expose humans to serious harm from ultraviolet radiation. With assistance from President George H.W. Bush, the world responded so effectively that the hole has dramatically shrunk.


The 1990 law was also highly effective in curbing acid rain and in making further reductions in toxic vehicle emissions. But it did not include any major steps against global warming; Mitchell had just held the first significant congressional hearing with NASA scientist James Hansen the previous year.

Since then, global warming has emerged as the principal environmental threat to life on Earth. Global conferences periodically pledge action, but the actual response, compared with the need, has been pitiable.

We’ve almost forgotten that the Constitution, and its Framers, saw Congress as the supreme governmental power, not the president or the courts. Without good laws, the nation is in jeopardy, and three decades of inaction are coming back to haunt us.

Nine years ago, Mitchell commented on this lapse, calling global warming “one of the great human challenges of our times. The failure to address it in the wake of the overwhelming evidence is alarming.”

What was once alarming has become a looming catastrophe.

Our political campaigns, already in full swing for 2024, focus nowhere on the basic function of Congress: to write good laws that represent the public interest and respond to the real — not made-up — crises of our time.

It sometimes seems hopeless, as if despite whoever we elect the eternal stalemate will go on, but that’s not true.

Here’s a suggestion: Before casting your vote, test your preferred candidate’s commitment to writing sound legislation that will undoubtedly offend powerful interests but must be passed if we are to survive.

Reform has to start somewhere, and contrary to received opinion, it always starts with informed voters demanding action.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: