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Former bipartisan Senator offers AGU scientists reasons for optimism on working with Congress … but also points to stiff obstacles needing to be overcome.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA., DEC. 9, 2013 — Former Maine Republican Senator Olympia Snowe brought her wisdom from decades on Capitol Hill to an AGU audience, saying it’s “a question of political capacity and will” and not of sound science that has blocked action in the U.S. Congress on climate change issues.

Saying she enjoyed being in the company of an audience she described as consisting of “smart, reasonable people,” Snowe straight-lined that “it’s not that Washington isn’t brimming” with such folks.

Her presentation was both sobering and, in the end, at least mildly hopeful that the fractured and partisan politics of Washington and of the House and Senate could yet be changed. But for the foreseeable future, she acknowledged that the action “has shifted squarely to the regulatory arena” and to Environmental Protection Agency carbon dioxide rulemaking on existing coal-fired power plants.

Days of Compromise, Conciliation Long Gone

‘That was then, this is now,’ Snowe told AGU conference pointing to stiff winds impeding action on Capitol Hill.

“That was then, and this is now,” Snowe told a full conference room audience after relating past successes in overcoming partisan differences to pass meaningful legislation even on controversial issues. She pointed to “a rising chorus” of climate science doubters and to the years-long economic recession as contributing to the malaise. The current Congress is less popular with the American public than root canals, she said.

“Science can still be a determinative factor,” Snowe told her audience, but she pointed to built-in political hurdles — such as the few truly competitive seats in House and Senate elections and congressional districting shenanigans that favor the extremes. Pointing to her own previous legislative battles in support of climate science and climate change policy programs, she told an appreciative audience of scientists that “your voice really does matter.”

Yet she advised that “so much has dramatically changed” in Washington since her days when Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals in the end could come together, settle on compromises, and act on important issues. “There are plenty of incentives in the political arena to divide,” she said, cautioning that a vocal minority is often more effective in shaping or blocking action than a vastly larger, but non-vocal, majority. She pointed to recent congressional inaction on background checks on firearms as an example.

But it’s important to appreciate that “there’s no monopoly on good ideas,” Snowe said, and “I learned from those with whom I differed.”

Snowe pointed to what she said is a dearth — even an absence in the Senate — of Republican members more liberal than the most conservative Democrat … and of Democrats more conservative than the most liberal Republican. She said the current Congress is on track to pass far less legislation than any in modern history.

“We need to make Congress the solution-driven powerhouse it once was, and we can do it,” she urged the audience. She replied to a question from the audience by saying that marshaling 20,000 scientists to gather in Washington in support of action on climate change would send a loud message to legislators.

“Your voice does matter,” she said, and the climate of polarization in Washington “can still change.”

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