Sometimes, the only way to uphold the spirit of the laws is to violate their letter. When the dictates of men stray too far from those of God or conscience, the righteous must nullify the former. All decent people have their breaking point. Rosa Parks chose jail over deference to racial segregation. Susan B. Anthony preferred arrest to accepting the denial of women’s suffrage. And the Republican caucus of Oregon’s state senate would sooner run from the police than allow their government to impose a cap on carbon emissions.
On Monday, Oregon’s House of Representatives passed a bill that would establish a steadily falling limit on how much CO2 the state’s transportation, manufacturing, and utility sectors can emit into the atmosphere. Prolific polluters would need to purchase a credit for every ton of greenhouse gas they release, and firms would be allowed to trade such credits with each other. In other words, the bill would make Oregon the second state after California to establish the kind of “cap-and-trade” system that Democrats failed to pass at the federal level during Obama’s presidency.
The legislation was poised to pass the Senate this week. But when it became clear to the Beaver State GOP that it didn’t have the votes to kill the bill in the upper chamber, the party’s Senate caucus went on the lam. As the Oregonian reported Thursday morning:
Oregon Republican senators have left the Capitol and scattered in various directions outside the state in order to avoid being rounded up by troopers for a high-profile climate bill vote scheduled today.
… When Republicans failed to show up on the Senate floor for an 11 a.m. session, Senate President Peter Courtney of Salem asked the sergeant at arms to search the Capitol for the missing lawmakers. That search proved fruitless.
In response to the walkout, Senate President Peter Courtney formally requested Democratic Gov. Kate Brown to dispatch Oregon State Police troopers to round up the missing Republican Senators.
Although Democrats have the votes necessary to pass the cap-and-trade bill over Republican opposition, they do not by themselves have enough senators to meet the quorum required to conduct official business. Oregon will fine the Republican lawmakers $500 per day beginning tomorrow, should they fail to return to their posts. But for the moment, the renegade senators appear intransigent.
“Protesting cap-and-trade by walking out today represents our constituency and exactly how we should be doing our job,” Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. said in a written statement Thursday morning. “We have endured threats of arrest, fines, and pulling community project funds from the governor, Senate president and majority leader. We will not stand by and be bullied by the majority party any longer.”
The caucus’s move is not unprecedented. In 2011, Wisconsin Democrats pulled the same move to obstruct a vote on Scott Walker’s sweeping anti-union agenda. That gambit ultimately failed. Nevertheless, it is remarkable (and a bit darkly comic) that Oregon’s Republicans proved willing to take such extraordinary measures to prevent their state from making some modest effort to mitigate humanity’s steadily deepening ecological crisis.
Which isn’t to say that the lawmakers’ position is entirely irrational or incoherent. By itself, the entire United States does not have the power to prevent global warming from exceeding the target set under the Paris Agreement, due to the high and rising share of emissions coming from China, India, and other developing countries. Oregon’s emissions, meanwhile, are a negligible drop in the global bucket. For a Republican state lawmaker representing a district with a cement plant — or some other carbon-intensive employer that could theoretically relocate if state policy increases their costs — it isn’t crazy to put more weight on the risk of local job losses than on the benefit of making a minuscule contribution to global decarbonization. And some Republicans have been making this appeal to fatalism explicitly. As Oregon Public Broadcasting notes:
Rep. Kim Wallan, R-Medford, joked that the issue had become a matter of the “woke,” who support the bill, versus rural “rubes,” who don’t. She counted herself in the second category.
“Today in Oregon, one of these sides just doesn’t matter,” said Wallan. “The same impulse behind this legislation 30 years ago drove the loggers out of the woods.”
Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, picked up on the theme, noting that Oregon’s impact on global emissions had been called “imperceptible” in a committee hearing on the bill.
“For those of you in the woke community, that’s called nothing. Zero. Cannot be measured,” McLane said.
Of course, the hope is that once Oregon implements the law — and continues to enjoy sound economic growth, as at least one government forecast projects — other states will follow its example, and this will build momentum for action at the federal level, which could in turn foster reforms at the global one. And anyhow, if Oregon Republicans were earnestly concerned about the insufficiency of state-level responses to climate change — rather than merely indifferent to threat of ecological collapse — they presumably would not belong to a political party that is working to obstruct climate action at all levels of government, from local to international.
The current state of climate change policy should inspire audacious acts of civil disobedience, just not the kind that Republicans are willing to engage in.