10 members of Congress who actually get sustainable business

10 members of Congress who actually get sustainable business

Could the sun finally be setting on Capitol Hill's reluctance to acknowledge the economic positives that can accompany sustainability?

President Barack Obama last week devoted a good chunk of his State of the Union address to talking economics — particularly as it relates to recent positive job reports. The president also notably weighed in on climate change, stating that no other challenge poses a greater threat to future generations.

What Obama failed to do was draw a connection between the economy and climate volatility.

The notion that a thriving economy and a sustainable society go hand-in-hand is not a popular one on Capitol Hill, where many legislators maintain that we must sacrifice the latter to realize the former. With Republicans dominating the 114th Congress — and many politicians elected with the help of the $721 million spent by the fossil-fuel industry during the last election cycle — this dynamic seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

But what if sustainable business found a political voice? That could re-shape the cultural norms in Washington that strain the relationship between U.S. business leaders and politicians — or at least the few business leaders speaking out for sustainable policies, who are often met with similarly few policymakers to listen.

A good place to start is to identify forward-thinking members of the Senate and the House of Representatives who are already championing sustainable business policies and leading the charge against environmental threats such as climate change. Here are some of the most notable:

1. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)

The California senator long has been a proponent of sustainable business policies. As chairman of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, Feinstein supports funding for research and development of renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency improvements.

To help reduce emissions from the transportation sector, the senator led a bipartisan effort to pass the Ten-in-Ten Fuel Economy Act, which mandates that fuel economy standards be based on science and increase as quickly as technically possible. To address emissions from the electricity sector, Feinstein has supported the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which proposes state-by-state goals to reduce emissions.

2. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine)

As Maine’s senior senator, Collins voted for a 2007 bill that would require the government to take global warming into account when planning projects. The Republican also worked with former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) to introduce legislation which would have set new standards for transportation and energy and reduced emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

In addition, Collins worked with Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) on a 2009 climate change bill that proposed an alternative to cap-and-trade cutting carbon dioxide emissions. She also voted to preserve Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards to keep renewable and solar power funding, and to elevate the EPA to a Cabinet-level department.

3. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)

The Oregon senator seems to understand the connection between sustainability and a healthy economy. On his website, Merkley wrote: “The carbon pollution in our atmosphere from burning fossil fuels like oil and coal is waging a direct and unchecked assault on our farming, fishing and forests — the cornerstones of Oregon’s rural economy.”

Late last year, the senator helped lead the opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. He also regularly has called for the EPA to strengthen its proposed Clean Power Plan to include even stronger carbon reduction goals.

4. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.)

The junior senator from Illinois has called climate change a "long-term" concern, and supports tax credits for renewable energy while opposing those for oil and gas.

Kirk breaks from his party line on this issue because Illinois has plenty of wind (Chicago is the Windy City, after all), but no oil. This is a perfect example of how the business case for sustainability can trump traditional viewpoints in Congress. 

5. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii)

Hawaiian Sen. Schatz has a long track record of helping to advance sustainable business policies. In his earlier days as a state legislator, he helped establish Hawaii’s Renewable Energy Portfolio and its net energy metering law, which allows electric customers who own renewable energy resources to sell their unused energy back to the electric grid.

As lieutenant governor, Shatz led the Aloha State’s clean energy efforts, including the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, a federal and state partnership to advance renewable energy and energy efficiency in Hawaii — which has become a national model for clean energy growth. Today, he is actively engaged in expanding hydropower and the important role that water plays in energy production.

6. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.)

The New Jersey congressman has been talking about sustainability issues such as global warming for nearly all of his 25 years in office.

Smith sponsored his first global warming-focused legislation back in the 1980s, and in 2009 was one of the few Republicans to vote for the American Clean Energy and Security Act — he cited the sound science behind climate change as a reason.

7. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)

Yet another sustainability advocate from California, Boxer is ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, where she helps advance legislation related to air pollution, environmental policy and environmental research, among others.

Most recently, she spoke on the Senate floor about the economy and urged colleagues to reject the Keystone tar sands pipeline.

8. Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.)

The New York representative said he wants the GOP to "operate in the realm of knowledge and science" and plans to introduce a resolution that will help others “recognize the reality” of global warming.

Gibson said the extreme weather he has witnessed in his upstate New York district supports the science, and he wants to be a leader in encouraging recognition of changing weather patterns. In 2012, he even voted against fracking — one of the few Republicans to do so.

9. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Warren is someone who truly “gets it” when it comes to promoting a more sustainable economy. She is an outspoken critic of subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, and maintains that “if we invest now in a 21st century energy system, over time we can lower the costs of production for all of our businesses.”

The senator would level the playing field for alternative energy sources such as wind, solar and hydropower to make sure they can compete with fossil fuels. Warren is also a major proponent of energy efficiency, saying, “If we commit ourselves to clean energy and energy efficiency now, in the long run we can reduce price swings and lower our overall costs.”

10. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

As a member of both the Environment and Public Works and the Energy and Natural Resources Committees, the Independent senator fights for progressive energy policies and increased environmental protection — he also has been a leading voice on the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition to supporting the president’s Clean Power Act, Sanders recently introduced the Residential Energy Savings Act to provide funding for energy efficiency financing programs that help homeowners and residents invest in retrofits for energy efficiency.

He also was also the architect of new weatherization and energy efficiency finance programs that help homeowners, small businesses and schools access funding for energy efficiency retrofits. Notably, he worked with then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to write the Green Jobs Act, which created a green jobs workforce training program.

Changing the debate

This is by no means a comprehensive list — several more sustainability-minded leaders are in Congress. Dozens of senators and representatives received top marks in the 2013 National Environmental Scorecard (PDF). However, more need to begin making the positive connection between sustainability and business.

There is also reason to hope for a change in the sustainability debate on the horizon — this week the newly Republican-helmed Senate voted overwhelmingly for an amendment to the Keystone XL pipeline legislation which explicitly acknowledged that climate change is real and not a hoax. However, this was after GOP senators rejected wording connecting climate change to human action. But it’s a start — and sustainable business may help to catalyze a more forward-looking discussion.

“We think the business case for action can create some space for Republican members to feel comfortable raising this issue," said Bryan McGannon, policy director at the American Sustainable Business Council.

"There's no doubt it is tough for a Republican member to speak freely about the need to address climate change, but you get a feeling from talking to their staff that there's a recognition that something needs to be done. What we need to do now is find a way to make it safe for Republicans to say, yes, climate change is happening and we need to address it.”