Sen. Tom Udall's Lonely Climate-Change Crusade

The New Mexico senator is determined to warn America about climate change. But as Eleanor Clift reports, the political climate is clearly stacked against him.

04.28.11 10:40 PM ET

Serious legislation to combat climate change is dead for now on Capitol Hill, but that doesn’t stop Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) from sounding the alarm whenever he can. Concern about the environment is in his DNA.

His father, Stewart Udall, a pioneering conservationist, was President Kennedy’s interior secretary, and instilled in his six children a love and respect for the outdoors. Before entering political life, Tom Udall worked as an instructor taking people on monthlong trips, mountain climbing, hiking, and fishing. He has a reverential feeling for the planet. At a recent Washington event, he described his realization that the great balance between man and nature that he had grown up believing was entrusted to a higher being—and fear that this way of life was threatened, overwhelmed by greenhouse gases so voluminous that “man is now in charge of the thermostat for the globe.”

Udall wants anybody who will listen to understand the implications of climate change in his state, and throughout the Rocky Mountain Southwest. He asks people to imagine New Mexico on a computer screen, then click on the mouse and move the state 300 miles south to recognize the impact of a warming climate on water supply when the snow packs in the north of the state disappear, the forests dry out, and agriculture crops can’t survive. Computer models, he says, show a temperature rise in the region twice what the rest of the U.S. will experience in 50 years, with New Mexico essentially becoming like the Chihuahuan Desert. “If you have that passion for the land, you don’t like what you see coming,” he says. “So part of my desire to get into public life was to see if I could do something about it.”

Not since Al Gore made a splash with An Inconvenient Truth has Washington heard a politician so impassioned about global warming. Udall is not as apocryphal, or as sanctimonious, as Gore. He sticks to computer models and avoids overly sweeping statements that might set an opponent’s teeth on edge. After hearing Udall speak at a salon dinner hosted by former ambassador to the U.N. Esther Coopersmith, Jerry Jasinowski, a business consultant and former head of the National Association of Manufacturers, said: “I’m certainly not where he is, but he made a terrific presentation and a strong case.” Jasinowski told The Daily Beast that a decade ago he thought the global-warming crowd was overstating the case, but that evidence both scientific and anecdotal since then has persuaded him that Udall’s warnings cannot be dismissed.

A youthful and fit 62, Udall is not all gloom and doom—more like genetically earnest. He is confident the business community will find marketplace solutions to address climate change if government will do three things: Put a price on carbon, set renewable-energy standards for power companies, and adopt long-term tax incentives for fledging industries like wind, geothermal, and biomass. Sounds easy enough, but the politics in Washington are not friendly to climate-change initiatives. Republicans are opposed to legislative solutions, and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin won his Senate seat by shooting the cap-and-trade bill in a TV ad.

“Man is now in charge of the thermostat for the globe.”

With congressional action effectively sidelined, climate-change advocates are turning to the Environmental Protection Agency to exercise its power to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. The Senate this month defeated an amendment offered by GOP leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that would have taken that authority away from the EPA. The vote was 50-50, hardly a rousing endorsement. Looking at what Udall is up against, Matt Bennett of Third Way, a moderate Democratic group, says, “He’s enormously impassioned about climate change. The question is: Is he shouting into a hurricane at the moment?”

At a recent congressional hearing on climate science, one of the featured witnesses, J. Scott Armstrong, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, challenged the computer models that Udall and others cite as evidence of what will happen if greenhouse gases are not curbed. Armstrong told The Daily Beast that he doesn’t know a lot about climate change, but as an expert forecaster, he finds “a high degree of uncertainty” in the information used to predict a significantly warming planet. “They’re not forecasts; you could call them possibilities,” he says, adding that because climate is always changing throughout history, he’s not worried and sees no need for Hill action. Armstrong invited Gore to join him in a “Global Warming Challenge” on likely temperature changes, but the former vice president declined to accept the wager. The results initially tracked on Armstrong’s website don’t favor Armstrong, but he says he’s certain he’ll be vindicated 100 years from now.

Udall says there will always be the occasional outlier, but the science is strong and getting stronger even as the political resistance hardens. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is the latest in a lengthening list of Republican politicians who question whether climate change is a problem, or should be seen as anything other than a natural phenomenon. Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, even Sarah Palin, are among those who challenge the science they once embraced as it becomes more politicized.

For Udall, this is an issue that he traces back to his pioneering Mormon great-grandfather. His sprawling family, the product of plural marriages in earlier generations, has been elected to office in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Oregon, and Utah. His first cousin, Mark Udall, is a senator from Colorado. His uncle, the late Arizona congressman Morris “Mo” Udall, ran for president in 1976. A second cousin, Mike Lee, was elected last year to the Senate from Utah. The Udalls are often called the Kennedys of the West because of their strong tradition of public service. Despite the long odds against him on his signature issue, Udall remains upbeat. He quotes Churchill as saying, “Government always does the right thing, usually after all else fails.”

Eleanor Clift is a contributing editor for Newsweek. Follow her on Twitter.