The great election puzzle: reply to Carl Pope

About the author
James Crabtree is an associate editor of openDemocracy, and a senior policy analyst at NDN, a think tank in Washington DC.

"Global warming and energy policy are the major back-story in the United States's Iraq-focused mid-term elections," even though the story "is easy to miss." So writes the Sierra Club's Carl Pope, in his openDemocracy response on climate change and American democracy to my initial argument on the topic. And he is half right. Energy is everywhere this election season: on the stump, on the evening news and in the increasingly ubiquitous thirty-second ads pouring into American living-rooms. But he is wrong to claim climate change is there too. And we need to figure out why.

My argument was simple. These elections present a great American climate-change puzzle. Fertile conditions - the energy debate itself, gas prices, progressive Californian policies, Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth, overwhelming scientific evidence, and more - should have pushed climate change onto the agenda. They have not. And I claimed, somewhat gingerly, that no one is joining the dots because of the way that Democrats have difficulty talking openly about issues that excite their base.

There is little in Pope's argument to contradict this theory. In fact, he backs me up. His central argument explicitly acknowledges the climate-change puzzle:

"But the collision [between Washington and America] will not occur around global warming per se - it will occur around energy policy, because the linkage between fossil-fuel dependence and global warming greatly intensifies when seen through the lens of all the problems that fossil addiction creates for the United States."

This is politically savvy. You win battles where you stand, not where you might choose to be. And no one expects climate change to get top billing. But shouldn't it be on the bill? On a second glance, isn't Pope's claim even more surprising? If I read him right, the head of America's pre-eminent environmental organisation is claiming that the issue most threatening life on earth might never get on the political agenda. And that should be very worrying for all concerned.

The theme of climate change, energy policy and United States politics is the topic of the openDemocracy exchange between James Crabtree and the Sierra Club's Carl Pope:

James Crabtree, "Getting colder: climate change and America's elections"
(16 October 2006)

Carl Pope, "Climate change and American politics: reply to James Crabtree"
(23 October 2006)

An invisible concern

A closer look clarifies the area of agreement and disagreement between us. Pope claims that "America is moving" even as Washington remains in denial, and that a groundswell of civic and state activism reflects awareness that "global warming is real, serious and imminent."

This suggests that, if I had looked closely, I would have found evidence of concern with the issue in this election. To see if this was right I contacted a researcher for a progressive campaign group who is performing a comprehensive analysis of election advertising in a number of high-profile Senate, House of Representatives and gubernatorial races. He said:

"I haven't seen any ads that mention global warming or climate change by name. That said, many ads talk about energy and the environment, with pictures of trees and wheat-fields and loose talk about our grandchildren. They're getting at the same thing."

So, in one sense, Pope and I agree. If you take all environmental issues as part of the same puzzle, this has been an unusually environmental election. There are more environmentally themed adverts, issue statements, speeches and sound-bites. But few, if any, of them are about global warming.

Pope also notes, quite correctly in my view, a "bottom-up" movement to address climate change, recognising urban and mayoral initiatives to create local energy policies, sign up to Kyoto-ish deals, and pass carbon-reduction bills. I agree, and emphasised developments in California in my original article. All the more surprising, then, that for all this "bottom-up" activity almost no one is mentioning these issues in the elections.

Pope makes a further useful point about money. Candidates are sometimes unwilling to criticise energy suppliers for fear of losing campaign money from their regional US energy supplier. Quite right. But this doesn't explain why candidates are (as Pope says) willing, in full voice, to hammer home the issue of energy policy while ignoring the larger issue of global warming. Indeed, one might expect the opposite: that politicians would emphasise their green credentials on the more amorphous "planetary" question (for which, moreover, many of their corporate supporters could plausibly escape direct responsibility) while evading the concrete and complicating "local" ones. But this doesn't happen. Something else must be at play.

If Pope fails to illuminate this absence, he may also be guilty of underselling his case on energy, in two ways. First, there is a very clear anti-corporate theme in the mid-term elections, something normally fruitful for the environmental movement. Across America politicians are slamming "big business," attacking their opponents for cravenly taking money from "big pharmaceuticals," and generally being in the pocket of corrupt corporations. Especially popular are attacks on "big oil," big oil profits, big gas prices, and big subsidies to oil giants. This all mildly undercuts Pope's notion that American politicians are unwilling to attack potential funders. But more importantly it just adds to the puzzle: people are willing to spend millions attacking oil companies, but they never mention the biggest problem they create.

Second, and more remarkably, Pope could have argued another point - namely that it is isn't just Democrats making these arguments. Take for instance this ad (entitled "our energy future") for Ohio congresswoman Deborah Price. It features a range of pleasing environmental images, makes an explicit link between energy, gas prices and jobs, and promotes "alternative fuels."

The ad expert I spoke to said it was "a reasonable indicator of what energy ads look like." Indeed, it seems standard Democrat fare - were it not for the fact the Price is a Republican. Even more startling the ad is paid for not by the Sierra Club, but by an impeccably pro-business and Republican group, the US Chamber of Commerce.

James Crabtree is an associate editor of openDemocracy, and a senior policy analyst at NDN, a think-tank in Washington DC. He writes in an individual capacity

Also by James Crabtree in openDemocracy:

"The People vs Copyright – a primer"
(30 May 2002) – with Paul Hilder and Bill Thompson

"The Internet is bad for democracy"
(5 December 2002)

"Civic hacking: a new agenda for e-democracy"
(6 March 2003)

It gets stranger. The only story I have seen since writing my original piece that specifically deals with this issue was in the Los Angeles Times on 19 October. Headlined "Evangelicals focus on global warming as campaign issue", it discussed new campaigns by church groups:

"Through ads on Christian radio, sermons from the pulpit, Bible studies, house parties and a documentary film, The Great Warming, Christians will be urged to view protecting the environment as a religious and moral issue every bit as urgent as opposing abortion and gay marriage."

But what sort of progressive politics exist when the Democratic Party doesn't campaign on climate change, but the president of the Christian Coalition and a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals do? What will it take for the Democrats to put the same effort into this issue?

Carl Pope says the "collision" between Washington and America "will not occur around global warming per se." At the moment he is right. But ultimately this gets us nowhere. If they are not made to feel the force of political, popular and democratic concern with the defining issue of the 21st century when they are running for office, elected representatives - even those who run against "big oil" and for "cheaper gas" - will have no mandate and no incentive to tackle climate change in the coming years. Unless we solve the climate-change puzzle, nothing will be done. And all of this should worry Carl Pope more than his article suggests.