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Climate change and American politics: reply to James Crabtree

Carl Pope
22 October 2006

Global warming and energy policy are the major back-story in the United States's Iraq-focused mid-term elections. It is easy to miss, as James Crabtree's article in openDemocracy exemplifies. But once you look, it's everywhere.

The key to understanding America's response to global warming as a political issue is to begin by recognising that the politics of energy at the federal level in the United States remains the politics of regional commodity production. American politicians still see energy as a competition among local economic producers - coal in Appalachia, oil in Texas, hydropower in the Pacific northwest, natural gas and coal in Wyoming, fantasies of oil shale in Utah.

Moreover, American politicians have learned that this regional competition unlocks enormous amounts of the commodity they value most - campaign money. So however ready the public is for action, and however compelling the case for action, there is a powerful countervailing force - the very frame through which both parties in Washington DC see the politics of energy, and the very large amounts of money at stake at election time.

Carl Pope is executive director of the Sierra Club. His blog is here.

Carl Pope is replying to the openDemocracy article by James Crabtree:

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

"Yet the dots remain stubbornly unjoined. Editorial pages ignore the issue. Few politicians mention it, let alone campaign on it. And American's evening viewing is uninterrupted by advertisements featuring floods, melting glaciers or politicians riding husky sleds in the Arctic circle. Indeed, the Sierra Club, an environmental group, seems almost delusional in arguing that 'concern about high gas prices, global warming ... and the influence of Big Oil ... have pushed energy and environmental issues to the forefront of election-year politics.'"

But while Washington clearly doesn't get global warming, the entire landscape of the politics of energy is changing dramatically, as things often do in the United States, from the ground up. Cities and states are, in effect, creating their own energy policies, and in some cases their own foreign policies, to deal with a paired set of recognitions:

  • that global warming is real, serious and imminent
  • that US energy policy, overall, is destructive to the nation's industrial base, economic competitiveness, global security, and environmental health. Worse, US energy policy is so outmoded that it cannot possibly survive the 21st century; if we don't change it soon, we will be playing catch-up with the rest of the world for the next fifty years.

More than 300 American cities, representing a quarter of the population, have signed a pledge to abide by the Kyoto protocol on climate change, which 165 countries around the world have ratified. California and seven northeastern states have joined together to permit carbon-trading with the European Union's system and essentially have adhered to Kyoto themselves.

In addition, California and ten other states have adopted tough carbon-dioxide emission standards for automobiles, essentially forcing the industry to comply unless it can throw these laws out in court. More than twenty states have adopted renewable-energy requirements for their electrical industries - Idaho, the second most Republican state in the country, has banned coal-fired power generation.

Washington is in denial; America is moving; the collision will occur in the mid-term elections on 7 November 2006 and in the presidential and legislative elections in 2008.

A new energy future

But the collision 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. Studies estimate that over-reliance on fossil fuels is costing the US 3 million industrial jobs; oil is the biggest source of our alarming trade deficit; and more and more Americans recognise that our wars in the middle east are the first in history in which we have financed our enemies, and have gone to war because we were financially dependent upon their oil.

The leading pollster Stan Greenberg reports that: "it is critical that voters at the end hear that Democrats want to change things, overcome the partisan bickering, and get important things done; above all else, address energy independence.... It is the one issue that gives people hope we can be more secure, get beyond Iraq, and also have a stronger economy that creates American jobs."

In an unprecedented number of House races, Democrats are going on the air with ads attacking their opponents on energy issues. In Washington's 6th Congressional district, one of the critical swing races, the statement by incumbent Dave Reichert that he is not sure global warming is a real problem has become one of the major defining issue, with his challenger, Darcy Burner, running ads attacking him for his closeness to the oil industry. In another key race, the Virginia 2nd district, challenger Thelma Drake's ads proclaim, "America must break its energy dependence on the middle east. Thelma Drake is working to unlock America's own energy potential and is leading the fight to develop new renewable sources of energy."

In the California 11th congressional district, Richard Pombo, the chair of the House resources committee, is battling for his life against a novice wind-energy entrepreneur whose campaign centers on a new energy future for America.

Also in openDemocracy, a major, continuing debate on the politics of climate change, which includes contributions by environmental writer Bill McKibben, novelist Ian McEwan, US Republican Jim DiPeso , New Orleans filmmaker Jim Gabour, researcher Ian Christie, and activists from India, China and Brazil

A summary and digest of the first part of the debate by its editor, Caspar Henderson, is here

Among our articles:

Simon Retallack, "Ankelohe and beyond: communicating climate change" (17 May 2006)

Camilla Toulmin, "Climate change, global justice: letter to Al Gore" (27 July 2006)

Tom Burke, "Climate change: time to get real" (26 September 2006)

In the California gubernatorial race, incumbent Arnold Schwarzenegger has invested enormously in maintaining his edge as a green on energy issues over his Democratic challenger, Phil Angelides, even though Angelides has the support of environmental groups like the Sierra Club.

In two states, California and Washington, renewable-energy ballot measures have been placed before the voters by environmentalists as a means of bringing voters concerned about energy to the polls; both are being fought with multi-million dollar campaigns by the carbon lobby.

It's easy to misread the American public on global warming, because unlike Europeans, they see it as a part of a larger and very alarming package. But even with Iraq front and centre in the elections, energy security and a new energy future are never far from voters' minds.

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