The McConnell microcosm: why it’s hard to change the Beltway

Tan Copsey
3 June 2008

Kentucky's Republican senator Mitch McConnell has come out strongly against proposed climate change legislation at a time when real progress on the issue in Congress seems probable. In a piece written for The Hill he argues that:

Now is the time to be considering, and approving, legislation that would allow Americans to increase energy production within our own borders, and to accelerate the process of moving to clean nuclear energy. Now is the time to do something about $4.00 a gallon gasoline, not something that would cost us $6.00 a gallon gas down the road.

McConnell’s objections are interesting not only because they appeal to populist resentment about gas prices and job-losses, but because as an Appalachian Republican senator up for re-election, McConnell must grapple with the many new challenges facing American lawmakers as they seek to act on this issue.

Despite proclaiming himself the "godfather of green", McConnell has a lifetime score of 7% with the league of conservation voters. He favours building new coal gasification plants in Kentucky, in the face of the significant depletion of coal resources in the region and the severe carbon consequences of continuing to use coal-fired power. It also happens that there are some rather nasty environmental side-effects that come with "Mountaintop removal" - a technique often employed now for the discovery of remaining coal in Kentucky - namely the destruction of ancient hard-wood forests which also act as carbon sinks.

McConnell rightly fears the loss of coal industry jobs and the support of energy companies which have been major political financiers in the region. He is also struggling to outline a specifically conservative position on an issue which southern Republican senators have safely ignored in the past.

It will be interesting to see how successful he is in fostering populist resentment about climate legislation and whether this boosts his chances of re-election in the face of an incoming Democratic congressional tide. Climate change has seemingly come of age as a political issue and is likely to shape the 2008 election in unexpected ways.

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