Political Climate

What does the financial crisis mean for greens?

In the last two presidential debates, Barack Obama has twice said that solving America’s energy and environmental problems would be his administration’s top priority, regardless of what state he found the economy in when he arrived in office. John McCain, too, has said that we can fix the energy crisis and prevent climate change even while putting the financial system back on an even keel. But is the candidates’ optimism really justified?

According to a new Rasmussen poll, 48 percent of voters say there’s a fundamental contradiction between environmental policy and economic growth; essentially, half of Americans now believe we can’t have both a sound environmental policy and a strong economy. And let’s be honest: with the Dow in the doldrums and foreclosures still spreading like a rash, it’s pretty obvious which of the two options voters would prefer their leaders to prioritize.

European greens are already feeling the fallout from the financial crisis: the EU’s plans to limit carbon emissions are faltering, with automakers pushing hard for a timeout and saying that global economic turmoil means the proposed limits are too burdensome. “You can't pile on regulation on an industry during its worst time in the last 10 years,” declared Fiat chief executive Sergio Marchionne.

That message is playing well on this side of the Atlantic, too: during the most recent round of congressional debates over climate legislation, Republicans won the day by abandoning their old strategy of criticizing climate science, and instead arguing that taking action to solve global warming would have disastrous economic consequences. The current financial crunch guarantees that we’ll be hearing that argument again and again in coming months - and that it’ll find a receptive audience among American voters.

The tragedy is that both Obama and McCain are right: it’s perfectly possible to take action on both energy and climate change without breaking the bank. There’s a growing realization, in Washington and in the environmental community, that energy policy isn’t a zero-sum game: embracing green technologies brings efficiency savings and countless green jobs, and will eventually end America’s expensive addiction to foreign oil. But it’ll take foresight, responsibility and strong leadership to make that happen; and if there’s one thing the economic crisis has already proven, it’s that those commodities are in rather short supply.

Obama beats McCain on energy

Ever since John McCain first flip-flopped on off-shore drilling, he and his supporters have been trying to frame the climate debate in terms of energy independence. They've done a pretty remarkable job; their petro-populism may sound like vapid Big Oil cheerleading to diehard greens, but it’s played well with middle America and has forced Democrats firmly onto the back foot. At last night’s presidential debate, though, the momentum shifted.

John McCain started off by hitting a bum note, answering a question about the financial crisis by talking about domestic drilling. "I have a plan to fix this problem, and it's got to do with energy independence," he said. "We've got to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don't like us very much.” It was an odd note to strike: few Americans believe that oil imports are the root cause of the economic meltdown, so McCain’s awkward segue risked making him seem out of touch and oil-obsessed.

And the Republican candidate continued to flounder when asked directly about his plans to tackle climate change. “What's the best way of fixing it? Nuclear power,” he said, perhaps a little too cavalierly. “Build a whole bunch of them! Create millions of new jobs!” McCain went on to mock Obama's reservations about nuclear power: “Senator Obama says that it has to be ‘safe’ or ‘disposable’ or something like that.” The trouble is that rightly or wrongly, most Americans are queasy about nukes; few voters are as ready as McCain to scoff at the idea that nuclear energy needs to be “safe”.

On top of that, McCain’s math doesn’t pass muster. Rather than millions of new jobs, the 45 new nuclear plants he’s proposed would create just 35,000 permanent new jobs. (Another 190,000 temporary jobs would be created during the construction process.) Worse, his new nukes would do little to solve the climate crisis: scientists have calculated that it would take almost 5,000 new nuclear plants merely to hold global carbon emissions at their current levels, so McCain’s 45 plants would be merely a drop in the ocean.

In response, Obama blasted McCain’s lack of vision, criticizing his repeated votes against alternative fuels and driving home the point - which can’t be made often enough - that America simply doesn’t have the oil reserves to drill her way out of the current energy crisis. Instead, Obama promised a transformative JFK-style moon-shot, saying he’d make energy his administration’s top priority and pour resources into a broad-based energy platform encompassing everything from oil and nuclear to solar, wind, geothermal and energy efficiency.

Judging by the insta-polling and focus group responses, Obama’s message hit home. That could play an important role in shaping the energy debate in the last few weeks of the 2008 presidential race: Democrats now know that it’s perfectly possible to score points against Republicans on energy policy; and the McCain camp know they’re going to need more than just another chorus of “drill, baby, drill” if they want to claw their way back into contention.

VP debate: Polar opposites

The bar had been set so low for Sarah Palin ahead of last night’s vice-presidential debate that she probably scored points with some observers simply by showing up. Still, she won’t have won over many greens with a performance in which she repeated her previous, flawed answers on environmental issues almost verbatim - and got roundly taken to task by her opponent, Joe Biden.

Once again, Palin said that she has climate expertise because she comes from “the nation's only Arctic state”. (Apparently she can see the polar icecap melting from her window.) She also repeated her frankly odd line about being unwilling “to attribute every activity of man to the changes in the climate” - a misspeech which begs the question, what exactly is it that climate change is making us all do?

More seriously, the Alaskan governor regurgitated her ludicrous claim that global warming can be explained by cyclical weather patterns, and that, aw shucks, the causes of climate change don’t really matter anyway. “I don't want to argue about the causes,” she said. “I want to argue about how are we going to get there to positively affect the impacts.” Joe Biden responded with one of his strongest lines of the evening: “If you don't understand what the cause is, it's virtually impossible to come up with a solution,” he said. “We know what the cause is. The cause is manmade. That's the cause. That's why the polar icecap is melting.”

Probably more damaging for the GOP ticket in the long run was Biden’s success in linking Palin’s climate denial to her running-mate's obsessive-compulsive cheerleading for Big Oil. “John McCain has voted 20 times against funding alternative energy sources and thinks, I guess, the only answer is drill, drill, drill,” Biden said. “Drill we must, but it will take 10 years for one drop of oil to come out of any of the wells that are going to begun to be drilled. In the meantime, we're all going to be in real trouble.”

Staggeringly, given her pretensions to energy expertise, the only response Palin could come up with was a tired rendition of “Drill, baby, drill” and a claim that John McCain would back “alternative” sources like, erm, “the nuclear, the clean coal”. That doesn’t inspire much confidence, especially since Palin can’t even pronounce nuclear. (At the RNC, they actually had to spell it out for her as “new-clear” on the teleprompter display.)

For the McCain camp, there's one obvious solution to all this: ditch Sarah Palin and draft Tina Fey. The Saturday Night Live star apparently has about as much real-world expertise in energy and climate policy as John McCain's current running-mate, and might just give us fewer unintentional laugh lines along the way.

Arnold terminates green laws

Arnold Schwarzenegger has had a busy week. With the deadline for the 2008 legislative session looming, California’s “green governor” has been ploughing through a backlog of legislation submitted for his approval by the state legislature; on Tuesday alone, Schwarzenegger signed or shot down a whopping 300 bills. (There’s no word yet on how many pens he went through along the way.)

The flurry of activity brought mixed results for California’s greens. On the one hand, the Gubernator gave the green light to a landmark plan to prioritize funding for transport projects that reduce urban sprawl and limit commute times. It’s a long-term plan, but one that could have a big impact as California’s cities grow - and, if it takes off, could provide a model for sustainable growth across the US.

On the other hand, Arnold allowed a disappointing number of other environmental measures to fall by the wayside. In signing California’s long-overdue budget, the governor Tippexed out $3.1 million in funding for the state’s Department of Fish and Game to protect salmon, steelhead and a range of other endangered and threatened species. Gov. Schwarzenegger also nixed a law that would have banned toxic chemicals from food packaging, instead opting for an industry-backed package of “green chemistry” laws that critics say is too bureaucratic and leaves too many loopholes open for corporate polluters.

Worst of all, Schwarzenegger scrapped proposals that would have imposed a “pollution tax” on all cargo entering California’s deep-water ports. It’s unclear what role Sarah Palin’s personal call for the measure to be dropped played in Schwarzenegger’s decision to veto the bill; either way, dropping the plan cuts off a significant source of new funding for clean air activities, and will do nothing to curb the 3,700 deaths a year currently attributed to emissions from freight transportation.

Greens can take some consolation from the fact that Arnold wasn’t specifically singling out environmental legislation for the red-pen treatment. Rather, these measures were collateral damage in the Governor’s ongoing feud with the California’s lawmakers; over the course of the 2008 session, Schwarzenegger vetoed a whopping 35 percent of the 1,200 bills that crossed his desk. Still, let’s hope Arnold and the Cali legislature resolve their differences post-haste; the longer this kind of legislative-executive deadlock is allowed to continue, the harder it’ll be for the Golden State to maintain its reputation as America’s green pioneer.

The Palin problem

In even-yet-another woefully inept interview with Katie Couric, Sarah Palin has managed to raise fresh doubts about her environmental credentials - no mean feat for a candidate who’s already denied global warming, fought against polar bears and sought to block a bid to reduce lethal emissions from ocean shipping. Here's an excerpt: 

Couric: What's your position on global warming? Do you believe it's man-made or not?

Palin: Well, we're the only Arctic state, of course, Alaska. So we feel the impacts more than any other state, up there with the changes in climates. And certainly, it is apparent. We have erosion issues. And we have melting sea ice, of course. So, what I've done up there is form a sub-cabinet to focus solely on climate change. Understanding that it is real. And …

Couric: Is it man-made, though in your view?

Palin: You know there are - there are man's activities that can be contributed to the issues that we're dealing with now, these impacts. I'm not going to solely blame all of man's activities on changes in climate. Because the world's weather patterns are cyclical. And over history we have seen change there. But kind of doesn't matter at this point, as we debate what caused it. The point is: it's real; we need to do something about it.

Palin's initial response is bad enough. She's already claimed that harkening from Alaska gives her expertise on foreign policy (Alaska is near Russia!), energy policy (Alaska has oil!) and national security (erm ... Alaska has oil!); now she wants us to believe that running America's northernmost state for two years is all the preparation she needs to solve the global climate crisis.

But it's Palin's follow-up that really grates. The would-be veep argues that planetary warming is due to cyclical weather patterns - a discredited theory that utterly fails to explain the changes we're currently experiencing. She also argues that whether she's right or wrong "kind of doesn't matter", because hey, at least she admits that there's a problem. That's nonsense, of course; our assessment of the causes of climate change dictates the solutions we adopt. If we don't accept that our smokestacks and car exhausts caused climate change, why should we bother cleaning up our act?

It’s obvious that John McCain, a climate realist, picked Palin out of political necessity rather than ideological kinship. Still, it says something about McCain’s priorities that he’s permitted the Alaskan governor to continue trotting out this kind of climate-denying tosh. The bottom line is that if the battle against global warming were a real priority for the Arizona senator, he would have ordered Palin to stay on message. McCain may not share his running-mate’s views, but neither does he care enough to set her right.

Previous Page
Next Page

Issue 25

Sign up for Plenty's Weekly Newsletter