The “canary in a coal mine” is a metaphor originating from the time when caged birds were carried into the mines as an early warning system; the canary would die before methane, and carbon gases reached levels hazardous to humans.
This column, like others in the Canaries in the Coal Mine series, is intended to raise early warnings of dangers that might be lurking beyond the immediate attention of clean energy advocates and climate defenders. Today’s tale continues the discussion about the 2018 midterm elections and what they could mean for federal clean energy and climate policies and programs. It focuses on the need for the climate and clean energy communities to resist the insularity often bred in this era of hyper-partisanship and to reach across party and ideological boundaries to focus on what various groups agree on and to elevate climate defense and clean energy near to the top of the national priority list.
Don’t miss the beginning of the action items I promised in the first installment. Time’s a’wastin, and there is plenty To-Do today?
Introduction to Part 2
The other evening the President stood before the American people and reported on the State of the Union (SOTU)—as he saw it. Since then, much ink has been spilled over what Trump had to say about ending the war he perceived waged by the Obama administration against America's energy industry and his love for beautiful, clean coal. A comparable amount of spleen has been vented over The Donald’s failure even to mention climate and energy in his vision for America.
Why the outrage? Trump is a self-proclaimed troglodyte; he’s never made an effort to hide his ignorance about the causes and consequences of climate change or his willingness to rent out his soul for a few lumps of coal and a hale and hearty All Praise Be to He. C’mon people, He just levied a tariff against photovoltaic panels manufactured in China, South Korea and elsewhere in the world and sent a delegation to the climate conference in Bonn (COP23) to promote American coal interests.
If that weren’t enough, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, testified before a Senate Committee the very day of Trump’s SOTU about all the environmental regulations the Administration planned to rollback to a time before they were created. Pruitt was flat-out accused by a member of the Committee for waging war on science based on the Administration’s record of its first year “accomplishments.” When another member of the Committee confronted him with a recording of a 2016 radio interview he had given, Pruitt couldn’t remember having said he considered Trump a greater threat to the Constitution than even Barack Obama. He went on to comment that was saying a lot.
Pruitt—just to be safe—acknowledge that if he had said it, he certainly doesn’t think that [same thing] today, at all. Since Scotty’s radio interview, he’s been beamed up to the mothership and given a license, an office, and a soundproof phone booth from which to wage war on science and accomplish administratively what the federal courts said he couldn’t do as the attorney general of Oklahoma.
Why, then, should anyone be surprised by what Trump said or didn't say about climate and energy in his State of the Union (SOTU)? If anyone is deserving of spilled outrage and vented spleen it is the Democrats in Congress.
As is the custom these days, the party not-of-the President is given air time to rebut a president’s view of things. This time the Democratic response was given by five different party members. More accurately, there was one official response by Congressman Joe Kennedy III (D-MA), several more by other party members, and one by Senator Bernie Sanders. The Senator is not even a Democrat. He is one of two Senate Independents who caucuses with the Democrats.[i]
Only three of the five recognized Democratic responses even bothered to mention global warming/climate change[ii]. None of the mentions were more than a couple of lines. There was no Democratic call to arms or declaration of intent to keep climate change before the public as a real actionable priority. Sanders, in his YouTube rebuttal, asked a rhetorical question:
How can a president of the United States give a State of the Union speech and not mention
Respectfully, it is a silly question. Why would this President bother to mention climate change given who he is and the harms being done by the Administration to existing environmental protections and a burgeoning domestic clean energy industry?
Alex C. Kaufman of the Huffington Post wrote the day after Trump’s speech:
The GOP remains the only major political party in the developed world to oppose the widely accepted science behind manmade global warming as a platform issue. Yet Democrats’ criticism has focused more on their opponents’ climate denialism than on policies to drastically curb emissions, leaving the party without any grand vision to address what they routinely call the greatest environmental challenge of a lifetime. A tax on carbon ― the policy proposed by Reagan-era economists and nominally supported by Big Oil ― remains the foremost idea on the table. (see the Climate Leadership Council)
Kaufman has neatly summed up the current state of climate affairs in Capital City.
if the GOP remains the only major political party in the developed world to oppose the conclusions of climate science, then the Democrats must be the only party unwilling or unable to do anything about it. The Democrat’s failure to move aggressively on climate risks rankling their own voters.
Dismayed and disgruntled constituents do not show up to vote. Disappointing its supporters is not the worst of it, however. Democrat’s growing silence has been noticed by the deniers and interpreted to mean climate change is the hoax Trump claims it to be. The Breitbart headline posted the day after SOTU:
It’s Over. Now Even Democrats Give up on ‘Climate Change’ Climate change just officially ceased being an important issue in U.S. politics.
The nearest thing to a proposed federal strategy to combat climate change is a Republican-inspired scheme, recently introduced into Congress by Representative Don Beyer (D-VA) and Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) as the Healthy Climate and Family Security Act. Beyer and Van Hollen are to be commended for their effort. Although the legislation (H.R. 4489/S. 2352) has no Republican co-sponsors nor any chance of being acted upon by the current Congress, it is something, which these days is a lot.
Ironically, the new legislation reflects a previous bill introduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). One of the Senate’s most stalwart defenders of the environment, Whitehouse failed to mention climate in his written statement released in response to SOTU.
Today the national strategy to combat global warming is principally comprised of:
Resistance to dismantling and defunding, though necessary and must be stepped up, is not itself a winning message.
Inconvenient or otherwise, the truth is defense is not enough to win the climate battle.
Resistance and accusatory fingers will not break the on-again/off-again cycle that has come to characterize federal climate and clean energy policy. A cycle that at best maintains the existing federal framework and at worst loses ground as time marches on and the crisis worsens.
The accusations do little more than offer an outlet for opponents to vent and are seen by his supporters—in and out of Congress—as proof of establishment conspiracies and the inability to get over his having captured the presidency.
Not a problem to be solved quickly, global warming must be attended to steadily. Climate change is not a can to be kicked down the road.
The current political environment requires more than resistance and a change of administrations or Congressional majorities. It requires establishing a fundamental connection between the agendas of a broad spectrum of interest groups and climate resilience. A connection not made simply by spouting facts and figures to support the claim the sky is filling. A link that once made will turn into votes in the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential election.
Think of it this way; the clean energy and climate communities are offering evidence in a case yet to be called in the larger court of public opinion. Despite polls showing most people are concerned, when asked, about global warming, environmental pollutants and support clean energy alternatives, voters seem to pay little attention to these issues when deciding which candidates to support at the ballot box.
Climate played some part in the 2016 presidential primaries—probably because of Bernie Sanders. Once it came down to Trump versus Clinton, these issues became just so much background noise—made conspicuous mostly by their absence. A situation that is not unlike today’s broader federal policy debates.
The difference between the federal government’s treatment of climate and clean energy and the private and state and local government sectors was made stark at the November COP23 meeting in Bonn. While the Administration was peddling American coal at least 20 states, 110 cities and more than 1,000 businesses and universities declared support for the Paris Accord and pledging to make good on President Obama’s announced carbon reduction targets.
Even should cities, states, and private industry meet the reduction targets of the Obama administration, there is the question of their capacity to do so over the long-haul. The current level of commitments is insufficient to keep the rise of global temperatures below the required 1.5 to 2.0 degrees Centigrade threshold. Pledged amounts will need to escalate at least through the middle of the century.
The world’s chances to achieve the needed reductions are being made actively worse by Trump. It is not only about having pulled the U.S. out of the Accord. The President has ordered his administration to work against the rest of the world. Trump and company’s Fossil First policies will increase greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) over what would occur under regulatory frameworks like the Clean Power Plan (CPP). Moreover, the rollback of regulations governing discharges of harmful chemicals into water and agriculture lands will stress food production and potable water supplies.
Party affiliation is now the principal determinant of a voter’s position on climate. The relatively even division of the electorate between the parties reflected in recent elections and polls is keeping federal climate and clean energy policies in stasis. A change of Congressional majorities or administrations provides only temporary relief—lasting only until the next election.
To break through the hyperpartisan gridlock at the federal level requires busting through the divisions within the electorate. Traditional information campaigns have not produced the hoped-for results. Any rising concern reflected in opinion polls over the past several years is mostly confined to Democratic voters. Other surveys, e.g., GM/Yale, show a decreasing concern among moderate Republicans and a negative correlation between higher education levels and acceptance of climate science.
According to Cary Funk at the Pew Research Centers:
People’s level of science knowledge influenced their attitudes and beliefs about a number of climate and energy issues but, most often, the relationship was indirect. Political orientations – whether Democrat or Republican – appeared to shape how people integrated science knowledge with their attitudes and beliefs about climate and energy issues.
There is a definite difference between Republican and Democratic attitudes towards the seriousness of global warming. The distinction is not new. Table 1 below illustrates the difference going back to 2010. Although stopping at 2015, nothing much has changed as seen in Table 2. Partisan voters continue to be conflicted over the importance they place on climate and the environment, as of January 2018.
Interestingly environment places much higher on the list of priorities than climate, although the difference between partisans in both instances is over 50 percent. It is probable that the reason for the divergence is environment is thought of in terms of protection from present and known (familiar) harms like lead in water supplies and smog.
It is telling that the connection between environmental threats and their relationship to climate is not being made. Absent the connection between the two; it is not surprising polls also show voters do not consider climate change an immediate threat. (Graph 1)
Even at number seven (7) environmental issues are not high enough on voter priority lists to garner needed action, nor, it seems, even to be discussed by all but a handful of the members of Congress on either side of the aisle. Daily headlines in the popular media primarily focus on terrorism, immigration, healthcare, social security and the economy.
There is no overstating the importance of finding ways to keep 1.8 million Americans brought here rather than born here in their homes. Healthcare, poverty, education, national security, economic justice and opportunity, disaster assistance are all important problems in search of solutions. They are, however, no more imminent in their impact nor essential to the future of the nation than the need to combat climate change.
For there to be any chance of a substantial and stable federal commitment to combatting climate change, voters must claim it as a priority. More importantly, constituents must convey to their elected Senators and Representatives and candidates in the 2018 midterm elections the importance they place on global climate change when casting their ballots.
Elevating climate and clean energy to a stable national priority is not about party politics at the macro-level. Rather, it is about the blocs within the parties. Both the Republican and Democratic parties are themselves divided. It is not possible, as a practical matter, to change either party’s placement of climate on their respective priority lists from the top-down. The change must come from within and from the bottom-up.
There are blocs within each of the parties that either currently claim climate as a priority or could be convinced to elevate it. Moreover, these identity groups have acknowledged leverage during both primary and general elections.
Consider for example the three Democratic rebuttals to SOTU. Senator Sander’s commitment to combat global warming is well-established. Although his immediate response to Trump on climate was brief, he spoke at length the day following SOTU at a conference of environmental and social organizations entitled Fossil Free Fast: The Climate Resistance. (a video of the conference is viewable here) Among the sponsoring groups were:
The three Democratic responders to Trump and his SOTU message reflected identity groups within the party that are more willing to highlight climate issues that the Party itself.
Just as there are groups within the Democratic party, so too are there Republicans in the Party and the Congress who recognize global climate change as the threat to the health and prosperity of the nation that it is. For example, there is the Climate Leadership Council. The Council’s members are the Reagan-era officials Kaufman referred to in his summation (above) of the state of affairs in Capital City.
In the next installment of this series, I will be addressing at greater length points of agreement between various right and left-leaning identity groups. The 2018 midterm Congressional elections offer a great opportunity to break down partisan barriers and to elevate climate change on the priority list of both parties from the inside up.
Until then, I encourage readers to:
[i] The other independent Senator is Angus King (I-ME). There are no Independents in the House.
[ii] The three officially recognized Democratic responses were from Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) on BET, former Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D-MD) speaking on behalf of the Working Families Party, and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
[iii] Programs like the Superfund, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), and multiple science programs at EPA and throughout the federal structure.
Canary image: Pixabay
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.