Please don’t feed the dinosaurs

March 16, 2012

$100 b-b-billion with a B

That’s a low-ball estimate of projected federal subsidies to fossil fuel companies over the next decade.  This does not of course count the costs in blood and treasure for defending oil supplies, the real and mounting costs of climate disruption, or the health impacts associated with fossil fuel addiction — all of them “subsidies” in the sense that the public bears the cost and fossil fuel industries reap the benefits.

It’s like poking ourselves in the eye with a stick.

This has always been the big duh of climate and clean energy policy: How ‘bout we start by ending public giveaways to extremely profitable businesses who will use our money to make the problem worse?

Clean energy reform is hard enough, swimming against the killer tides of free carbon dumping, car-centered development, and oil-soaked politics.  Can we puhleeze stop adding insult to injury by targeting scarce public money toward digging the hole deeper?

What better place for the Congressional “super committee” to start reducing the deficit?  What better way for elected leaders in Washington D.C. to show us who they really work for?

Here’s the letter to super committee Co-Chairs Sen Patty Murray and Rep Jeb Hensarling making the case.

Newt’s win in South Carolina bodes well for climate

March 6, 2012

Relax and work with me here; there’s a point to this perversity….

How to explain the Gingrich resurgence in South Carolina? He harnessed anger and showed strength.

In an editorial, The New York Times calls his appeal to anger “the lowest form of campaigning.”

I disagree. I think the lowest form of campaigning — the deadliest poison coursing through the American body politic — is cynicism.

Now, Newt is the most cynical candidate in the race. This guy has a distinct advantage over Mitt Romney, because he doesn’t have enough shame to feel uncomfortable when he’s lying. (At least Mitt squirms.)

But he didn’t win South Carolina with cynicism. He won it by spraying a righteous can of whup-ass all over CNN debate moderator John King.

And, stunningly, when Rick Santorum accused him of grandiosity, Newt gobbled it up. “This is a grandiose country of big people doing big things.” He crushed his opponents by appealing to, of all things, our bigness!

Never mind that “grandiose” means not big, but “pompous,” “overblown.” Newt’s point was that we as a nation have big things to do. And I take heart from the fact that people will vote for a guy who makes that point, in an era when the scale of our collective vision is spiraling down toward the drain in Grover Norquist’s infamous bathtub.

In the debate Thursday night and in the spin room afterwards, Santorum offered a trenchant political argument about why Gingrich’s “grandiosity” is a liability: Newt will make himself the issue. The Republicans are more likely to win, says Santorum, if they make Obama the issue (i.e, if they campaign against government, if they appeal to cynicism). This is a corollary of the modern political truism: Nobody likes negative campaigning, but it works. I suspect most seasoned political professionals would agree with this assessment.

But in offering this cogent political diagnosis, Santorum sounded more like a campaign strategist than a president. The voters, as it turned out, didn’t want shrewd political tactics from a guy who is squeamish about making himself the issue. They wanted the loud guy, the angry guy, the guy who wants to kick some serious butt and do big stuff.

Santorum’s social conservatism should have given him a distinct edge in South Carolina, yet Newt cleaned his clock as the “not-Mitt” favorite because he projected something of size and ambition and determination.

Look, I’m not here to celebrate the politics of anger. And I’m certainly not here to celebrate Newt. Newt is as cynical as they come. But he won the South Carolina primary by hiding that fact. He won by coming up large and mad. He won by tapping into voters’ hunger for boldness and ambition — even in this case if it’s only ambition to thrash Obama and government. He won big!

My point (finally! obliquely!) is this: I find hope in what South Carolina’s Republican voters just did, because there is no way to tackle global warming in a world of hopeless cynicism, a world of radically diminished expectations.

Many individual climate solutions are small. But the idea of “climate solutions” is void unless we can think big — as big as the problem — and believe that we can act collectively at the appropriate scale.

Anger is not inconsistent with that belief. That Newt Gingrich would harness anger at “the Establishment” to propel his campaign is, of course, the height of hypocrisy. And anger can certainly be used to block solutions at least as easily as it can be channeled to advance them.  But anger, unlike cynicism, is consistent with the scale and determination that we must bring to our civilization’s epic confrontation with the climate crisis.

Cynicism is the right hand of smallness and futility. It is the most potent weapon against climate solutions at scale. And our politics generally celebrates and reinforces it. But something different prevailed in South Carolina.

Notwithstanding the puniness of our politics, voters responded to Newt because they are still hungry for something big. Yes, Newt would surely manipulate that hunger for big bad things (like, say, Newt). But when the hunger dies, there is no hope for big good things, like, say, climate solutions.

Fossil Fuels R Us? America and the Northwest can do better

March 6, 2012

The Center for American Progress kicked off a national discussion on the economic and environmental consequences of fossil fuel exports last week, at an event headlined by Senator Ron Wyden, Congressman Ed Markey, and CAP CEO John Podesta.  You can see the whole event and the presentations on the CAP site here.

Senator Wyden and Congressman Markey talked primarily about LNG exports, while the ensuing panel talked about coal export.  I spoke on the panel, along with;

  • Sara Kendall of  the Western Organization of Resource Councils,
  • Brian Lombardazzi of the Bluegreen Alliance, and
  • Tom Sanzillo, the former Deputy Comptroller of the State of New York, who had some choice words  about the scandalously cozy relationship between federal land managers and the coal industry.

CAP Senior Fellow Tom Kenworthy organized the event and moderated the panel.

Markey’s views on fossil fuel export are captured in “Drill here, sell there, pay more”.  Senator Wyden, who will be the senior Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee next year, says we ought to “call a timeout” on fossil fuel export.  He is developing a framework for evaluating the policy merits of fossil fuel export, focusing on impacts to American consumers, national security, energy security, and environmental impacts.

My presentation focused on the economic futility of coal export, and the threat it poses to the brand and identity of the Northwest as place that reaps economic advantage from innovation, quality of life, and clean energy.  This stark contrast between coal export and the region’s economic identity is obvious on its face in places like Bellingham.    In a terrific NPR story on the coal export battle in Bellingham, community activist Julie Trimingham memorably said:

“It’s almost inconceivable that there would be a plan afoot to change this part of the world to a coal export facility. It seems ironic or cruel, or misguided at best.”

You might think that Longview Washington would be less attached to clean development, and more receptive to coal export.  But even there, the community and its economic development leaders share a vision that that cannot be reconciled with coal export.  The Cowlitz County Economic Development Council has adopted a Strategic Plan called “The Turning Point”, with the following vision statement:

“Cowlitz County will transition from a natural resource dependent economy, embrace higher value projects, and raise its profile within a broader regional market.”

Coal export would be doubling down on the dirtiest for form of natural resource dependence, embracing the lowest value project, and forever branding itself as a regional backwater.

I ended my presentation with something like:

“So here is our choice.  It’s a choice about economic strategy, and ultimately a choice about what kind of future we intend to build.

Will we stand on the banks of the Columbia River and watch ships leaving America with coal bound for Asia, passing ships coming in from around the world carrying wind turbines and solar panels and flat screen TVs?

In the Pacific Northwest, we have already staked out an economic strategy that capitalizes on our competitive advantages in innovation, quality of life, and a long legacy of leadership in clean energy.

Coal export would be a dramatic reversal of that strategy.  Marketing fossil fuel dependence and accelerating the climate crisis is not our niche; it’s not our “value-add”;  it’s not who we are.  We can do better, and we plan to.”