Saturday, January 30, 2010

More tenacity needed in climate change debate

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., told Americans last week to “get angry” about climate and clean energy legislation.

Similarly, in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address, we heard that he was angry and that American citizens are angry, too. The anger revolves around jobs.

But Obama talked about more than just jobs. He reiterated his commitment to passing climate and clean energy legislation in 2010, and he put the blame for legislative deadlock squarely on Congress.

Yet the blame for inaction also belongs with American citizens. Kerry has served in the Senate for many years, and he may be on to something by telling to us to stop sitting around.

Anger is a tricky tactic. It is an appeal to populism that sometimes backfires. But when it comes to climate and clean energy legislation, anger is both a good tactic and a justified position.

Anger makes politicians take note and take action. The so-called Tea Partiers have made themselves heard. Some might not take them seriously, with Chuck Norris waxing and frothing patriotic, but they are influencing public opinion. Pundits and politicians alike have used the modern-day Tea Party movement to support claims that the American people—the very same people who voted Obama into office—now strongly oppose Democrats’ progressive agenda.

However, despite Tea Partiers’ celebrity status in the news, their views form a minority of public opinion. Their treatment in public discourse draws parallels to electric utility companies that have also created a powerful yet patently false lobbying effort, orchestrating protests in sports arenas by arranging buses for their employees, handing them placards and inviting the media.

Progressive Democrats in favor of climate and clean energy legislation also need to channel their anger effectively. “I want you to go out there and start knocking on doors and talking to people and telling people, ‘This has to happen!’” Kerry said. He knows politicians respond to threats, especially when their own careers go face-to-face with a public opinion firing squad. But will people heed Kerry’s call to arms?

Conservative critics paint an unflattering stereotype of elite progressives, saying they are self-satisfied college graduates clinging to their stable jobs. Do they get angry? No, the stereotype goes, their position in society puts them above rolling economic turmoil.

Anger is more than a political tactic. In the context of climate and clean energy legislation, anger is also a justified position. The pending cap-and-trade legislation promises jobs and an improved economy. Indeed, the name of the draft bill, sponsored by Kerry and supported by Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act.

While Republican and industry opponents of the bill argue that it will fail to deliver more jobs, supporters have already mapped out tangible benefits and real strategies. The Apollo Alliance and the Blue Green Alliance, for example, have built large, bipartisan coalitions uniting clean energy with American manufacturing. And last week, three UW-Madison professors published a paper highlighting the immense public health benefits to be gained from taking action on air pollution.

Also last week, a rogue Republican pollster published a report with the Environmental Defense Fund arguing that the least popular part of climate change legislation is actually climate change itself. The ‘Death of Environmentalism’ essay said the same inflammatory thing in 2004. At the time, it was heretical. But today, the report argues, the American people will only respond to promises for jobs, health and the economy.

Progressives possess strong evidence that comprehensive climate and energy policy benefits American citizens. With such a strong case, the current deadlock in the Senate is enough to make anyone upset. The question is, can supporters of climate and energy legislation get angry?

Danny Spitzberg and Stephen Collins are master’s students in environmental studies and public affairs, respectively. Please send responses to opinion@dailycardinal.com.

(This article was originally published in the Daily Cardinal)

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