The margin was narrow -- 4 percentage points. And 5 percent of those polled didn't choose sides. But a CBS News/NY Times poll released Sunday just might signal the moment when Americans began to grasp the intertwined realities of climate, energy and national security. The poll [PDF] found that 49 percent of Americans think suspending the gasoline tax this summer is a bad idea, while 45 percent approve of the plan (see Question 49). If memory serves, this is the first time in at least a generation that the American public expressed a willingness to be taxed more rather than less for energy.
Calling all greens: Barack Obama, battling to remain the front-runner in the Democratic presidential primary, this weekend took on the most sacred cow in American politics: cheap gas. Campaigning in Indiana, Obama distanced himself from the gas tax "holiday" proposed by Sen. John McCain, saying it may not bring down prices and would require raising other taxes to pay for highway maintenance. "The only way we're going to lower gas prices over the long term is if we start using less oil," Obama said in Anderson. McCain pounced, saying through a campaign spokesman that "Americans need strong leadership that can deliver lower gas prices and a healthier economy, not Barack Obama's inexperience and indecision." Obama's Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, did likewise, unveiling a new ad calling for suspension of the gasoline tax -- a proposal first advanced by McCain on April 15. As U.S. political campaigns go, the contrast between McCain-Clinton's playing the gas-tax card and Obama's brave clarity couldn't be clearer.
A friend once described Nantucket Sound as a body of water surrounded on three sides by money. The outcome of the six-year-long effort to use a small part of that water to house a 130-turbine, 468-megawatt wind farm -- still the largest proposed renewable-energy project in the eastern U.S. -- will help determine whether we, as a nation, are serious about confronting the climate crisis. The federal agency in charge of the formal review of the Cape Wind project, the Minerals Management Service, is receiving public comments through Monday, April 21. It's the last opportunity for ordinary citizens to outshout the Kennedys and other plutocrats who would rather keep subjecting Cape Cod waters to oil tanker spills than sully their viewsheds with matchbox-sized spinning blades (which is how they'll appear from land). The Cape-based citizens group Clean Power Now ("It's not the view, it's the vision") has an e-mail form you can fill out in a few seconds to register your support. If you prefer to compose your own message, use this form from the project developers, Cape Wind. That's how I beat the deadline with my comments, below.
The carbon tax camp lost a powerful congressional voice yesterday when Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) announced he was taking "off the table" the hybrid carbon tax proposal he floated last fall that featured a national carbon fee, supplemental increases in taxes on gasoline and aviation fuel, and a reduction in the mortgage interest deduction for super-large houses. In a prepared statement, the Michigan lawmaker, who for much of his 54 years in Congress has chaired the House Energy & Commerce Committee, reiterated that "economists and other experts continue to inform us that a carbon tax is the most effective and efficient way at getting at the problem of global warming." Dingell also noted that his online poll query, "Do you approve of the idea of a carbon tax?," earned a "Yes" from 61 percent of the 2,900 respondents. In his statement, which was first reported yesterday in The Hill, Dingell pointed to rising gas prices and the gathering recession, saying, "Times have changed; our economy has taken a hard downward turn and now is not the time for us to put any additional financial burden on the working families of Michigan or this nation." The irony is that a revenue-neutral carbon tax would not act as a drag on economic activity, since the return of the tax revenues to Americans via tax-shifting or dividend rebates would fully offset the higher costs of fuels and energy.
John McCain has a brilliant, original idea: Let's encourage Americans to drive more by lifting the gas tax for a summer "holiday." Presumably it's the same principle as the "surge" in Iraq: so many soldiers are getting killed, let's send even more! Here are some guaranteed effects from McCain's brainstorm. It would: Deepen the federal deficit, thereby weakening the dollar. Increase gasoline consumption, in one stroke worsening highway gridlock, compounding U.S. oil dependence, and speeding up global warming. Transfer what used to be tax revenue -- potentially usable for public benefit -- to the oil companies and the Saudis by pushing up oil demand. Terrific, eh? McCain could drive to a gas station, perhaps in a jumpsuit with a padded crotch, stand surrounded by Uzi-toting Blackwater thugs while a parade of Hummers top off their tanks, and proclaim Surge II a success.
Photo: Tom Twigg Albany strikes again: congestion pricing -- the smartest urban-transportation idea since the subway -- has been buried by the professional morticians of the New York State legislature, led by Chief Ghoul Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. As previously reported, the pricing plan, proposed a year ago by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and subsequently improved by a 17-member state-mandated commission, would have charged an $8 entry fee on cars driven into Manhattan's central business district (CBD) during 6 a.m. - 6 p.m. on weekdays. Benefits included an annual $500 million revenue stream for mass transit (sufficient to bond at least $5 billion in capital improvements), a solid if unspectacular drop in traffic gridlock and pollution, and, perhaps most significantly, a first step toward knocking the automobile off its privileged perch atop the New York street pyramid. Not to mention establishing the principle that safeguarding "the commons" -- our air, water and public space -- requires that we exact from ourselves a commensurate price for uses that damage or deplete it. Congestion pricing was backed by an unusually broad coalition of labor, business, enviros (the full spectrum from EJ to Big Green) and civic associations. Yet neither this broad-spectrum support nor the plan's extraordinary vetting over the past 12 months deterred legislators from both parties from citing "unanswered questions" and assailing bogus inequities. Calling today "a sad day for New Yorkers and New York City" and noting federal support for congestion pricing, Mayor Bloomberg blasted the legislature, stating that, "Even Washington, which most Americans agree is completely dysfunctional, is more willing to try new approaches to longstanding problems than our elected officials in the State Assembly." With so much going for it, what killed the plan? There will be time later for sober postmortems, but for now, here's my shoot-from-the-hip Top 10 list of what felled congestion pricing in NYC:
It's High Noon for congestion pricing in New York City. If by week's end the City Council and State Legislature haven't enacted a fee to drive into Manhattan's central business district, the city will forfeit a substantial federal mass-transit grant and congestion pricing will probably be a dead issue for the remainder of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's second and final term. Coincidentally, this month also brings a deadline of sorts for the Cape Wind project off Cape Cod. The federal Minerals Management Service is accepting comments on its Draft Environmental Impact Statement on Cape Wind through April 21. What do a wind farm for Nantucket Sound and congestion pricing for Manhattan have in common, and why are both so significant for the environmental cause? Both would directly reduce the burning of fossil fuel -- in oil-fired generating plants and gasoline-burning tailpipes, respectively -- thus cutting greenhouse gas emissions. And both have been on the table for a good half-dozen years, if not more, which shows you just how hard it is to take away entitlements cherished by powerful minorities. The entitlements in question are a kind of unpurchased, appropriated ownership of the Nantucket Sound "viewshed" enjoyed by wealthy Cape Cod landowners and an equally groundless right to drive for free enjoyed primarily by relatively well-off New York commuters. Both proposals demand of citizens that they make connections which are not obvious yet are quite real: that windmills keep fossil fuels elsewhere in the ground, and that congestion pricing is the only sure way for drivers to compensate for the harms they inflict on the city.
I recently ended 100 days without Grist. And wouldn't you know, the title of the first post I saw, "No climate for old men," spoke directly to the reason I was away. No, I wasn't with the McCain campaign. Rather, I was immersed in a project, spearheaded by a really old man, that could become a terrific tool for beating back the climate crisis. That man is 93-year-old Ted Kheel, legendary New York labor-lawyer-turned-environmentalist. His project is a study of the feasibility of financing free mass transit in New York City through congestion pricing and other charges on driving. I directed the study (PDF), which has just been released, and I think its implications could be huge, not just for New York but for every city in the U.S. and around the world.
It was just a matter of time before a World Trade Center survivor became a victim of a different sort of terrorism: death by automobile. It finally happened last month, in lower Manhattan, when a speeding sport utility vehicle struck and killed a woman who had fled the Twin Towers on 9/11. Florence Cioffi was leaving a dinner celebrating her upcoming 60th birthday when a Mercedes-Benz SUV slammed into her on Water Street at 60 miles an hour, according to a Manhattan assistant district attorney. Six years, four months, and thirteen days earlier, Ms. Cioffi narrowly averted death when she ducked out of her office on the 36th floor of the North Tower to get a coffee minutes before the plane struck.