Where climate/energy issues stand in the Democratic Party
Being an "issue" journalist can be frustrating for a number of reasons (most of which I’ll reserve for a future post). One is the persistent temptation to fall into trainspotting mode — waiting around for politicians or pundits to mention your issue. "He said the words ‘climate change’! He mentioned solar power!" This stuff (which I do plenty of) has some value, but it can give a distorted impression of the larger political dynamic. So I want to take a step back, now that the Democratic convention is over, and consider where environmental and energy issues stand in the Democratic party.
Over the course of the week, I had occasion to see both the back end and the front end of the Democratic establishment’s thinking on energy. The back end was displayed in panels, roundtables, and informal receptions and conversations. The front end, of course, was in the speeches themselves.
The disconnect is somewhat striking. Behind the scenes, more and more people are developing a sophisticated conception of green that places it at the core of economic, national security, and jobs policy (see, for some examples, Kate’s video interviews here). And it’s not just the advocacy groups or the think tanks — politicians were among the more savvy speakers I saw. Rep. Ed Markey was on fire all week, delivering the smart commentary and snappy soundbites Dems have so often lacked on energy (I hope his riff on new wind vs. new nuclear ends up on YouTube somewhere). Rep. Ed Blumenauer is great; Pelosi is great. Colorado governor Bill Ritter is sharp. Our own Seattle mayor Greg Nichols had good stuff to say. And at least on paper, Obama gets it too. His green plan is part of his economic plan is part of his national security plan. I heard a few of these folks gesture toward "clean" coal, but it was always about the political necessity of getting coal states on board. I may be projecting, but I didn’t hear one person outside those with direct constitutent interest like Gephardt and Schweitzer who sounded like they believed the coal nonsense. There are just more and more people in the Democratic infrastructure who get it.
But what is the voter hearing? What’s in the big speeches? Unfortunately, at that level the green message remains disjointed and ineffective.
Lefties are always lamenting that national Democratic speeches come off like policy laundry lists, with no unifying theme or emotional resonance. (Bill Clinton could make those lists sing, but mere mortals *coughMarkWarnercough* cannot.) That’s certainly been true in their approach to environment/energy issues, and from what I saw at the convention, it still is. "Energy independence" is tacked on the list over here, climate change over there. You get nationalist invocations of "foreign oil" and some populist digs at McCain for being in the Big Oil’s pocket. You get renewable energy listed among "alternatives" — which in Obama’s case also included natural gas, "clean" coal, and nuclear. And you get climate mentioned as one of the big, hazy problems on which we need international cooperation.
There were a few exceptions, people fumbling around for something bigger. John Kerry (in the best speech of his career) said:
We need a leader who understands all our security challenges, not just bombs and guns, but global warming, global terror and global AIDS. And Barack Obama understands there is no way for America to be secure until we create clean energy here at home, not with a little more oil in 10, 20, 30 years, but with an energy revolution that begins now.
… it just so happens that the climate crisis is intertwined with the other two great challenges facing our nation: reviving our economy and strengthening our national security. The solutions to all three require us to end our dependence on carbon-based fuels.
Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, who gave a speech devoted to "a world energy crisis that threatens our economy, our security, our climate and our way of life," reflected the disconnect in Dem rhetoric. This captures it:
Right now, the United States imports about 70 percent of its oil from overseas. At the same time, billions of dollars that we spend on all that foreign oil seems to end up in the bank accounts of those around the world who are openly hostile to American values and our way of life. This costly reliance on fossil fuels threatens America and the world in other ways, too. CO2 emissions are increasing global temperatures, sea levels are rising and storms are getting worse.
Here you have the security pitch on foreign oil (scary! compelling!) and "other ways" oil is bad, like CO2 and storms. That allows people to don’t take climate change seriously to box it away. Like, um, Schweitzer himself, two paragraphs later:
It’s not a question of either wind or clean coal, solar or hydrogen, oil or geothermal. We need them all to create a strong American energy system, a system built on American innovation.
If you believe global warming is a serious problem and not a peripheral concern, it is a question of which solutions you pursue. You pursue the ones that reduce emissions fastest and cheapest. (Also: If, like Schweitzer, you care about creating jobs, you choose investments in renewables and efficiency, not fossil fuels.)
Obama made only glancing reference climate change. He too focused on the "all of the above" energy approach — "everything American," as T. Boone has it.
It’s ultimately a defensive move, a sign that Democrats don’t believe in the product they’re selling. Even if Dems really plan to develop all energy resources, why call out dirty rear-guard battles like coal? Why mention fossil fuels at all? If you’re selling iPhones, you don’t need to reassure your audience you’ll keep tweaking Palm Pilots. You are for the future.
This schizophrenic public posture arises because Dems haven’t figured out a way to publicly present green as they are beginning to see it: an overarching governing principle that makes sense of their other values and policies. They don’t know how to pitch the big picture: green is our way out of this mess. Addressing climate change by leaving behind fossil fuels is not a vaguely altruistic effort to make storms milder — it’s an economic engine, a job creator, a debt reducer, an energy security strategy, an international credibility builder, a healthcare cost-reduction effort, and a wilderness preservation imperative. It encompasses, but is not encompassed by, energy independence. Getting past fossil fuels doesn’t mean all of the above, it means getting past fossil fuels. It is the arc of history, not an item on the special interest list. America will lead or it will be left behind.
It’s possible that the holistic green enthusiasm of the Democratic back end will make its way to the front end eventually, and will heighten the contrast with the fossil establishment rather than blurring the boundaries. But the Obama Democrats are still cautious, and I suspect they’ll wait for circumstances to make obvious to the public what more and more of them believe: that green is the change we can believe in.