Future Hope column, May 31, 2008
By Ted Glick
“In 1992, Bill Clinton put the call for universal health care at the center of his program. But, once president, his closeness to Wall Street and his intellectual dependence on Robert Rubin of Wall Street made him leery of antagonizing the insurance industry. It was President Clinton’s unwillingness to confront the insurance companies that led to his failure to honor his commitment to work toward a universal health care program. . . His administration’s top priorities were reduction of the federal deficit. . . and approval of NAFTA. These actions antagonized and demoralized the grassroots of the Democratic Party. Clinton lost any power to mobilize people for the establishment of a universal health care program. This frustration of the grassroots, and especially the working class, also led to the huge abstention by the Democratic Party base in the 1994 congressional elections and the consequent loss of the Democratic majority in the House, the Senate, and many state legislatures. At the root of this disenchantment with the Clinton administration was its unwillingness to confront the insurance companies and Wall Street.”
-Dr. Vicente Navarro, Professor of Health Policy, Public Policy and Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University
As the climate movement increasingly focuses its energies on Capitol Hill, Dr. Navarro’s insights about the potential negative impacts of doing so in the wrong way are worthy of serious consideration.
This coming week the U.S. Senate will be debating a comprehensive piece of legislation which claims to be a solution to the crisis of climate disruption caused by global warming. It’s called the Climate Security Act, and it was put together by Republican John Warner and nearly-Republican, “independent” Joe Lieberman.
There are good things in the bill. In general, the fact that such a bill has been produced and will be debated in the Senate is an indication that the climate movement is having a political impact, continuing to grow. But there are lots of problems with the bill, among them:
-It is far too weak. It projects 3-11% reductions of carbon emissions by 2020 compared to the world’s baseline year of 1990. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that what is needed if we are to have a decent chance of avoiding catastrophic climate disruption is at least 25-40% reductions below 1990 levels by industrialized countries by 2020.
-It would allow the continued building of new coal plants that emit global warming pollution. Coal is the dirtiest and most polluting of the carbon-based fuels, twice as polluting as natural gas. We can’t allow this if we are to have any hope of turning things around in time!
-It gives away too many free carbon emissions permits to polluters, and it will likely include provisions to weaken carbon caps if polluters say that they are too onerous. It will probably also end up providing tens of billions of dollars in subsidies for non-existent “clean coal” and nuclear power.
Where do climate and environmental groups stand on this flawed piece of legislation? All over the map.
Some, the more established and politically moderate groups, are very much in support of it even though they hope it can be improved through amendments. Others, particularly but not only the more activist and grassroots-oriented groups, are either calling for Warner-Lieberman to be “fixed or ditched,” essentially opposing it in its current form, or are taking a neutral position.
The possibility of the Climate Security Act being passed by the Senate, passed by the House and then signed into law by George Bush this year is basically zero. That is why a significant number of groups are orienting toward the first 100 days of the new administration and new Congress in 2009 as the time to go all out to get a stronger bill, one that is science-based and not Capitol Hill-politics-based.
This is a very good thing. If Obama is elected, we can’t do what far too many groups did in late 1992 and 1993 when Bill Clinton and the Democratic Congress came to power—breathe a sign of relief after 12 years of Reagan and Bush 1 and put their faith in Democratic office holders. Vicente Navarro’s perceptive commentary above about what happened back then with the universal health care movement—which at that time was the major, most broadly-based popular movement in the country—is very instructive.
But the climate movement itself needs to keep evolving, in step with the evolution of the crisis.
“Evolution” might not be the right word when it comes to what is happening with our climate. When 20% of the Arctic sea ice disappears in two years, between September 2005 and September 2007, and when some scientists are projecting that there could be no Arctic sea ice during the summer as early as 2013—37 years earlier than last year’s IPCC projection of such a thing happening by 2050—it is clear that we don’t have the time to slowly transition away from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy and a highly energy-efficient economy.
Just today in the New York Times, op ed visual columnist Charles M. Blow presented a sobering chart which showed that “there have been more than four times as many weather-related disasters in the last 30 years than in the previous 75 years. The United States has experienced more of those disasters than any other country.”
If the climate is snapping, which there are many signs that it is, then the climate movement needs to respond accordingly.
One thing we can do is adopt the approach articulated by United Steelworkers president Leo Girard at a labor/climate conference in NYC last year. At that conference he said that we shouldn’t be talking about “2050,” we should be talking about solving this problem within twenty years, within our generation, by 2030. He was right.
A number of prominent and knowledgeable people, including Lester Brown, James Hansen and Al Gore, have called for us to take up this issue in a way similar to how the U.S. responded after Pearl Harbor. After that attack the U.S. economy, in less than a year, was dramatically transformed from a peacetime to a wartime economy, and the society as a whole was mobilized to enlist in the great national project of defeating German, Japanese, Italian and other mid-20th century fascist regimes.
The Times’ Charles H. Blow concludes his commentary by saying, “this surge in disasters and attendant costs is yet another reason we need to declare a coordinated war on climate change. . . It’s a matter of national security.”
The thing about this “war,” however, is that the casualties in it, if it’s to be successful, aren’t going to be hundreds of thousands of civilians and tens of thousands of young American men and women dying, being injured and committing suicide, as is happening with the unnecessary and maddening war on Iraq. The casualties will primarily be, in the words of James Hansen, “the captains of industry, CEOs in fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil, automobile manufacturers, utilities, all of the leaders who have placed short-term profit above the fate of the planet and the well-being of our children.”
The casualties they will have to absorb will be a reduction in their wealth and power. One can hope that those losses would be offset, perhaps, by these individuals coming to realize that there is much more to life than what they’ve experienced as part of the fossil fuel power elite.
For all the rest of us, for the other life forms with whom we share this planet, for our threatened ecosystem, this “war on climate change” will be a net positive. Millions of green jobs will be created, and it is our responsibility to demand that many of them provide pathways out of poverty for those who have been locked out of our dirty fossil fuel economy, as well as for a just transition for those coal and oil workers who lose their jobs. The quality of our air and water will improve. Communities will benefit from the economic development aspects of the clean energy revolution. Decentralized wind, solar and geothermal energy will lessen the power of huge, corporate energy companies, thus strengthening democracy and popular sovereignty.
Here is how Herman Scheer, a German Social Democratic Member of Parliament and renewable energy leader for years, put it in an interview published in the May 21, 2008 issue of New Scientist:
“I see the opportunities for renewables. I see that they can provide 100 per cent of our energy, and they can be introduced very fast. All the great technological revolutions happen much more quickly than even the experts and enthusiasts guess. The forecasts for the spread of cellphones and IT were all overtaken by the reality. The renewables revolution will be the same.
“The IT and mobile phone revolutions were also the first technological revolutions in modern times that were not about centralising power. They were about decentralising. And this will happen to energy from renewables. The big old-fashioned power stations and long supply chains will be replaced by local supplies for local markets. This is changing the tide of history.”
Let’s take up the challenge of this generation and organize not for “80% by 2050,” but, instead, a renewable energy economy by 2030. By 2030, only renewable energy. Si, se puede! Yes, we can!
Ted Glick is the coordinator of the U.S. Climate Emergency Council (www.climateemergency.org) and has been a progressive social change activist since 1968. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1132, Bloomfield, N.J. 07003.