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Tea Party to Planet: Checkmate?

by Eban Goodstein • October 3, 2011 @ 4:31 pm

This is part one of a two-part series by Eban Goodstein on Tea Party ideology and what it implies for climate stabilization.

Like many “climate hawks”, I spent the 2000’s working to drive US national policy in two directions:  towards a price on carbon, and towards large-scale investment in a clean energy economy. We believed that a civil-rights style movement, combined with a lobbying coalition including businesses, environmentalists, faith leaders and others, could, with luck, force the American system to do the right thing, and lead the world in stabilizing the global climate system.

With the election of President Obama, and the progressive 2008 Congress, it all seemed within reach. Carbon pricing in the form of the Waxman-Markey bill advanced in the House. Clean energy investment, at the rhetorical heart of the stimulus, rose to unprecedented levels. 

Goal one shattered when Ted Kennedy died, tipping the Senate back into gridlock. Goal two collapsed this summer, in the wreckage of hostage-driven budget politics. Future clean energy investment has been brutally choked off by the fiscal handcuffs of the deficit deal.

And the earth continues heating up. The year’s 2010 and 2011 have been horrendous for extreme weather:  unprecedented heat and drought in Russia and now Texas and Oklahoma; biblical-scale floods in Pakistan, Australia, and the American Midwest, and Vermont.  All this as conventional power infrastructure, at BP’s Deep Horizon and Fukashima, failed catastrophically, degrading both national economies and regional ecosystems.

The climate movement of the 2000’s was driven by the belief that if the US did not begin seriously cutting emissions by 2015—as part of a global deal heading to 80% reductions by 2050– then we would be “too late” to prevent truly catastrophic climate de-stabilization.

By vilifying carbon pricing, and by blocking serious clean energy investment, the Tea Party has insured that we will not cut emissions by 2015, and that there will be no global deal.  The politics of the radical right have locked the US into energy policy stalemate, at least through the middle of this decade. With the climate clock running out, is this stalemate also checkmate for the planet?

Who are these guys?

The odd thing about the Tea Party: no one knows, specifically, who they are.

Try it. Name the leaders of the Tea Party, the half-dozen media faces at the top, setting the agenda.

Sarah Palin? Rick Perry? Michelle Bachman?

These politicians are outgrowths of the movement more than leaders.  Despite the success of the agenda in DC, with the Tea Party cited constantly in the media, it is strangely disembodied. 

The reason is that the Tea Party isn’t a party—it’s an ideological vision, a worldview, an “ism”.  In fact, it is just the radical right with a new name, and the same old agenda: dismantle New Deal social programs, eliminate business regulation, bust unions, cut taxes for the rich, subsidize favored industries, beat up on immigrants, and sneak in some repressive social policy.  Tea Partyism is simple-minded, radical  free-market ideology, with social conservatism backing it up. What is new is the level of influence—unbridled control of one House of Congress–  and the rigid ideological discipline.

Thirty years after Reagan, a generation of Republican politicians have grown up in a sterile intellectual culture, dominated by Fox News and talk radio, where “government is the problem” is the only mantra that they have ever heard.  These men and women come to Washington as genuine believers: believers that Democrats are eco-socialists determined to tear down the hard-won freedoms of every day decent Americans. 

So why do they want to kill the planet? This piece of the platform is an odd triumph of post-modernism, adopted from, originally, left-wing academics. Inside the Tea Party, science is merely an exercise in rhetoric; there is no reality backing it up, just politics and power. Radical right politicians have persuaded themselves that global warming is a vast scientific conspiracy driven by liberal scientists in pursuit of grant money.

No, really.

And since this is “true”, efforts to build a clean energy economy are simply the rent-seeking schemes of what (science-denying) pundit George Will loves to call the socialist-inspired “chattering class”.

Armed with this impenetrable worldview about climate change, race-by-race, and office-by-office, extreme right politicians (now “Tea Party-affiliated”) have dismantled the post WWII Republican Party, its centrist wing, and the Republican leadership tradition on environmental policy. The 2010 backlash election completed this process. Congressional RINO’s are now, officially, extinct.

So who really leads the Tea Party? In fact, House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and all the usual Washington suspects.  Republican Party leaders are happy to carry out the Tea Party agenda, since they too are ideological Tea Partiers. The media has bought into the convenient fiction of responsible, mainstream Republicans (aka Boehner) driven to far-right extremism by a grassroots insurgency. But there is nothing in the Tea Party agenda Republican Party leaders won’t pursue if given the opening.

Beyond Tea Party leadership, the money trail has also been in the shadows. In particular, the influx of fossil fuel dollars into Tea Party efforts has been critical. Over the last decade, the top five oil companies have made close to a trillion dollars in profits. A trillion dollars in profits.  The Koch brothers and Exxon-Mobil in particular have made large contributions feeding the ideological and media climate disinformation machines, and funding the campaigns of radical right politicians. With high and rising oil prices, and the recent corporate-friendly decision by the Supreme Court, these funds will continue to flow. 

The election of 2010 created a sea-change in American politics, and climate politics in particular.  The combination of fossil fuel money, the ascendancy of a single-minded, disciplined and radical right wing, and above all, nature’s very short-time line for action, has rendered American climate stabilization leadership, through any kind of “politics as usual,” impossible. 

Clean Energy Wins

Despite the tragedy that has played out in DC over the last year, the US clean energy movement has much to be proud of.  Together we have:

  •  Forced EPA regulation of greenhouse gasses, with auto-efficiency standards already raised, and regulation of stationary sources underway.
  • Enacted carbon price policy in the east (RGGI) and the west (AB32, with possible extensions through the western climate initiative).
  • Passed renewable portfolio standards, efficiency programs, and other carbon policies, in many states.
  • Put the brakes on construction of more than a hundred new coal plants. 
  • Pushed through huge clean energy investments in the stimulus bill.
  • Spurred voluntary climate leadership by many large corporations.
  • Created emerging industry and building standards such as LEED.

This past month, over a thousand of citizen, myself included, were arrested in DC,  pressuring President Obama to block construction of the Keystone Pipeline, a win that would slow development of Canadian tar sands.

This is a list of major, concrete victories, that pale only in comparison to the truly heroic demands being placed on policy to stabilize the climate. Collectively, if they stand, they are a pathway to stabilization of US greenhouse gas emissions over the next few years. Stabilization is the first step towards emission reduction. The patchwork of state and national policies in place can buy us some time.

Beneath these solid accomplishments, we have also driven a critically important, powerful underlying shift in framing—the way that climate hawks, and increasingly, the American people, understand climate solutions.  “Jobs versus the environment” has increasingly given way to “the clean energy future.”

There is a famous slogan from a Pogo cartoon that defined the environmentalism of the twentieth century: “We have met the enemy, and he us.”  The implied solution to environmental crises was that “we” all need to change our habits: recycle, ride bikes, turn down our thermostats, blow up our TV’s.  Concurrent with this theme was an argument that capitalism was the problem: economic growth per se (not economic growth as we know it) was choking the planet.

From here, it was an easy step to frame a jobs versus environment trade-off.  If the problem is growth, then the solution (less growth) has got to mean fewer jobs.  In fact, given the prevalence of this frame, and the then loud national debates over spotted owls and eastern coal miners, when I did the research for the Trade-off Myth in the late 90’s, even I was surprised by the complete lack of evidence for a jobs-environment trade-off.  My book showed that there was simply nothing to the argument.

Beginning in the mid 1970’s, an alternative frame began to emerge that would help us see a way forward. Back when global warming was barely on the public radar screen, Amory Lovins argued that a clean energy future (what he called “the soft path”): “offers jobs for the unemployed, capital for businesspeople, environmental protection for conservationists, enhanced national security for the military, opportunities for small businesses to innovate and for big business to recycle itself…”  To say the least: something for everyone. And no sign of Pogo.

In 2011, written under the now-mountainous shadow of twenty years of climate science, Hunter Lovins has a new book out.  Climate Capitalism argues that only the dynamism of capitalist economics—in partnership with smart policy— can deliver the rapid changes in global economic energy, food and financial systems that will be required to achieve climate stabilization and sustainability.

Rather than being the root of the problem, capitalism (governed by smart rules), and growth (of more sustainable business at the expense of unsustainable business) are the answers. And with this understanding, the frame of a “clean energy future” emerges as a powerful and motivating alternative.

In 2010, these two frames—“jobs-environment trade-off” versus “clean energy economics”–  squared off, mano-a-mano, in California. The oil industry had sponsored Proposition 23, which would have killed California’s cap-and-trade bill. Lining up against Prop 23 was one of the few remaining RINO’s (Governor Schwarznegger). And on this occasion, a pathbreaking environmental regulation had a stable of its own capitalists in its corner. Clean tech investors from Silicon Valley provided the business muscle to counter the oil guys.

Californians were treated to an intensive airwave battle of the frames.  The instantly infamous “pink sweater lady” delivered the oil industry message that cap-and-trade would kill more than a million jobs.  The environmental counter was that cap-and-trade was crucial to solidify California’s clean energy leadership, a strategy that had already created half a million jobs.  When the smoke cleared, clean energy scored a knockout punch: Prop 23 went down 62% to 38%.

Out of all the clean energy movement’s accomplishments, the defeat of Proposition 23 was the most important. The victory was substantive: California’s cap and trade system is moving steadily towards implementation.  But more significantly, the defeat of Prop 23 showed that we have a frame that is compelling, and that can win. While the meme of jobs-versus-the-environment is not yet dead—and this month in particular it seems in revival mode– it is clearly weakened and vulnerable.

If the enemy is us, it is not because we have failed to recycle. Rather, it is because we have broadly failed to organize politically behind a winning message, failed to rein in and guide capitalist dynamics down a clean energy path.  Instead, we have let the Tea Party, and the Mad Hatters in charge, block progress towards real change.

Part Two: Vision, Reality and Austerity


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