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Wild Weather Creates Chances for Political Progress
It's hard to keep up with the crazed weather. As I write, a heat wave has killed over 50 people in the Midwest and South, with temperatures reaching 112 degrees in Evening Shade, Arkansas. Torrential storms have flooded Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Indiana, Iowa, and South Dakota. California has its second largest wildfire ever. Texas and Kansas are battening down for new storms, while still recovering from last month's floods, along with Oklahoma, which is now getting flooded again. A few weeks before, a massive rainstorm closed down the New York City subways. That doesn't count over 2,000 dead and millions displaced in India and Bangladesh floods, runaway forest fires in Greece, the hottest-ever temperature in Japan, or unprecedented melting of Arctic icecaps. Tomorrow the weather will ricochet off the charts someplace else.
This surge of weird weather offers a powerful warning. Placed in context, its lessons could also help us overcome the denial that's prevented the United States from taking action on global climate change. They could give courage to elected representatives who've wanted to act but have been hobbled by timidity. They could create a political opening to defeat prominent elected climate-change deniers whose seats used to seem unassailable and are running for reelection in hard-hit states. They could help the Senate leadership stand strong and call the bluff of those threatening a filibuster or a Bush veto. As Samuel Johnson wrote, knowing you'll be hanged in two weeks concentrates one's mind wonderfully. What's happening to our weather just might foreshadow that hanging.
A few years ago, global warming felt remote to most Americans. Although they heard it debated, it didn't seem real. The media gave "equal time" to deniers and the most respected scientists. Now 84% of Americans view human activity as at least contributing to global climate change, and 70% demand greater government action. Responses have shifted in the wake of Katrina and the succession of local disasters; Gore's Inconvenient Truth; the international IPCC report and similar impeccably credentialed scientific studies; and the start of serious media coverage, from Parade and the AARP magazine to Vogue. Add the impact of so many ordinary citizens speaking out, and Americans are starting to link the disasters they're seeing around them with what's happening to the planet.
When people's communities are hit with exceptional floods, droughts, tornadoes, heat waves, or runaway wildfires, or they see these events on TV, even conservatives who would have once treated them as random "acts of God" start recognizing their deeper roots in the patterns of human action. In a May 2006 poll of South Carolina hunters and fishermen, for instance, 68% agreed that global warming was an urgent problem requiring immediate action, and a similar number said they'd seen the immediate impact of climate change on local fish and wildlife. Even before this summer's parade of calamities, 75% of all Americans said recent weather had been stranger than usual
So our national frame on the weather is beginning to shift. Each new "natural disaster" now reinforces the sense that just maybe not all these disasters are so natural after all. And if we fail to seriously address their roots, similar ones or worse will dominate our future.
Of course global climate change doesn't cause every extreme weather event. And not all our fellow citizens are quite ready to act on the full enormity of the climate crisis, still resisting much of what needs to be done, such as increasing gas taxes. But most Americans want someone to do something, even if they're ambivalent about paying the costs. The more our warnings resonate with what people see around them, the more they can draw broader links, and the more the Exxon-funded denials ring hollow.
This situation expands political possibilities. While memory of this summer of disasters is still fresh, why not begin now to make a major issue of the rabid global climate change denial of Senators like Oklahoma's James Inhofe, Texas's John Cornyn, and Oregon's Gordon Smith. Inhofe, who's called global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," has been considered to have a safe seat. But his approval rating, just after last November's election, was a lowly 46%, and Cornyn's 45%, both lower than just-defeated Virginia Senator George Allen. So they may already be more vulnerable than conventional wisdom suggests. Gordon Smith's race has long been forecast as tight. Instead of writing off the prime deniers as unbeatable, or dismissing global climate change as too complex to make an electoral difference, why not brand them with their stands, juxtaposing their dismissal of the crisis with images of flooded homes and farms?
If the opponents of these officials can really tie them to their words, and keep asking why they'd rather stick up for Exxon than act on this ultimate threat to our common security, who knows how the election could turn? That's particularly true given broader discontent over Iraq, health care, and Bush administration corruption. Defeating just one or two entrenched deniers will significantly strengthen the voices of those in both parties who genuinely want to take action. We might even begin approaching the European situation, where even conservative political leaders, like Germany's Angela Merkel, France's Nicolas Sarkozy, and British Tory David Cameron, view addressing global climate change as amont their highest priorities.
Even with our existing Congress, the more the temperature keeps soaring and the rainstorms keep pounding, the more political leverage we have. The timidity of elected leaders who've acknowledged the crisis but done little to address it has been nearly as much a barrier as the blindness of those who deny it. So when the weather begins hitting home it gives us a chance to insist our elected officials actually lead.
They have this chance now with a renewed version of a bill that would have reversed oil company tax breaks to pay for $32 billion of incentives for renewable energy production. Given the magnitude of the crisis, that's still far too modest an investment, but it would help. This past June, the Senate leadership dropped the legislation when they fell three votes short of overcoming a threatened filibuster; they also dropped a companion bill requiring all U.S. utilities to get 15 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020, a requirement already law in 23 states. They dropped these measures to be able to pass a larger bill that raised automobile mileage standards, supported biofuels development, created new appliance and lighting efficiency standards, and supported research into fuel-efficient vehicles and carbon sequestration.
Now, the Senate and House are about to take up renewable energy measures incorporating their earlier core proposals. The House and Senate versions have some important differences: The Senate bill contains a dangerous sentence, slipped in by nuclear lobbyists, that would let the Department of Energy underwrite virtually unlimited loans for nuclear construction. But if they can eliminate that provision and combine the best of their two bills, passing them would be a valuable step.
So what do they do about the filibuster? They need to call the bluff of the obstructionists. They have one of the necessary three votes with the return of South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson from his brain injury. Barbara Boxer, who was attending the birth of a grandchild, gives them another. As they need only one more vote, and didn't have the support of ostensible global climate change leaders like John McCain, who opposed rescinding the tax breaks for oil companies, they can begin by denying the opponents the power simply to table the bill by threatening endless debate.
Imagine if opponents filibustered, and instead of just letting them log in and register their vote, the Senate leadership forced them to defend and keep defending their position for the duration of the debate. Suppose they didn't just do it for a single day or two, as with the Iraq timetable resolution, but used the resistance as an opportunity to hold a national discussion-extended as long as needed-on this fundamental issue. If opponents quoted the scientific deniers, supporters could cite the 99.9% of climate scientists who've described this as a human-caused crisis of the greatest magnitude. They could talk about how oil and coal corporations, led by ExxonMobil and Peabody Energy, have used the strategy of the tobacco companies (and even some of the same Thank You for Smoking-style PR firms) to create a strategy of deliberately sowing doubt by supporting these same deniers and the front group institutes that host them. They can talk about how much these corporate interests have given to specific Senators blocking the vote. If the debate goes long enough, the supporters can read the list of political contributions repeatedly, until the links finally begin to register in the public mind. This could even pose an opportunity-before climate change fatigue, like compassion fatigue, sets in-to draw the links between solving the climate crisis and eventual necessity of real campaign finance reform.
After a season of caving until Congressional ratings are now below those of Bush, Democratic leaders in charge of bringing legislation to the Senate floor should welcome a filibuster, not fear it. So should their handful of Republican allies, who want to pull their party back to the "reality-based community." What a chance finally to address core issues, beginning with the costs of doing nothing on climate change. Supporters could discuss the disasters in their own home states and in the states of the legislation's opponents. They could talk of the 200,000 Katrina exiles still dispossessed from their homes. They could describe melting polar icecaps and the potential for a world of climate refugees. They could highlight the value of actually building an American renewable energy industry and moving down a sustainable path. The longer the debate dominated the headlines, the more they could make clear what's actually at stake.
This may not happen on its own. It will likely take sustained citizen pressure. But the floods and droughts signal a world of catastrophe that we've been moving toward, mostly unknowingly, our entire lives. With the scientific consensus on global climate change nearly universal, innocence and ignorance are no longer an excuse. We have an opportunity both to talk about the profound recklessness of our current path and to invest in alternatives that can avert the worst disasters. If we're gong to change America's political culture enough to respond adequately to the crisis, we'll have to link the stories of disaster hitting America's eyes with the root choices that have helped make them happen. Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time.