Global Warming: Dim Bulbs, Bright Lights

Joel Bleifuss

People who want to save the Earth from the ravages of global warming face a perennial problem: How do they translate their concerns into actions that will create real change?

One barrier standing in the way of meaningful action is fuzzy-headed thinking on the part of those truly concerned about global warming. So worried are these activists, that their solution to the climate change problem is to marshal legions of Americans to change light bulbs, buy a Prius, or do any other number of helpful, but, in the big picture, not too significant feel-good actions.

For a full accounting of such a list go to the Alliance for Climate Protection Web site (www​.alliance​for​cli​matepro​tec​tion​.org), the nonprofit organization chaired by Al Gore. There you will learn: What You Can Do,” or more precisely, how your own actions can also help reduce this threat.” For example, the Web site advises:

Take Personal Action: You can reduce your personal contribution to global warming and set an example for others by using less gasoline, natural gas, oil, and electricity in your daily life. … Ask each member of your household to take responsibility for a different electricity-saving action. …

Encourage Community Action: … Encourage your local electric utilities to promote energy efficiency and the use of clean, renewable energy sources. … 

Influence U.S. Action: The United States needs to play a leadership role in addressing global warming, and you can help make this happen. … Tell government officials that you want them to push industry to protect the future health of the environment by reducing carbon emissions. 

These suggestions are all well and good. However, what is needed at this time of the global warming crisis is a movement that vigorously challenges the status quo, one that does more than advise citizens to ask” members of their families to reduce energy use, or encourage” electric utility corporations to be more efficient or, tell” their elected representatives to push” industry.

People, of course, should do what they can to reduce global warming. But they should never be made to think that their individual actions are the root cause of the problem or the ultimate solution.

Take the Civil Rights movement. Yes, personal reflection and individual change had its place, but can you imagine Martin Luther King telling people to ask” their school boards to integrate the public schools, or encourage” corporations not to discriminate, or tell” their elected leaders to push” legislatures in the South to do away with Jim Crow laws?

No. Political movements work when they mobilize a huge number of like-minded individuals and then use the ballot box to elect leaders who will change laws. 

Somehow, this is something progressives have long failed to understand. In the early 80s, the Freeze Movement galvanized the nation against the threat posed by the nuclear arms race, which at the time the Reagan administration was busy ratcheting up. However, because the movement was largely funded by 501©3 organizations that by law cannot get involved in electoral politics, the Freeze Movement concentrated on educating the public about the dangers of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) rather than mobilizing people to vote the Cold Warriors out of Congress.

Similarly today, the movement against global warming, funded as it is by 501©3s like Gore’s outfit, appears reticent to play political hard ball.

The corporations that profit from the industrial processes that create global warming have no such compunction. They will never willingly sacrifice short-term profits for the long-term common good. And they well understand that Congress could force them to alter their behavior through a combination of legislative directives and economic incentives. 

For example, Congress could require that all new vehicles sold in the United States meet minimum fuel efficiency and carbon emission standards by a set date, legislate that all new constructions projects be green,” or heavily invest in mass transit and reconstruct the national rail network. If lawmakers took such initiatives, the United States would drastically reduce the size of its carbon footprint.

Understandably, the industries that benefit from the status quo oppose such measures. To prevent change and the costs associated with it, corporations fund think tanks, hire PR firms and pay lobbyists. They also fund the campaigns of those Representatives and Senators whose support they need to ensure no law passes that would adversely affect their industries. 

As the chart at the left indicates, and as legislative history bears out, the GOP is underwritten by the industries culpable for global warming. Yet Democrats, while the favored recipients of support from environmental policy organizations, are not beyond the influence of big money. 

In the House, a squabble has over about who will set the Democrats’ climate change agenda. In January, Speaker Pelosi established the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming and named Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), an environmentalist, as chair.

Whoops! This select committee did not sit too well with Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Dingell loves the auto industry, earning the moniker Tailpipe Johnny” in the 80s for his opposition to legislation dealing with acid rain. Another unhappy camper, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairs the Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality. He was concerned that the select committee might do something that would make his friends in the coal industry unhappy. According to the Washington Post, Boucher threatened to form an alliance with Republicans to block any legislation that Markey’s committee would put forward.

Dingell, who has been in the House since 1955, and Boucher won a temporary reprieve when Pelosi gave them a deadline of June to come up with legislation to address global warming.

Don’t hold your breath. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, since the 2000 election cycle, Dingell and Boucher have been the top Democratic recipients in the House of money from the energy/​natural resources” sector of the economy (the electric utilities, mining, and oil and gas industries), raking in $862,000 and $773,000 respectively.

And what can $1,635,000 buy on Capitol Hill? Inaction.

Last year, Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) introduced the Keep America Competitive Global Warming Policy Act of 2006, which sought to establish a market-based system to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and to promote advanced energy research and technology development and deployment.” In October, Udall tried to get Dingell to look at his bill, but he would have none of it. As Dingell told the Washington Post, If I thought it was a good idea, I would have already done it.” 

Boucher has a similar commitment to do-nothingism. On Nov. 28, 2005, he spoke at the Western Business Roundtable, Summit of the West. The American Coal Council Web site reported that Boucher and Pat Michaels, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, told conference attendees that the economic dislocation of policies such as Kyoto would ensure they would not achieve substantial greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Instead, they argued that voluntary actions with targeted incentives would accomplish more reductions and encourage the adoption of more efficient technologies.” In other words, any meaningful action to address global warming was off the table.

On March 7, Boucher chaired a hearing titled, Climate Change: Are Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Human Activities Contributing to a Warming of the Planet?” Gee, let’s ponder the question – and then refer it to committee. 

In the Senate, things look a little brighter with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) replacing Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) as head of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works – though Inhofe has promised to filibuster any global big lie” warming legislation that gets to the floor.

In short, while Congress is now in the hands of Democrats, that shift in power does not necessarily mean that vital issues like climate change will be adequately addressed. What’s needed is a movement against global warming willing to play political hardball.

Yes, bless Gore for making the inconvenient truth about climate change part of the public dialogue. But if the new movement against global warming is going to get Congress to act, it will have to do more than pose an inconvenience to the likes of Dingell, Boucher and Inhofe. It will have to work to kick the bums out.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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