Red State, Green Campaign

Sam Boyd

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Andrew Rice is making climate change a major issue in his campaign.

This elec­tion year, one of the green­est cam­paigns is being run not in blue Mass­a­chu­setts or Cal­i­for­nia, but in bright-red Oklahoma. 

State Sen. Andrew Rice (D‑Oklahoma City) is chal­leng­ing incum­bent Sen. James Inhofe ®, 74, Con­gress’ most vocal denier of glob­al warm­ing, and is doing so with an inno­v­a­tive mes­sage that could serve as a future mod­el for Democ­rats across the country. 

In 2003, Inhofe infa­mous­ly called glob­al warm­ing the sec­ond largest hoax ever per­pe­trat­ed on the Amer­i­can peo­ple.” (The largest hoax, he has said, is the sep­a­ra­tion between church and state.) Inhofe fre­quent­ly cites nov­el­ist Michael Crich­ton as a source of his rants, and last Decem­ber he unveiled a list of 400 promi­nent sci­en­tists” who alleged­ly agree that glob­al warm­ing is a hoax. (Sev­er­al of those list­ed do not in fact allege that.)

Rice, 34, and his cam­paign are link­ing cli­mate change (a term he prefers to glob­al warm­ing because of its omi­nous over­tones) with ener­gy independence. 

They def­i­nite­ly com­ple­ment each oth­er,” Rice says. Wouldn’t we be proud as Okla­homans to be rely­ing on our own ener­gy sources and not be send­ing mon­ey to Sau­di Arabia?”

He also con­nects ener­gy inde­pen­dence to nation­al secu­ri­ty, a mes­sage he argues appeals to con­ser­v­a­tive rur­al voters. 

In a heav­i­ly agri­cul­tur­al state like Okla­homa, changes in cli­mate can be crip­pling. In recent years, the state has expe­ri­enced a lengthy drought and unusu­al­ly destruc­tive rains. The Okla­homa Cli­ma­to­log­i­cal Sur­vey pre­dicts that this will con­tin­ue as glob­al warm­ing con­tin­ues – with extend­ed dry peri­ods, more fre­quent heat waves and intense storms. 

Hunters and fish­er­men across the nation have expressed con­cern about the chang­ing cli­mate and, along with farm­ers, have been key to recent Demo­c­ra­t­ic vic­to­ries in many West­ern states. 

Rice’s oppo­nents claim that a focus on the envi­ron­ment could hurt job growth.

But Rice says Oklahoma’s coal indus­try and our big util­i­ty – which uses a lot of coal – use the eco­nom­ic argu­ment, play­ing to people’s fears. But I think you [can] get peo­ple into the shared sacrifice.”

Last year, that big util­i­ty, the Okla­homa Gas and Elec­tric Com­pa­ny, unsuc­cess­ful­ly sought to build a $1.8 bil­lion coal plant – in a state that already gets more than 60 per­cent of its pow­er from coal. 

The Okla­homa Cor­po­ra­tion Com­mis­sion, the state’s reg­u­la­to­ry agency, blocked the pro­pos­al, part­ly on envi­ron­men­tal grounds. The util­i­ty has since increased invest­ments in wind pow­er and nat­ur­al gas. Says Rice: Inhofe, who maybe 10 years ago start­ed to say cli­mate change is not a big deal, put him­self in a bad posi­tion because I think he assumed Okla­homans would nev­er care about it.” 

Accord­ing to the campaign’s polling, while 75 per­cent of Okla­homans approve of gov­ern­ment action against glob­al warm­ing, only 39 per­cent agree that the Unit­ed States should take bold action to address the prob­lem by devel­op­ing alter­na­tive sources of ener­gy, even if it means we have to pay more in ener­gy costs.” And 35 per­cent oppose doing any­thing if it involves increased ener­gy costs or tax­es, while 19 per­cent oppose doing any­thing at all. 

In 2002, Inhofe’s cam­paign was the sec­ond largest recip­i­ent of mon­ey from oil and gas polit­i­cal action com­mit­tees, or PACs, in the nation – receiv­ing more than $242,000, despite a rel­a­tive­ly uncom­pet­i­tive race. 

Few prece­dents exist for cam­paigns that have been based heav­i­ly on draw­ing aware­ness to cli­mate change. 

In Aus­tralia (one of the few devel­oped coun­tries whose gov­ern­ment has been reluc­tant to take action against cli­mate change), the oppo­si­tion Labor Par­ty won last year’s elec­tion, in part by crit­i­ciz­ing the con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment and then Prime Min­is­ter John Howard’s unwill­ing­ness to join the Kyoto Pro­to­col – the inter­na­tion­al agree­ment estab­lished to curb green­house gases.

Could a sim­i­lar polit­i­cal move­ment take place in the Unit­ed States? With its elec­toral sys­tem designed to slow change, the only way to catch up to the rest of the world is one elec­tion at a time.

If Inhofe went down in Okla­homa,” says Tim Gre­eff, deputy leg­isla­tive direc­tor at the League of Con­ser­va­tion Vot­ers, it would send a sig­nal that the Amer­i­can peo­ple real­ly have moved on this issue.”

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