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.”