Climate Crisis Future: Danger for Democrats

In a previous Kos post as well as on my Dreaming Up Daily, I speculated on the emerging Republican plan for the Climate Crisis. Basically it is to mix denial with assertions of doing something, in order to essentially do nothing (or not enough) to stop greenhouse gas pollution, while waiting to use the opportunity of a climate-related disaster in the U.S. to shift attention to their version of crisis management, which is disaster capitalism.

The Democrats are much different, yet there are also two sets of problems I foresee for them–one of which has pretty much the same result for the future as the Republican plan, and the other involves a lack of preparation for near-term crisis, and how the Republicans are likely to try to take advantage of that.

Crucial to this analysis is my insistence that the Climate Crisis has two very different parts: the threat of truly catastrophic changes in the future if we don’t stop greenhouse pollution now (the “Stop It” component) and the need to address serious problems and disasters that are going to happen in the relatively near future because of climate change–problems it is too late to stop (the “Fix It” component.) Follow for the analysis.

“Stop It” Requires Focus and Strength

On the need to address the Climate Crisis, on its predominant importance, and on the need to reduce greenhouse gases, the major Democrats–the congressional leadership and especially the presidential candidates–are all saying the right things. They clearly recognize the needs in the Stop It arena. The question here is: will they follow through with action that is sufficiently strong?

This question is dramatized by the UN climate crisis conference in Bali that began Monday. A quote from an AP story on its beginning hour: “The eyes of the world are upon you. There is a huge responsibility for Bali to deliver,” said Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the conference. “The world now expects a quantum leap forward.”

The question is: do the Democrats have the will and the ability to lead that quantum leap? Several of the candidates have fairly bold proposals, though not as extensive or creative as those proposed by Al Gore in his congressional testimony last March–and this was before the latest scientific information and observations that generally show things are getting worse faster than previously believed. Endorsing the complete Gore list would be a better start.

For the task ahead is monumental. We need to essentially end greenhouse gas pollution by mid century, and we’ve heard political leaders around the world state this–yet despite those words, emissions of the two most important greenhouse gases hit an all time high in 2006.

In the U. S. an obvious requirement would seem to be the election of a Democrat as President, and a Congress with a working Democratic majority. But that alone is unlikely to be enough. The nation must be focused on this effort–and related energy, economic, health and environmental matters–so to make that possible, it seems necessary that these candidates make the Climate Crisis a priority issue in their campaigns.

So far that hasn’t happened, though it is much more of an issue this time than in 2004 or 2000, both with the candidates and the public. In early November Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg told the Washington Post: “It’s a huge issue. I’ve been stunned by this,” said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who found in a May poll that energy independence and global warming were cited as America’s most important domestic challenge by 29 percent of respondents, second only to health care. “I think this is a top-tier voting issue that has crossover appeal,” Greenberg said.

It’s a growing issue, and candidates are talking more about it when they can (Barack Obama singled it out in the NPR radio debate.) But it can’t be a stealth issue, important to the public but not discussed as a major issue in public. That’s where the problem is. The predispositions of the TV networks and other sponsors of the debate have made discussing the issue almost impossible. There is rarely even a related question. Planting a question in a campaign event audience on the climate crisis is the least of the sins of Hillary Clinton’s staff–it may well have been a public service. When a debate was devoted to the topic in Los Angeles, only three of the candidates even showed up: Hillary, John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich. Although I can’t find any reference to it online at the moment, I read that there will be another such debate in New Hampshire–where it is a major campaign issue–involving candidates from both parties, with the Republican team captained by Ahnold, and the Democrats by Al Gore.

Years ago Bill McKibben used a phrase I still think is essential–he said that there had to be “emotional consensus” to effectively address the Climate Crisis. That’s an emotional consensus in the American citizenry large enough to form a wave that sweeps change ahead of it. The next President will have to be the FDR of Climate Change, only this President won’t have the stark reality of the Depression or World War II in front of the public every day–there will be signs and manifestations, but most of it will be in the future–including nearly everything that ending greenhouse gases pollution can accomplish.

If candidates are elected because of their commitment to stop greenhouse pollution, then there is a chance for change. But it will also require courage and concentration to actually do what is necessary. It will mean resisting politics as usual, and the usual compromises over substance. There will come a time, quite soon, when no respectable politician in either or any party will deny the reality of the Climate Crisis, any more than now deny that smoking causes cancer. But will legislation and presidential initiatives be strong enough? That’s going to be the question.

Reading the writing on the wall, businesses–especially in the energy sector–are already advocating that the Climate Crisis be addressed, and they want to be players in devising how. Some of them may only want to make sure these efforts are sustainable. But some of them are probably angling to make these efforts as weak as possible.

We’ve already seen stronger legislation in Congress dropped by its sponsors in favor of weaker bills that can get more support, especially from Republicans. But this time the price of too little, too late may be the end of civilization, the end of life as we know it on the planet, or simply unstoppable centuries of suffering.

“Fix It”: Anticipate or Lose

As hard as the conceptual leap will be to act now to create results in the far future, there’s an equal or even greater conceptual challenge.

Disasters and longer lasting catastrophes are going to happen, and sooner or later they will be understood as manifestations of the Climate Crisis. They’re happening now, though either not in the large population areas of the U.S., or they are “natural” phenomena (droughts, heatwaves, storms) people have seen in the past, unrelated to global heating. But that connection will be made, perhaps in a big way, fairly soon. And in our either/or culture (particularly political culture), we may find it too difficult, too complicated, too “nuanced” to see the need to Fix the problems in the present and near future, while still Stopping the more catastrophic effects in the far future.

I believe some Republicans are ready to jump on such disasters as a way of owning the issue, and of deflecting change from efforts to end greenhouse pollution towards efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate crisis effects as they happen in the present or very near future. Conversely, I don’t see evidence that Democrats are thinking about these problems, or talking about them. And if they aren’t ready to respond when something happens, they may be leaving themselves open to devastating political attack.

Republicans–and even some Democrats–may well take advantage of anxiety and even panic by saying we can’t afford to worry about the far future–we need to use all our resources to save ourselves in the present, and if we need to burn fossil fuels at a high rate to do it, we must.

In The Shock Doctrine,Naomi Klein quotes notorious neocon economist Milton Friedman as saying that when disaster strikes, politicians grasp whatever ideas are laying around, so it is important to have those ideas out there.  That’s another reason it’s important to be prepared for Climate Crisis disasters.

Democrats must be ready for that, and for this argument. They must be ready to assert responsibility for the present and the future, at the same time. They must be ready to address disasters and crises, not with the “disaster capitalism” and fearmongering for political advantage that the Bushites used in response to 9-11, with the bogus war on terror and the invasion and occupation of Iraq, all to profit their corporate cronies. Or how they responded to Katrina, by using the disaster to rid the Gulf of the poor and people of color, while enriching corporate cronies.

Many of us realize the immense difference in response to 9-11 and Katrina that America would have seen if the Supreme Court had not appointed G.W. Bush, and Al Gore had become President in 2000. Democrats must articulate for the nation at large just what those different kinds of responses would be, and will be. Democrats must take this issue away from Republicans–a pre-emptive strike, if you like.

Democrats must make it clear that with the leadership of government, the cooperation and help of progressive business and unions, and the compassion and commitment of citizens, together we can address both parts of the Climate Crisis simultaneously: we can Fix what needs to be fixed for ourselves and the peoples of the world already in trouble, while we Stop greenhouse gases pollution from destroying the future.  


Skip to comment form

  1. As the news gets worse, some are saying that the “Stop It” efforts are futile and we must concentrate on the “Fix It” efforts. I don’t address the futility question this time, though I will.  But for now, I’m treating it as irrelevant. We can’t really know the future for certain. I contend that we have a moral responsibility to do our best in both efforts. So I don’t see the question of whether or not we believe we’ve passed the tipping point as a relevant one.  What is relevant is that we are going to suffer effects as a result of past greenhouse gas pollution–some are suffering them now–, no matter what we now do to slow or stop those emissions, and progressives must understand this and include it in their view of the present and near future.  

  2. All of the so-called “measures” currently in operation are shell games to make corporations look like they’re “burning less carbon,” while allowing the aggregate rate of carbon burning to increase.  The capitalist system depends for its vitality on that 2% uptick, and all the talk in the world about “alternative energy sources” won’t stop the fossil-fuel burning.  A general agreement to keep the stuff in the ground might do the trick.  But with capitalism the temptation to drill, refine, and sell crude oil is just too great — it’s the 85 million-barrel-a-day habit.  

    The climate change problem conforms more or less to the parameters of what Garrett Hardin called the “tragedy of the unmanaged commons.”  The climate is a commons, and now it’s also a dumping ground for fossil-fuel CO2.

Comments have been disabled.