Political Animal


October 17, 2012 10:57 AM The Total Eclipse

By Ed Kilgore

Anyone with a sense of history has probably been struck by the remarkably skewed nature of the current national discussion (as reflected in the presidential contest) on energy and the environment. At last night’s second presidential debate, there was a very extended discussion of the two candidates’ positions on oil and gas exploration and coal-fired utilities. Romney looked for a while like he was going to stake the entire election on a personal nose-to-nose confrontation with Obama over how many permits the administration issued for exploitation of public lands and waters by oil companies.

Yet the word “environment” came up exactly once, when Obama suggested it was possible to greatly expand natural gas production “in an environmentally sound way.” That was it. And as Grist’s Lisa Hymas ruefully noted in a summary of the debate:

Romney also took some knocks straight from Obama — but, depressingly, most of them consisted of the president defending fossil-fuel development.

Four years ago the Republican presidential candidate had been one of Washington’s most active legislators on climate change (though he was subsequently forced to retreat from much of his own legislation). Now not only are climate change and greenhouse gas emissions more or less forbidden subjects in the presidential contest, but environmental concerns that have been fully bipartisan for decades are going unmentioned.

Yes, of course, some of this change reflects a bad economy (though this is not the first serious U.S. recession since Earth Day, and we’ve never had anything like the current total eclipse of environmental issues). Some of it has to do with swing-state and swing-voter targeting, and the belief (apparently strong in both campaigns) that the identity of the next president depends on people living in coal-dependent southeastern Ohio or southwestern Virginia, or on auto workers used to viewing “environmentalists” as the enemy. It’s notable that Obama’s big “green” gesture last night was also swing-state-dictated: a shout-out to a wind energy tax credit that’s very popular in Iowa, and that Romney has opposed.

And a lot of the change in—if you’ll excuse the term—“the environment” simply flows from the dramatically rapid radicalization of the Republican Party on this entire cluster of subjects, which comes from a lot of directions (corporate pressure, hatred of scientific elites, Christian Right “dominion over the earth” enthusiasts, etc.).

It’s still shocking, though, and the best example we have of the hard-core Right just taking a previously unavoidable issue right off the table, precisely when it most needs to be discussed.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • bcinaz on October 17, 2012 11:13 AM:

    That whole exchange was ridiculous. I was dumbfounded to hear O defend 'clean coal technology', and that he did not smack Romney for not understanding that SPECULATION in the oil markets are the main drivers of prices at the pump. Since the US is now a net exporter of gasoline, drill baby drill is a nonsense answer.

  • Gandalf on October 17, 2012 11:31 AM:

    I for one believe that environmental issues are of the utmost importamce but let's face reality we're not going to instantaneously change over to completely green energy production overnight. I think Obama has been quite measured in his approach to this because if he wasn't and the country had a an economic breakdown because of draconian change he'd be out for certain and we'd be left with overlords who would destroy the environment as fast as they could to maximize profits.

  • SecularAnimist on October 17, 2012 11:50 AM:

    Thank you, Ed, for taking note of this issue, which is usually addressed on this blog as infrequently as it is by either candidate.

    What is truly appalling is that the ONLY question that CNN's Candy Crowley allowed "for all of you climate change people" (as she described it in the post-debate coverage) was a question to Obama about his administration's policies to LOWER GASOLINE PRICES, which is to say, about how to make fossil fuels LESS EXPENSIVE for people to burn.

    And what is even more appalling is that both Obama and Romney proceeded to challenge each other over which one would do more to INCREASE FOSSIL FUEL EXTRACTION in the USA, with Obama (the good guy) spouting fossil fuel industry lies about nonexistent "clean coal" and boasting that his administration has done more than the Bush/Cheney administration to expand oil drilling in the USA -- with Romney saying that even that was not enough of a "Drill Baby Drill" approach.

    Obama is clearly "better" -- his administration's policies to support the development and deployment of renewable energy and efficiency technologies go beyond what any previous administration has done, and have had significant results, as seen in the dramatic growth of solar and wind power for electricity generation. And the EPA's steps towards regulating greenhouse gas emissions have helped to encourage the retirement of some of the oldest and worst-polluting coal-fired power plants.

    But these measures, while definitely in the right direction, are utterly inadequate in the face of the realities of global warming, and are offset by Obama's misguided support for expanding oil, coal and gas extraction in the USA. Moreover, Obama has basically refused to discuss the facts of global warming and climate change, or to link the dire threat that they present to the urgent need for new energy policies.

    We are speeding towards a cliff, folks -- with a 1,000 foot drop onto jagged rocks below. Romney wants to jam the pedal to the metal and accelerate. Obama, apparently, thinks it is sufficient to slow down a little, so that we'll go over the cliff at 75 MPH instead of 100 MPH.

  • scott g on October 17, 2012 11:57 AM:

    "the best example we have of the hard-core Right just taking a previously unavoidable issue right off the table, precisely when it most needs to be discussed."

    Next to gun control, that is. But yeah.

  • SecularAnimist on October 17, 2012 12:03 PM:

    Gandalf wrote: "I for one believe that environmental issues are of the utmost importance ..."

    Gandalf, we need to stop thinking of global warming as "an environmental issue" in the traditional sense of that term.

    Global warming IS an economic issue (it's costing billions of dollars a year already).

    Global warming IS a national security issue (US military planners say that it is emerging as THE national security issue of the 21st century).

    What we are talking about is the imminent failure of agriculture due to global warming-driven drought, the imminent collapse of global fisheries due to ocean acidification, and the imminent death of most of the world's forests -- in the USA and all over the world, which will result in global famine that will never end. We are talking about food riots, massive social upheaval, the collapse of governments, and world-wide chaos.

    We are talking about food shortages right here in the USA -- people going to the store and finding not that bread is too expensive to buy, but that there is no bread.

    And on top of that, we are talking about an onslaught of "weather of mass destruction" -- violent storms, massive floods, killer heat waves, and other extreme weather events that will devastate the essential infrastructure of our civilization, making major cities both on the US coastlines and in the southwest uninhabitable, repeatedly knocking out large parts of the electric grid, etc., that will challenge even wealthy, advanced nations like the USA to survive.

    This is what's being ignored by both candidates.

  • Speed on October 17, 2012 12:10 PM:

    Maybe it's because today's Democrats are to the right of Nixon on most issues. And the GOP is unrecognizable. The party of Eisenhower warning us about the military-industrial complex seems like a million years ago.

  • cwolf on October 17, 2012 12:26 PM:

    Next global warming worry: Thawing tundra

    Tundra Fires will make great YouTubes.

  • Josef K on October 17, 2012 12:35 PM:

    I suspect climate collapse (and let's be frank: the biosphere is shifting radically to accomodate us humans) will come up in a very big way soon. Probably not before NYC becomes Venice, or one of the Great Lakes catches fire again, but at least it'll get talked about.

  • SecularAnimist on October 17, 2012 12:52 PM:

    Josef K wrote: "... at least it'll get talked about."

    It's getting talked about a lot -- by people driven from their homes by wildfires and floods, by barge operators who can no longer move cargo down the Mississippi because it is drying up and becoming too shallow for their barges, and by farmers across America watching their fields turning to deserts before their eyes.

    It's just not being talked about by presidential candidates, who prefer to compete with each other over which one is a bigger friend to the coal tycoons.

  • Steve LaBonne on October 17, 2012 12:54 PM:

    Future generations will judge us very, very harshly.

  • SecularAnimist on October 17, 2012 1:33 PM:

    Steve LaBonne wrote: "Future generations will judge us very, very harshly."

    On the other hand, at the rate we are going there may not be many more future generations.

  • SecularAnimist on October 17, 2012 1:43 PM:

    Ed Kilgore wrote:

    "Yet the word 'environment' came up exactly once, when Obama suggested it was possible to greatly expand natural gas production 'in an environmentally sound way'."

    Right. We've seen this movie before, folks.

    Readers may recall that in April 2010, when Obama announced the largest expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling in US history, he said that his administration was "opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development in ways that protect communities and protect coastlines ... We’ll protect areas that are vital to tourism, the environment, and our national security."

    That was about three weeks before the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

  • Oh my on October 17, 2012 2:45 PM:


    Anthropological Global Warming has been both my biggest fear and most important personal political issue for well over a decade . We simply can't haggle over ideological details when physics is our opponent. That said, my hope for a future without near complete environmental collapse has cooled dramatically over the last year. I'm sure you've seen 'Collapse' or 'Crude Awakening', but my take after watching them is that we are 100% fubar. Oil is quite simply what made the 20th century possible. It is the bedrock of what we recognize as the modernity of human civilization. It made the explosion of both wealth and population possible. No other power source comes close to sustaining (much less growing) our modern needs barring a miraculous breakthrough in energy physics. "Fortunately" we are about to rapidly run out of oil. Unfortunately, human need for our current standard of life will kill this planet before it's all gone. We'll claw at what we've come to know modern life to be until nature pries if from our cold dead hands. We simply can't help ourselves.

    Physics and human nature are set on a collision course. I no longer see any other end beside a colossal wreck.

  • peggy on October 17, 2012 3:34 PM:

    @secular animist
    As to future generations, I'd back Romney's great-grandchildren's chances (likewise the Walton heirs). Even if the Earth is heading towards Venus, I bet they'd survive. The rest of us, nah.

    The worst immediate change- an ice free Arctic Ocean- has an earliest scientifically suggested date of 2016. These candidates are just worried about November. Maybe political pressure can be applied to an Obama second term. Maybe the American public can be convinced of the catastrophe approaching. Or maybe nothing will be done.

    Enough scientists and engineers are scared out of their minds that all the potential technical fixes are beginning to be addressed. Since the Pentagon takes climate change seriously, let us all say a prayer for the warriors.

  • Nate on October 17, 2012 4:06 PM:

    I agree that this is the absolutely #1 most important issue facing humanity today. (I also am 75% certain that we're about 3 decades too late to begin doing anything to stop the now-inevitable disaster. . . ).

    . . . this may be the political strategy that wins: no politician can do jack squat about global warming now. It's too big, too late. Even talking about it now, is political suicide. Lewis Powell absolutely won.

    But the other salient point is: in today's corporate-driven debate atmosphere, with the 90-minute format, big-money-owned two-party-system, even if Obama grew a spine and decided to try to discuss it during a debate, do you seriously think that any constructive headway would be made in arguing about it? With a 2-minute answer - then onto Romney's response, then onto the next question? Are you kidding? Al Gore only barely scratched the surface of this enormously complex issue in a 1 hour movie.

    I'm not saying that this isn't an issue that we shouldn't see debated among our leaders.

    I'm just saying that our system is pretty much hopelessly broken. There's no constructive way to bring this issue up for debate, and even if there were, I don't think we have a technical solution to fix this problem. Even if Obama outlawed the burning of all fossil fuels tonight - you'd have armed hoards on the white house steps tomorrow throwing him out. The last two people of the original Easter Island culture probably killed eachother over the right to cut down the last tree. Such as it will be with us.

  • Rick on October 17, 2012 4:48 PM:

    I can sum up Romney's "plan" for North American energy independence in just 5 years in 3 little words: Not "Drill, Baby, Drill" (so 2008) - No, now it's "Go Frack Yourself."

  • SecularAnimist on October 17, 2012 5:00 PM:

    Oh my wrote: "Oil is quite simply what made the 20th century possible. It is the bedrock of what we recognize as the modernity of human civilization."


    When it comes to energy, "the bedrock of what we recognize as the modernity of human civilization" is electricity.

    Electricity is what defines modern, technological civilization. It is the LIFE BLOOD of modern, technological civilization.

    What do we actually use oil for? We use it for liquid fuels, primarily for transportation. Which is to say, cars.

    It's easy to imagine modern, technological civilization without cars -- certainly without anything resembling the massive reliance on automobiles found in the USA.

    Too many people obsess about how to keep the cars going. We don't need them. With rail and other forms of electrically-powered transit, and rational land-use changes to undo the disaster of suburban sprawl, it's easy to imagine a comfortable, prosperous, highly advanced technological civilization without a gas-guzzling SUV (or two or three) in every garage.

    What's important is keeping the lights on. Keeping the computers on. Keeping the Internet on. Keeping the radio and TV networks on. Keeping the refrigerators, medical scanners, and all the other technological advances running. And they all run on electricity -- and in the USA, the amount of electricity generation that depends on oil is just about zero.

    Fortunately, we have at hand, right now, today, powerful and mature technologies for converting the energy from the sun, the wind, and the water, and the heat of the Earth into electricity -- and for storing that energy in various forms, including thermal, chemical and kinetic energy. And those technologies are getting better, cheaper and more efficient by the day.

    The solar energy that strikes the Earth's surface in ONE HOUR is more than all the energy that human civilization uses in ONE YEAR.

    Solar power plants on just five percent of the USA's deserts could generate more electricity than the entire country uses -- and that's just a fraction of the USA's solar resources. Distributed photovoltaics on all the USA's flat, commercial rooftops could generate more electricity than all the nuclear power plants in the country.

    The onshore wind energy of just four midwestern states is, again, more than the entire country uses -- and again that's just a fraction of the USA's wind resources.

    We have abundant, free energy and the means to harvest it. The idea that civilization cannot be sustained without fossil fuels is a myth.

    Which is good -- because solving the global warming problem requires that we leave the remaining recoverable fossil fuels in the ground, and stop using them LONG before they would "run out".

  • Peter C on October 17, 2012 5:31 PM:

    While I agree that global warming is a crucial issue, I think the election of 2010 doomed it. We can’t hope for any meaningful legislation until the Democrats control the House; Boehner will never let any substantive measure come up for a vote. Republicans will gleefully slander anything helping the environment as the Democrats stalling the economic recovery, so Obama’s silence about it is the only sound tactical move while the ‘drill, baby, drill!’ crowd dominate the Republican party. There is no question that the Republican position is to burn all the fossil fuels as quickly and as dirtily as possible. They speak of ‘energy independence’ as if all we had to do was stick a drinking straw in the ground to be swimming in oil. It’s utter fantasy as far as I can make out.
    No true environmentalist can be unaware of the Republican Party’s disastrous wrongheadedness on environmental policy. But, when the entire Republican campaign is built as a referendum about the economy, we’ll have to fight the environment for Obama this election; I don’t think he can stress it without giving the Republican’s squawk machine a terrible opportunity to reinforce their campaign’s chief message.

    Truthfully, to fix the environment, we need a wave election. Biden’s debate and this second one may return the possibility of it. We’ll know more in about a week.

  • Peter C on October 17, 2012 5:45 PM:

    @Secular Anamist,

    I really appreciate your passion about alternative energy; it gives me hope.

    I think tidal power has enormous potential. The sun and moon lift millions of tons of water every day. To harness it, most of what we have to do is carefully throw rocks in the sea; very few other technological advances are required.

    If we had a progressive government, we'd solve the unemployment problem by paying people to construct tidal lagoons.

  • Doug on October 17, 2012 6:43 PM:

    bcinaz, while it would undoubtedly be best to completely do away with ANY use of coal as of yesterday, I don't think that's going to happen. I CAN see no more coal-fired plants in operation twenty-five years from now, after their having been phased out. But until that occurs, it certainly couldn't hurt to continue research into "clean(er) coal", if only to reduce pollution UNTIL the last coal-fired facility shuts down
    And then there's always the possibility of a "serendipity effect" occuring while research is being done trying to "clean up" coal...

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