Analysis: U.S. Senator Inhofe’s Denier Rhetoric Not Heard in Copenhagen

COPENHAGEN — On the day that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed up to the United Nations climate conference to say that the U.S. would contribute to a global clean energy and climate action fund that could grow to $100 billion by 2020, Senator James Inhofe also appeared in Copenhagen.

Earlier this month the Oklahoma Republican, one of Capitol Hill’s fiercest critics of climate action, told reporters that he would travel to Copenhagen with a “truth squad.” Its express mission: dispute climate science and disrupt the COP15 talks, which end tomorrow.

But the weight of urgency to meet tomorrow’s deadline and the intense diplomacy occurring around the clock now transformed Inhofe’s planned roar of perceived fact into a politically diminishing squeak. Briefly circled this morning by a group of reporters inside the Bella Center’s media center, Inhofe looked fidgety and uncomfortable as he accused the news media here of “being on the far left,” asserted that climate science was “debunked,” and promised that the chance of the Senate approving a proposed climate and energy bill was “zero.”

“Nothing binding will come out of here in my opinion,” Inhofe said, referring to the negotiations. “And if it does it will be rejected by the American people.”

Weak Appearance

Inhofe’s conservative allies in government and the media are certain to describe his visit as a heroic act of political principle – confront the lions of climate action in their own den and all that. But a more significant outcome of Inhofe’s three-hour Copenhagen visit could be the political consequence it may produce in Washington D.C.

The Oklahoma Republican, who steadily elevated his career to national significance – in the model of former Alabama Governor George Wallace — through calculated confrontation and rhetoric strategically calibrated to excite and inflame, miscalculated every aspect of his trip here.

The timing was wrong. The audience was not receptive. And Inhofe’s message was a blur for foreign reporters – Senate politics, hijacked emails – and old news for American journalists.

Indeed, there was real news to report. The U.S. started the day here with a surprising commitment to help finance a $100 billion climate and energy fund, the first time the country has formally recognized the magnitude of the investment needed globally. Clinton did not specify how much the U.S. would commit or its schedule, but did say that it was predicated on the Chinese allowing the world to measure and verify carbon reductions there.

The Chinese followed later in the day – no surprise — with assurances that it would be much more open and transparent in reporting progress on commitments it made last month to reduce carbon emissions.

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Photo: J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue
350.org co-founder Bill McKibben spoke at the vigil, which intended to put pressure on world leaders such as U.S. President Barack Obama, who arrived for the final day of the conference.

A Day of Progress Ignores Oklahoma Senator
The climate negotiations, fraught with disagreement and slow progress for almost two weeks, seemed to open up after both announcements. NGO experts close to the delegations said the talks were starting to move with more pace. The chance that the 192 nations here would reach a deal on climate change that makes a difference came into clearer focus. In other words, there is little space today in the momentous global conversation on climate and the economy for a whiny American senator from the Great Plains.

Inhofe left Copenhagen looking weak, a little unstable, and kind of kooky. No doubt, the Congressional delegation — led by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — that arrived here today took note.

Inhofe’s revealing performance capped a tough week for free market conservatives in Copenhagen. Early in the week several meetings on climate science and the stolen emails, including one organized by Americans For Prosperity, an activist organization financed in part by coal and oil interests, attracted audiences of less than a dozen participants. The stolen emails, flogged by Sarah Palin and the right as evidence of a conspiracy to cook the science on warming, were ignored in Copenhagen. Instead negotiators vigorously defended the scientific consensus on the causes of climate disruption and its consequences.

Oklahoma’s Favorite Son in D.C.

It’s too early to tell, of course, what effect Inhofe’s silly visit to Copenhagen will have on his standing in Washington. It’s almost certainly not going to injure his stature in Oklahoma.

Named a senator in 1994 — to replace Senator David Boren who resigned to assume the presidency of the University of Oklahoma — Inhofe has won with strong margins three times, the latest in 2008 by gaining 57 percent of the vote.

His primary financial support comes from the fossil fuel industries whose climate science-denying interests he vigorously advances. Since 2000, according to Oil Change International, the coal and oil industries have contributed $1.13 million to his campaigns. Oklahoma is the number three producer of natural gas, the number six producer of crude oil, and is home to seven big coal-fired power plants, according to the Energy Information Administration and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

And Inhofe’s role as one of President Barack Obama’s most aggressive opponents appears as secure as any in the Senate. Just 34 percent of Oklahoma’s voters supported the president in the 2008 election. Only Wyoming disapproved of the president more.

Keith Schneider, a former New York Times national correspondent, is senior editor and producer at Circle of Blue. Reach Keith at keith@circleofblue.org. Read the previous installments of Schneider’s COP15 blogging here, here, here and here. Follow Circle of Blue’s continued coverage of the Copenhagen climate talks.

Radical Republican Economics: The End

Thank God, it’s over. The radical right is retreating back to the dank, dark, fetid corner from which it sprang 30 years ago. The wreckage they’ve wrought has left a nation unable to govern, an economy that will be wobbly for years, a president drained of credibility, and a capable nation doubting its own creativity and strength.

But if there’s one enduring value to the meltdown in leadership in Washington and the financial markets in New York it’s this: The cynical, hypocritical, dangerous ideology of the right has been exposed for the fraud it is. Though it involves money and credit and financial transactions I know nothing about, the credit crunch seems like the natural disasters I periodically reported on over the years.

Like a flood, a torrent of history and economics has drowned institutions that seemed untouchable only a year ago. Like fire, the financial crisis has raced through the White House and both houses of Congress, through the Fed and the Treasury, burning through the old forest of lies and making way for new leadership, new values, new goals. Like a category 5 hurricane, the foolishness of stripping away oversight, and removing sound management has blown through the bank accounts of the rich, and torn through the pension assets of the working class.

We all are paying a price. But our sympathies should lie only with those who steadfastly warned of the mess and resisted the right wing’s manifest lies.

In the 1990s I learned that it was absolute silliness to be sympathetic with the right. At the time the Michigan Land Use Institute, the organization I founded, was battling toe to toe with the free market governor, John Engler, his allies in the energy industry, and a group of movement ideologues who’d taken over the state Department of Environmental Quality. The issues were safety, environmental security, and fairness. Engler had essentially unbridled the natural gas industry, made millions of acres available for them to drill new wells, ignored environmental safeguards, bullied local governments that complained, and privately negotiated an agreement that led the industry to reduce royalty payments to thousands of families even as the value of gas increased. They did this all under the banner of the “free market,” deregulation, property rights, government-has-no-business-being-involved-in-business messaging that had brought Reagan and his acolytes, Engler among them, to power.

The gas industry’s behavior caused a furor in Montmorency, Otsego, and Antrim counties. I received five to ten calls a day from working people who’d been pushed around, or whose drinking wells had been damaged, or whose livestock had been injured by oil company trucks, or whose royalty checks had unexpectedly declined. They asked for help and we provided a lot of expertise in how to respond. But after a while I got accustomed to asking the callers who they voted for. And invariably they told me John Engler. I’d have to explain to them there really wasn’t much more we could do. They’d voted for the one-sided, anti-consumer, anti-environment, industry insider conduct that was now knocking them around.

It’s been hard to make that case with working people. But it’s true. The Crandall Canyon mine collapse in Utah that killed six miners and three rescuers in 2007 can be directly traced to the disinterest and disinvestment in regulating mine safety, the result of Republican ideology. The mine was located in a red county, and miners and the families of those who died had essentially voted for the hands off practices that contributed to their deaths.

Same with the chemical plant and refinery explosions that killed workers in Texas and the Deep South over the last 25 years. The weakening of work safety rules, the lack of enforcement, the disinterest in protecting people in dangerous jobs is a hallmark of Republican government, and has been so for nearly 30 years. But the installations that exploded were located in red counties. The men and women who died were red voters. Their families supported the Republican way of government that contributed to the deaths of those they loved.

The link between Republican values and personal disaster just hasn’t broken through until September 2008. Now there is no mistaking the consequences of a government narrative, aimed at working families, that substituted distractions — abortions and guns and gays — for the hard work of sound policy and careful fiscal management. With clever words designed to foster false resentments, Republicans masterfully fooled people into thinking that they shared something with the rich; that tax cuts, deregulation, property rights, and smaller government would actually make their lives better. Mix in racism, sexism, anti-semitism, and an abiding willingness to lie. It was a powerful witch-promoting brew.

Now it’s done. The cleansing will be painful. But at least we know that what lies ahead will be different and better.

Take Back America, The Narrative

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WASHNGTON — The Hip Hop Media Lab, an online non-profit that introduces low-income kids to the possibilities of making money with their creative talent, is a partner this week in producing the annual Take Back America conference. So is MoveOn.org, Living Liberally, Netroots Nation, and USAaction. This is the sixth edition of a three-day fest designed to introduce liberal America to some of the movement’s new icons — the New Organizing Institute, Hip Hop Caucus, and One Hood, among others — and to pay homage to some old ones — Jesse Jackson was in attendance today.

To be sure, the conference affirms earnest goals that would make America better. Those include ending the war, winning the 2008 presidential election, burying freemarket conservatism, promoting a national health care program, and developing a new economy that rebuilds the American middle class. Behind the broad themes are specific concerns — clean energy, environment, social justice, global climate change, media reform, restoring trust and faith in the legal system, and dealing with the crumbling banking system and housing markets are much featured in plenaries and sessions.

The important question, of course, is whether progressives can actually take back America. They’re making progress. A white woman and a black man are contenders for the presidency. Global climate change is a top tier public concern in the United States and around the world. Clean, green energy — renewables, energy efficiency, clean vehicles, rapid transit, high performance buildings — represents one of the largest and fastest-growing industrial realms in the United States.

Last summer, the American Solar Energy Society published a study that found 8.5 million Americans already work in green-collar jobs and that the various green energy and energy efficiency industries added $933 billion annually to the nation’s gross domestic product. Those industries included manufacturing the equipment and production of solar, wind, biomass, hydropower, hydrogen, and fuel cell power. It also included building efficient buildings and vehicles. By 2030, the authors predicted, 40 million Americans (1 in 4 working Americans) would be in green collar jobs and the value of the green collar industries in which they worked will add $4.3 trillion to the US economy.

But does all of this add up to a narrative that the majority of Americans 1) understand, and 2) embrace. That, friends, is not at all clear. Republicans built the governing majority that has essentially ruled America for a quarter century by convincing people that a handful of core ideas — tax cuts, deregulation, self-reliance, free markets, security, and prayer — represented the core chapters of the great millennial story of America. That it didn’t work is self-evident. The Republican narrative has produced one disaster after another — Iraq, mortgage crisis, dwindling incomes, widening gap between rich and poor, sanctioned torture, Katrina and New Orleans — and has given progressives an opening.

Yet can they jump through it and win? Maybe. And it’s not because of how progressives talk about their issues? They say too much with words that most people can not taste, touch, and see. One session here, for instance, is called, “Imperial Sorrows: The Domestic Costs of Policing the Globe.” Say what? Another is called, “Enpowering Workers: Progressive Imperative.” Who are we talking to? The introductory government class at Penn?

But we just might win because of two other progressive strengths that fit the 21st century. We’re much better at building the unlikely alliances, executing the effective convenings across race, class, regions, and workplaces that is so vital in this collaborative century. Labor, greens, Latinos, African Americans, women’s rights organizations, business executives, progressive think tanks, diplomatic organizations, research groups, city and state leaders are among the 2,000 attendees. And progressives do a very good job disseminating their work in their own media, much of it Web-based and on independent broadcast outlets.

The media center here is one of the conference’s nerve centers. Dozens of broadcasters congregate morning to night on “radio row,” interviewing attendees and guests. Behind a blue curtain in the same room is “bloggers row,” where roughly as many digital scribes work. And behind us are representatives of familiar magazines — Ms.Magazine, Mother Jones, The Nation, Washington Monthly, In These Times — and even more that I’m just coming to know — My DD.com, and Tapped.

Was Jim Kunstler Right About “The Long Emergency”?

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In 2005, when Jim Kunstler published “The Long Emergency,”  an unsettling synthesis of major market trends (peak oil), environmental conditions (global warming, water scarcity, disease), and what he called the other “converging castastrophes of the 21st century,” I was among the skeptics who was convinced that Kunstler’s analysis was uncharacteristically hyperbolic. Nearly two years later the shine on my bubble of optimism has dulled a bit. 

Essentially, Kunstler predicted that soaring oil prices would generate enormous economic, political, and cultural instability, including rising joblessness, homelessness, currency devaluations, and social disruption. He said that climate change would add another level of complexity and that the United States and other industrialized nations faced “a dark time.” Lastly, he said the coming cataclysm was approaching much faster than business leaders, social theorists, or elected officials either believed or acknowledged. Suburban America, said Kunstler, would be particularly hard hit. Urban America, with its transit systems, walkability, more compact development patterns would fare better. 

My reporting of new market trends, explored in this blog, reached a similar conclusion about the changes we are seeing in suburban and urban communities. Generally I’m optimistic. But as I’ve toured the country in the last couple of months, I’m continually reminded of Kunstler’s more emphatic forecasts.

High energy prices  have contributed to the weakening of the dollar overseas, and dramatically slowed suburban housing markets. Both trends are accelerating the decline of the U.S. auto industry, which continues to produce uncompetitive fuel-guzzling vehicles, and is leading the Midwest deeper into an aggravating recession. That, in turn, has contributed to the highest jobless rates in the nation, and some of the highest rates of home foreclosures and largest housing price declines

The strength of the national housing market kept the economy afloat after 9/11. Its slowdown here and in other regions is leading the nation into a recession that some economists say will be long and severe.

Michigan residents already are very familiar with what’s in store for the rest of the country. It’s not pretty. We already have the highest unemployment rate, the largest state budget deficits, and the largest decline since 2000 (12 percent) in median family income in the country. We also have a governor and a Legislature wholly incapable of finding a political consensus that will lead to a new development strategy, part of the grave electoral dysfunction that Kunstler predicted.

Indeed, the most visible and ominous result of this economic dysfunction is the wave of home foreclosures now inundating the nation. Foreclosures are mounting in almost every major American market. Even in San Diego, where million dollar homes burned in fierce forest fires in November and a traditional outpost of wealth and higher expectations, parts of the city are “approaching a point where nearly 10 percent of all homes are in some stage of foreclosure,” according to VoiceofSanDeigo.org.

More than one million new foreclosures are anticipated across the country in 2008. The mess is of sufficient economic concern that even President George Bush reached an agreement today with lenders to help some stressed homeowners, but left millions of others without protection.

And then comes the warming, the magnitude of which is increasing by every measure. New Orleans drowned in 2005. Atlanta, the Colorado Plateau (see Lake Powell in pix), southern California, and even the Great Lakes are drying up in 2007.

In the “Long Emergency”,  Kunstler explained that he didn’t welcome a national “crack-up,” but it was “a plausible outcome that we ought to be prepared to face.” I still think he’s wrong. But I’m also willing to briefly consider that enough unwelcome trends are falling into place that he could be just a little bit right.

Barack Steps Gingerly Into the Realm of A Weakened Beast

Democratic presidential candidate and Illinois Senator Barack Obama skipped across the big pond on Tuesday and landed in Detroit, where he stirred a modest amount of interest by scolding American auto makers for letting the Japanese take command of the industry, and then offering a federal hand in contributing to the industry’s health care costs in exchange for convincing auto makers to increase fuel efficiency by about 1 mile a gallon per year. 

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Big deal. Both ideas have been on the table in Motown for decades and rejected.  Detroit, after all, has a long tradition of deep sixing ideas that link in any way cars, fuel, and health care. In fact, the region and its signature industry are stubborn about their intellectual ruts. With the exception of an unexpected good run of stable fuel prices and rising incomes in the mid- and late-1990s under President Bill Clinton, the American auto industry has been steadily declining since the early 1970s. The consequences to southeast Michigan and the entire state have been profound. The Detroit region is the slowest growing, and most racially and economically segregated major metropolitan area in the nation. It ranks at the very bottom of the list for generating jobs and new businesses. Its unemployment rate, already among the highest in the country, would be significantly worse, but thousands of jobless workers have left the state to find work. 

Worst of all, arguably, is that citizens and civic leaders are absolutely incapable of coming to any agreement about how to solve the region’s myriad problems. The tradition of intellectual lassitude and clouded leadership that affects all of southeast Michigan has its roots in the auto industry. The Big Three — and this is a tired old story around here — has shown itself to be consistently inept in anticipating changes in the domestic and international markets, especially consumer desire for more fuel-efficient vehicles. I attended a conference at the Erb Institute at the University of Michigan over the weekend, and a former top Ford executive who now teaches in the university’s Ross School of Business was questioned about the industry’s dreary record in forecasting the market. “How could we know?” he shrugged. A colleague sitting in the audience turned to me and remarked, “The Japanese figured it out.”

Senator Obama is no fool. Having lived in Chicago he understands the ties between the auto industry and the economic well-being of his state and the rest of the Midwest. So you have to wonder about the strategy he unveiled today to stand on ceremony, trying to earn points from supporters for being “brave” enough to wag his finger at the auto industry about technology, oil dependence, and energy efficiency on their home turf. That’s not courage or boldness. It’s politics. And if he continues to hedge and feint and weave and dance, he doesn’t have a prayer of getting elected. Bombast only wears so long.

What he should have said is that the triple whammy of global climate change, peak oil shortages, and intense competition prompted by globalization are immutable trends in the international market that are altering how Americans live now, and that the biggest changes are still to come. If the United States wants to maintain a high standard of living for all its citizens, not just the wealthy, then a national reckoning, and a massive program to change our patterns of development is in order. The American civilization can prosper, but only if it is super energy efficient, environmentally sensitive, economically and fiscally responsible, and much more encouraging of collaboration and new ideas. The president’s role in this era is not just to marshal the financial might of the federal government for research and investment in new designs for growth — a concerted program to install photovoltaics on rooftops or a national construction program to build regional high speed rail systems are examples of a good start — it’s also to be the great convenor, drawing together bright minds and institutions to reach consensus on a new national growth strategy. 

In other words a mile per gallon per year increase in fuel efficiency in an era when competitors are producing 50 and 6o mile per gallon vehicles, and peak oil shortages are already driving prices to $4 a gallon, ain’t doing much for the United States, Michigan, or for Obama. It sounds stale and wimpy. A quid pro quo to trade federal health care dollars in exchange for convincing the auto industry to  build cars fit for the 21st century sounds like throwing good money after bad. The only explanation for the surge of Republican support for that one is that if Ford, GM, or Chrysler tank, their stock portfolios would be wounded. 

Obama came to Detroit on Tuesday and didn’t take the city, the state, or the nation anywhere. That’s not good enough in an era when the right of all Americans to live a good life is so much in doubt.