Why Give Barack a Pass on Energy?

It’s understandable that many Democrats are enthused about Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. He’s young, hip, smart, and charismatic. He’s an African American in a race that also features a woman and a Hispanic man. And he talks a good line about energy, the environment, the economy, national security and global climate change that intelligent progressives have accepted uncritically, including those at ThinkProgress.com.

But from this vantage his candidacy feels like it’s wrapped too tightly in the see-through cloth of hope and hype.

What leads to this conclusion? The good Senator’s mixed message about global climate change and energy. Here’s what his official campaign Web site says about global warming:

barack-obama.jpg“We need to take steps to stop catastrophic, manmade climate change. If we do not act, the consequences will be devastating for future generations, especially for the poorest global populations. Barack Obama believes the U.S. must act decisively and creatively to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.”

In the very next paragraph, under the heading “Increasing the Clean Use of Illinois Coal,” here’s what Senator Obama says about energy: “Barack Obama worked with Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) and others to promote research into a process that turns Illinois-basin coal into clean-burning fuel for cars and trucks and using advanced technology to limit carbon emissions. Today, fuel produced from coal powers a third of South Africa’s cars and trucks. The research could help us one day satisfy our energy needs from Illinois’ coal mines instead of Saudi Arabia’s oil fields. In 2007, Obama passed an amendment to a budget package to provide $200 million to research reducing carbon emissions from coal.”

In the parlance of public interest campaigning, this is what is commonly referred to as double talk. The idea of “clean coal” technology is a chimera, a kind of “holy grail” adventure periodically offered to the American public to justify the continued mining and combustion of the dirtiest energy source on earth. Coal is a mess to extract, producing acid mine drainage and all manner of other forms of water and land degradation in the Midwest and East, and ripping vast scars on the lands of the West. It’s even more hazardous to burn, emitting mercury and heavy metals, and producing enormous quantities of carbon dioxide and other warming gases.

The federal Department of Energy has wasted a lot of money to promote “clean coal” technology for 30 years. All that can be said is that the latest practices may burn a little less dirty, but that’s a long way from clean.

We should expert more from Senator Obama, and any other candidate for president, Democratic or Republican, on energy and global climate change. International scientific panels have reached consensus on the causes of global climate change — combustion of fossil fuels — and its solutions — develop much cleaner energy alternatives. Replacing coal with a national research and development program aimed at building an inventory of ecologically-sound energy sources should be a priority goal of any 2008 candidate. Voters have a responsibility to reject anything less, especially a candidate that masks his support for a state industry behind technological double speak. 

A final note. Voters ought to ask Senator Obama about his economic priorities. The Illinois coal industry, still the nation’s ninth largest, produces 32 million tons annually of some of the dirtiest high-sulphur Midwest coal, the type that already was causing the acid rain that has been diminishing the forests of the South and Northeast. According to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the industry has been steadily consolidating for 30 years. In 1978, 70 mines in 10 Illinois counties employed 18,000 people. In 2006, there were 20 mines with 3,900 miners. In some southern Illinois counties coal jobs have disappeared completely. Doess Senator Obama really stand for the future, as he says? Or is he just one more articulate politician showing false compassion for a dangerous industry and a fading constituency?

What Is Al Gore Up To?

In case you missed it, Al Gore spoke to both houses of Congress today about global climate change, calling it a “planetary emergency.” As a reputation boosting, global elevating, and upcoming book promoting exercise, Gore’s confident stroll through the various hearing rooms that he once occupied as a sitting member was terrific theater. compactflor.jpg

But having been a Gore watcher since the 1980s, when he was a young congressman and I was a young correspondent, I just have this instinct that more may be operating here, if that’s at all possible. In a year when Gore has already won an Academy Award for “An Inconvenient Truth” and could win a Nobel Peace Prize, you might think it intemperate to ask more of the man. Nevertheless its still fair to wonder whether a man of such remarkable ability has one more great turn in him. And that is another run for the presidency. 

I can only tell you that Gore is making a difference and his message is heard where it counts. This weekend, at the urging of my 15-year-old son, who’d seen “An Inconvenient Truth” in school, we changed out every single one of the 88 lightbulbs in our home with energy-saving compact fluorescents. The project began with this question. “What kind of light bulbs do we have?” Cody asked. “The old kind,” I replied. “You’re the environmentalist,” he continued, an eyebrow arched. So off we went on Saturday to Traverse City and dropped $320 to save energy and make our latest contribution to reducing greenhouse gases. The political point, though, is that Gore capably reached a 15-year-old with an important message and that kid responded. 

The other side of why Gore could be considered to have a duty to run is how the wing nuts in the other party respond to him. One of the earliest indicators of whether you are winning or losing a public interest campaign is how much vitriol you attract from your opponents. When they start calling you names you know you’re sitting pretty. Gore prompts his opponents to lose their minds. Call up Technorati.com, type in Gore, and read the right wing response to his Congressional appearance.

A last point: Though the news media are stirring around the idea that the Democratic field of 2008 presidentiial candidates is more seasoned and adept than the Republican candidates, it’s not all that clear. The Web sites of the Democratic candidates, even New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s, are pretty lame at this point, even on the issues that tens of millions of voters care about, including energy and global climate change. Gore on the other hand has a clear message, expertise, and the courage of his views on a momentous issue of his time. And that issue melds into so many others that challenge the country and the planet: clean government, efficiency, fiscal policy, transportation, and energy-wasting, time-consuming metropolitan development patterns that are challenging in substantive ways the rights of Americans to lead productive lives.  Hillary may not survive her unconvincing explanation of why she voted to approve the war. Barack’s peak may be right now and he has only one way to go, and that’s down. Bill Richardson has to do more than be viewed as a rumpled commoner. Al Gore tread confidently into Congress today and he was the smartest, most politically astute, and hottest politician in the place. There’s more happening here than just a couple of hours of earnest testimony.  

Cleaning Up Those Coal Plants

Tom Friedman has a very interesting piece in the March 16 edition of the New York Times that reports the back story of the announcement last month that TXU would not build eight high-polluting coal plants in Texas. Turns out that the new owners of the utility were concerned about the public relations fallout from the battle they’d been engaged in with grassroots groups in Texas, and national environmental organizations, particularly Environmental Defense and the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

The campaign against the plants involved the public’s growing knowledge of the costs of climate change, as well as the influence of the Internet and social media to inform and motivate the opposition. Friedman reports that some heavy duty Wall Street financiers also were involved. In the new era of public interest advocacy, the convergence of money, communications, research, and public opinion has the power to move major corporations concerned about their place in a global world.

Here in Michigan, we found similar publilc interest success three years ago when a Texas energy developer arrived in Manistee proposing to build a big coal-fired power plant. Residents put together a profoundly convincing case about the environmental and economic costs to the city and the region if the plant was approved. They also discovered that the developer could largely avoid paying municipal taxes, thus saddling Manistee with all of the costs associated with the plant, including rebuilding roads and providing police, fire, and emergency medical services. That evidence and more was disseminated over the Internet, fostering a very lively email conversation, and ultimately drawing over 1,000 people to three public hearings, after which the city ultimately turned the plant down. dirtycoal.jpg

In 2007 a new mainstream thought has entered the conversation about coal-fired plants in Michigan. Not a single new one ought to be built in the state, ever. The same thought has crossed the national intellectual radar lately. Amanda Griscom of Gristmagazine reported last week that James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s top climate scientists threw down the gauntlet. “There should be a moratorium on building any more coal-fired power plants,” Hansen told the National Press Club. 

The evidence is powerful for developing cleaner and more economically productive energy sources, like solar and wind. The costs of coal are clear. And enough people know the basic parameters of the debate to make a ban on new coal plants plausible. Facts well-disseminated to an interested constituency has completely altered the balance of influence on the usefulness of coal as a fuel for generating electricity. And it’s happened Mode Shift fast.

Great Western Train Race, C’mon Michigan


More on that train race out west that I wrote about earlier this month. Metro, the transit agency in Phoenix, is asking the state for $1.7 billion to accelerate construction on the 57-mile light rail system that is being built, and to add more than 20 new miles to the system by 2027. This according to the Arizona Republic.

That’s the very same strategy that Salt Lake City voters approved in November when they raised the sales tax to speed up construction and add new lines to a 45-mile light rail system, and an 88-mile commuter rail network. The $3.1 billion system is so popular that suburbs that fought its development are clamoring to organize constituents and build even more train lines (see pix.)

In both places, just as here in Michigan, there was plenty of skepticism about the value of light rail, whether people would make the mode shift from their cars to a train, and whether the investment would pay economic dividends. And in both western cities the answers are that trains are more popular than anticipated, and are encouraging $billions in new housing, retail, office, and recreational investments. As an icon of a region’s will to succeed as an energy efficient, environmentally-conscious, modern, and prosperous place, rail rapid transit has few equals.

Look at Utah: low unemployment, rising job numbers and incomes, well-educated workforce, mecca for young people, vibrant, and building the West’s second largest regional rail system next to Denver’s.

Look at Michigan: nation’s highest unemployment, rapidly diminishing job numbers and personal income, workforce not yet convinced that college degrees are worth the trouble, treats its brightest young people as a primary export, troubled spiritually, and still arguing about whether rail transit has a place.

In an interview on Michigan Radio earlier this month, Michigan’s Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm said that public transit, and especially trains, were a “necessary” investment for the state to make to be competitive in the global economy. A starter line that links Ann Arbor with Detroit, and the suburbs in between, is now teed up for regional and state approval. There is $100 million in federal funding to complete the engineering and design stages and start construction. The  familiar crticisms about cost, popularity, wise investment and the like surround the proposal. The typical critics — Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, House Republican Leader Craig DeRoche among others — have aligned to derail the idea.       

But for the first time in years, there also is a political opening that makes sense. Gov. Granholm says she wants more transit. And state Representative Marie Donigan, a Democrat of Royal Oak, was appointed chair of the new House Public Transit Subcommittee. Marie is southeast Michigan’s most prominent elected transit advocate. Get in touch with her at mdonigan@wowway.com and tell her you want to help.

On the Bubble and A Little Bit Off

Tonight Al Gore could win an Academy Award for “An Inconvenient Truth.” Later this year he could also win the Nobel Prize for Peace. And if he lost 50 pounds and jumped into the 2008 presidential race, he could win that, too. Ever since he published “Earth in The Balance,” his 1992 best-seller, Gore’s two issues have been global climate change and himself.

The first, global climate change, is drawing the nation inexorably to logical choices about energy, metropolitan development patterns, population, conservation, and transportation. The catch phrase here is doing much more with much less. 

The second, Gore himself, is the problem of already having much more and working really hard to do less. It’s like dragging the best trumpet player in the marching band out to perform the Star Spangled Banner. Reluctance doesn’t begin to describe Al Gore’s nearly 20-year romance with true greatness. He abandoned almost any mention of the environment in 2000. Bush’s pledge to abide by the Kyoto Protocols, which he abandoned immediately upon crossing the White House threshold, attracted more attention. al-gore.jpg

Nevertheless here Gore is again ready to take a bow for superb leadership, while the rest of us who’ve been frustrated and inspired wonder what he intends to do with his favorite issue and global prominence. The momentum to change the rules of the development game, and to frame it around battling global climate change, is so intense that even George Bush stepped out on on the White House lawn for a moment last week to tout electric cars, a kind of presidential Punxsutawney Phil moment, to see if he could cast any shadow of influence over the issue. The president looks smaller these days, more pinched and stressed and embarrassed, almost like Michael Dukakis looked in 1988 when he put on that military helmet and rode in the tank.

No so Al Gore, who commands every stage he strides across. No one knows more about global climate change than he does, and no one inspires more confidence on the issue. A few weeks ago Gore was the guest of honor in New York at the World Resources Institute’s 25th anniversary celebration, helped raise $2 million, and showed yet again the star power that green issues have attained. Not since the first Earth Day in 1970 has the environment gained such stature and invited this much attention in economic, cultural, and political circles.

The question is whether Gore will complete the mission. As those of us who make the case and organize to shape new ideas know, it still takes government to draw the players and capital together to make big public interest ideas a reality. The federal government has the capacity to act. Its record on the environment is superb. What the United States has done to clear the air, scrub the waters, protect endangered species, encourage research and new findings, ensure natural areas, and all the while grow the economy, has few equals in the annals of public interest policy making. 

As Gore noted in 1992, and again over the last few years, the earth is in the balance. Will he take command of the Oval Office and really do something about it?