Saturday, October 6, 2012

Elections, Energy, and the Environment

Those of us concerned with the progress of industrial pollution fueling climate change weren’t too thrilled by the dead silence on the issue from both Governor Romney (no surprise there) and President Obama (yeah, he’s disappointed a lot of people) during the first presidential debate.  But, that’s not to say there’s no difference between the two candidates on that issue.  Or, that the outcome of the presidential election won’t have lasting repercussions for the future of the environment (if it has one.)

Last evening, I attended a debate at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium between hand-picked spokesmen for each candidate specifically on the issue of our national energy policy.  Professor Joseph Aldy, an academic scholar and expert on energy policy and global warming ( stated the case for the Obama administration, while Mr. Orren Cass, Domestic Policy Director for the Romney campaign (
presented the opposing view.  Few surprises on either side.  Some disappointment.  But, the clear contrast between two approaches to our country’s (and the world’s) energy strategy came through loud and clear.

The smell of politics was in the air, even at a college lecture hall (maybe, especially so.)  JOBS, JOBS, JOBS ran through the text of both speakers.  Aldy’s opening statement echoed Obama’s “All of the Above” approach to energy policy, which stressed clean tech like wind and solar (and, the more controversial bio-fuel approach) but left coal and oil on the table.  (Something that’s irked the environmentally conscious, and with good reason, given the warnings of scientists about the escalating danger of CO2 emissions.)

Cass’s opening statement stressed a vision of achieving America’s energy independence through privately funded, market-driven technological innovation in tapping fossil fuel sources domestically.  (In summation:  DRILL, BABY, DRILL.)  Cass also slipped in a claim that such free-market energy frontiersmanship would help to economically support the middle-class (presumably excluding that bothersome 47% of hangers-on.)

In answering questions about what investments each candidate would make toward energy research and development, the Obama side presented a vision of government/private sector cooperation in driving technological innovation, mainly in clean tech, citing the successes of wind power in energy production.  Naturally, the Romney side challenged the statistical figures supporting this.  (Politicians during a campaign are always like sci-fi writers; they create their own self-serving realities.  We try to depend on fact checkers to keep them honest, but with only limited success.  If only matters of scientific debate were left exclusively to scientists!)  Mainly though, Mr. Cass rejected the whole concept of the government “picking winners” by subsidizing selected industries, preferring to put his faith in the blind fortunes of the market place (an odd position from the Republican Party, which has been giving obscenely generous subsidies to the coal and oil industries – in exchange for campaign contributions, of course – for some time.)

From there, the back-and-forth for the most part illustrated the characteristics of both parties we’ve all come to expect, the Obama side compromising (some would say back-pedaling) trying to please everybody with emphasis on domestic oil and natural gas production in addition to renewables, and the Republican side condemning government bureaucracy and excessive regulation, condemning Obama for not drilling enough and trumpeting state-centered free-market approaches to every problem.  GOP in brief:  States Good.  Federal Government Bad.  (Makes you wonder why we bothered with the civil war.)

On the question of whether we should turn Arctic wildlife refuges into Texas oil fields, Mr. Cass was all for it.  “No reason not to.”  (If there’s a hell waiting for these guys, you can be sure it’s filled with polar bears.)  Professor Aldy spoke up for the environment a little, but encouraged other drilling efforts in the Arctic ocean.  (Doesn’t do the polar bears much good if we kill all the fish, though.)

The most striking and heated moment of the  evening (which I think best sums up the real difference between the two sides fighting over our future) came when the previously polite and diplomatic Professor Aldy quite passionately gave vent to his disgust with the Romney side’s opposition to mercury emission standards and the Clean Air Act, dramatically citing  a five-year-old in hospital with mercury poisoning or an elderly person hospitalized with life-threatening respiratory problems because the corporate bottom line took precedent over regard for life.  Mr. Cass of course poo-poo’ed this as propaganda for more government abuse of regulations.

Yes, the Republican approach to energy policy (toward life itself, really) is of course geared toward that 1% that clawed its way to the top of the food chain by being cunning, ruthless and not stopping or slowing to look back at all the little folks they trample on their way to the top.  Or, looking forward to the future generations that will have to inherit the consequences of the damage they do today.  (One envisions a polluted future in which the Earth’s surface in uninhabitable and only the rich can afford to live in air-filtered, sun-shaded domes.  “Breathing is a privilege you earn, you whining twits!  Wanna breathe fresh air?  Get rich!”)  That sentiment always manifests in an uncompromising contempt for government (now, that makes you wonder why we bothered with the revolution) and blind trust in the ability of unbridled individual endeavor to solve every problem (makes you wonder why we even bother to have laws.)  Throughout the debate, Mr. Cass scoffed at the idea of the government having anything at all to do with establishing standards for energy efficiency, in the design of cars or anything else.  “If people could save money on their cars, they’d be doing it already.”  (The notorious American tendency to go for big gas-guzzling autos suggests otherwise.)

So, there you have it.  Lately, I’ve heard a lot of self-declared environmentalists threatening to vote for the un-electable green candidate Jill Stein unless Obama mans up and leads the charge against CO2 emissions, sword held high, rainbow banner flying.  Get real.  In this world, we more often get stuck with the lesser of two evils.  As far as tactics go, it ‘ain’t like it is in the movies with the Rebel Alliance going head-to-head with the Evil Empire.  Obama may have fallen short, but he’s still pushing in the right overall direction.  At least, he’s not driving full ahead over an ecological precipice as the other side surely would.  And, childish protest votes in a close race will just win the election for Romney.

There is simply no comparison.  Either you want to entrust the nation’s future to a sane and reasonable (if flawed) party that actually cares about people, or to one that lives for the rich, lives in the moment, creates its own reality and believes (in defiance of all evidence to the contrary) that the Earth can heal itself and the free market can heal all (just as they apparently believe the female reproductive system can handle those exceedingly rare “legitimate” rapes.)

Your choice, folks:  Live in the moment, or live for the future.

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