By Joe Conason
If the right-wing chorus insists that the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico is “Obama’s Katrina,” then let us hope the president will make the most of that slogan. The comparison between the utter failure of the Bush administration and the missteps and errors of the Obama White House is fundamentally false. Yet there is nevertheless a crucial parallel to be drawn as the fifth anniversary of the hurricane approaches.
As Eric Pooley observes in “The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers and the Fight to Save the Earth,” his fascinating new book about America’s struggle over global warming, Katrina brought attention to the problem after a decade or so of oblivion. Although the ruinous storm wasn’t “caused” by rising average temperatures, it was precisely the kind of devastating weather event that will become much more likely on a hotter planet.
In Katrina’s wake, most Americans seemed to comprehend that ominous fact, which in turn helped them hear the warning voiced by former Vice President Al Gore when his documentary film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” was released in May 2006. “The climate issue attention-cycle peaked in early 2007,” Pooley writes, just after Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize, “when a New York Times poll found that an overwhelming majority of those surveyed—90 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of independents, 60 percent of Republicans—favored ‘immediate action’ to confront the crisis. ...”
Still, climate action has never become a top priority for Americans as it has for Europeans and others around the world. Political lassitude encouraged by corporate propaganda and persistent unemployment has kept climate legislation stalled on Capitol Hill, even though a somewhat compromised bill authored by two Democratic representatives, Henry Waxman of California and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, passed the House last year.
As for Obama, he commenced his administration with strong rhetorical support for “green jobs” and a clean-energy economy, and took significant steps in that direction through the stimulus program. But during the year since the passage of the Waxman-Markey bill, the president focused his political strength on passing health care reform—while his advisers persuaded him to remain aloof from the climate issue.
Perhaps that was wise political counsel, since global warming has lost momentum as a public concern over the past three years. But it is bad public policy, because the challenge of coping with climate change only grows worse with each lost year—and because American global leadership is enfeebled by our inability to reach national consensus on limiting carbon emissions.
Clearly, as he reiterated in his Oval Office speech this week, the president understands what is at stake. And he apparently senses renewed opportunity in the wake of the Gulf catastrophe, which illustrates the problems of oil dependency with harrowing urgency. New polling data released last week by the Woods Institute should encourage him.
Although the survey of 1,000 American adults taken during the first week of June showed a slight decline in the percentage of Americans who believe global warming is real and manmade, 75 percent still firmly hold that view.
Moreover, 76 percent said they favor government limitations on greenhouse gas emissions generated by businesses, and only 14 percent said the United States should not take action to combat global warming unless countries like China and India do so, as well. And only 18 percent believe that policies to combat climate change would worsen unemployment.
What these numbers suggest is that, like Katrina’s terrible aftermath, the months of anguish over the soiled Gulf have reawakened Americans to the fate of our country and our planet. The moment has come again for leadership toward a green New Deal, in cooperation with all of the major economic powers, that can revive the economy, restore the Earth and preserve a decent life for all of our children.
Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.
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