The election’s polarization around climate, energy and the environment isn’t about the costs or relative importance of shifting to renewable power, protecting public lands or cleaning up air and water. It’s about the struggle between America’s economic past and its future.
Mitt Romney and the Republican Party have doubled down on a fading finance- and commodity-dominated economic order. It is one where innovation in research and development finds no domestic markets because incumbent interests hold on to outmoded capital stocks instead of modernizing them, and where innovative manufacturing is sacrificed to other sectors of the economy. As Romney said, inaccurately, in the first debate, lashing out at President Barack Obama: “You provided $90 billion in breaks to the green-energy world. Now, I like green energy as well, but that’s about 50 years’ worth of what oil and gas receives.”
The Republicans’ strong tilt toward coal and oil isn’t new. Former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were both oil executives, and Senator John McCain embraced “drill, baby, drill” as a mantra in his presidential campaign against Obama in 2008.
But in their positioning and communications, Republicans such as Bush and McCain kept their distance from the unpopular oil industry. They claimed to support -- just more reasonably than the Democrats -- clean-energy innovation.
McCain voted for, yet expressed queasiness about, oil- industry tax breaks. The “war on coal,” which Romney accuses Obama of waging, is Obama’s delivery on Bush’s 2000 campaign pledge to clean up “grandfathered” coal-fired power plants.
So the tone -- if not the substance -- of the Republican approach to clean energy and innovation has shifted sharply. For years, Republicans followed the advice of pollster Frank Luntz, who warned the party that voters wouldn’t tolerate threats to their health and environmental security.
“You cannot allow yourself to be labeled ‘anti- environment,’” Luntz wrote in a 2002 memo. “But when we talk about ‘rolling back regulations’ involving the environment, we are sending a signal Americans don’t support. If we suggest that the choice is between environmental protection and deregulation, the environment will win consistently.” Even when Bush sought to weaken health regulations -- as he tried with mercury -- he used Orwellian Luntz-speak like “Clear Skies” to describe his policies.
Romney as governor of Massachusetts famously stood in front of a coal-fired power plant and declared: “I will not create jobs that kill people. And that plant kills people.” Like his former Republican primary rivals, Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Romney once advocated a cap-and-trade emissions policy before the concept became political botulism within the party.
Today, Romney is well outside what was once his party’s mainstream on the environment. No Republican presidential nominee -- certainly not McCain or Bush -- ever openly disparaged America’s heritage of public lands as Romney has done when he asks, “What are they for?” and proposes to turn them over to the states wholesale.
Romney is no ideologue. Is he simply reading the polls?
It wouldn’t appear so. During periods of economic decline, environmental issues become less important, but there’s no support in the polls today for the attacks on clean energy that Romney is supporting. In Iowa, for example, a state he badly needs to win, solid majorities oppose his opposition to federal aid for the wind industry, as do Iowa’s Republican governor, Terry Branstad, and senior senator, Chuck Grassley.
Even after hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Koch brothers and industry, public support for the Environmental Protection Agency’s clean- air initiative has risen, notably among independents in Ohio and Michigan -- important constituencies in auto-industry states .
Where Romney’s current extremism makes sense is as a marker of a basic economic struggle. Look at the indicators of U.S. economic sluggishness and think about plausible solutions.
The U.S. has the industrialized world’s oldest, dirtiest and least-efficient power plants -- shielded from pollution- control requirements, so power companies don’t have to upgrade. The U.S. lost its manufacturing dominance in two technologies -- solar and wind -- because outmoded electricity regulation strangled their market access. The nation produces millions of flex-fuel vehicles, few of which burn ethanol, because oil controls the service stations, which won’t pump a competitor’s fuel. The U.S. rate of broadband access trails Romania’s because government doesn’t mandate universal service. U.S. paper companies bleed market share to imports manufactured with illegally logged timber because U.S. trade negotiators put overseas investors ahead of domestic manufacturing when they negotiated the World Trade Organization treaty. Oil interests have access to public capital markets through tax mechanisms explicitly denied to renewables.
Each of these burdens on U.S. innovation has a solution, one that requires government to stop cosseting economic incumbents and give innovators a fair chance. And each solution violates the new right-wing orthodoxy, which is to defend the status quo against the future.
An example of this favoritism is in Delaware. To lure Bloom Energy Corp., a Silicon Valley manufacturer of advanced fuel cells, to build a factory, the state broadened its renewable- fuels standard to include fuel cells, even though in today’s market they are mostly powered by natural gas, not biofuels. Such factory-location incentives have been the stock and trade of former and current Republican governors such as Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Rick Perry of Texas.
Yet conservatives were so offended by the idea that a Silicon Valley company with a “green” technology would benefit from such a deal that the legal arm of far-right forces in Delaware, the Caesar Rodney Institute, has sued the state over “unconstitutional corporate cronyism.” (In Delaware! Alexander Hamilton must be chuckling.)
It is easy to understand what motivates the coal and oil industries and the Koch brothers. The mystery is why Romney and his party have tied themselves to the wrong side of history. The last time the U.S. went through this kind of struggle between the old and new economy -- when the emerging national economy of railroads, banks and manufacturing challenged the localized agrarian economy of farmers and small towns in the 1870s and 1880s -- the past lost. Much of big business -- from General Motors Co. to General Electric Co. -- is solidly on the side of the future this time.
If this bet against history goes sour for the Republican Party, it might want to blame the Supreme Court. If anything has made it possible for the commodity and fossil-fuel industries to seize control of conservatism, it is the flood of money the Supreme Court has unleashed into Republican campaign coffers, notably through Citizens United decision, which held that government could not restrict political spending by corporations and unions. The Koch brothers have created a virtual parallel campaign for Romney, promising to spend $400 million on his behalf.
The money from another big contributor, Sheldon Adelson, flows from Chinese casinos, not Canadian tar pits. Adelson also sees government as a tool to protect his monopoly in Macau -- and has attitudes toward government that are fundamentally different from those of manufacturers, which want the national economy to grow fast to create markets for their products.
So this year’s environmental debate is not environmental at its heart. It is economic. And it wasn’t unleashed by unhappiness about the cost of cleanups, but by a flood of corporate cash striving to hold on to privilege and monopoly.
(Carl Pope is a former chairman of the Sierra Club. The opinions expressed are his own. This is the first of two articles.)
Today’s highlights: In a signed editorial, Michael R. Bloomberg endorses President Barack Obama for re-election.
Also, the editors on the Greek debt buyback; Stephen Carter on the election night concession speech; Ezra Klein on a unified field theory of Romney; Jonathan Mahler on Dan Okrent, the founder of Rotisserie baseball; A. Gary Shilling on five possible global shocks; Amity Shlaes on how disasters make government bigger.
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