Weekly Mulch: Climate Change On Obama’s Back Burner

By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

In his first State of the Union address, President Barack Obama touched on climate issues only briefly. He called on the Senate to pass a climate bill, but did not give Congress a deadline or promise to veto weak legislation. Nor did he mention the Copenhagen climate conference, where international negotiators struggled to produce an agreement on limiting global carbon emissions.

The Obama administration’s attitude towards climate change still represents a remarkable shift from the Bush years, when global warming was treated as little more than a fairy tale. But in the past year, Congressional squabbling has stalled climate legislation, and international negotiators nearly gridlocked in talks over carbon admissions at the multinational Copenhagen conference. Without strong leadership from the president, work to prevent this looming environmental crisis will stall.

Obama did address global warming skeptics, saying that they should support investment in clean energy, “because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.”

“And America must be that nation,” Obama said.

No push for climate bill

Despite his combative language,  the president did not challenge Congress to push for real solutions to ballooning carbon emissions and energy consumption. As Forrest Wilder of The Texas Observer notes, Obama “uttered the phrase ‘climate change’ precisely once.”

The Senate has already wait-listed the climate bill: Health care came first. With health care reform now in line behind work on jobs and bank regulation, climate legislation has little chance of passing the Senate in the coming months, let alone making it to the president’s desk.

If Congress lets this work wait until after the midterm elections, the United States will show up at international negotiations in December 2010 as a leader in carbon emissions yet again, but with little in hand to show a way forward.

Clean energy, not renewable energy

When the president did bring up climate issues, he focused on their connection between climate reform and potential job creation. Obama highlighted areas for growth, not in renewable energy fields like wind or solar power, but in nuclear power, natural gas, and clean coal.

Yes, these fuel sources could decrease the country’s carbon emissions. But they are not solutions that will revolutionize energy production. Grist’s David Roberts was floored that the speech omitted renewable energy entirely and kowtowed to a more conservative litany of energy projects. “I suppose it was done to flatter conservative Senators that will have to vote for the bill Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham are working on,” he writes. (The three Senators are working on a version of the climate bill designed to appeal to Republicans.)

“But the SOTU is not a policy negotiation,” Roberts says. “It’s a bully pulpit, a chance to shape rather than respond to existing narratives.”

Roberts argues that progressive supporters would benefit from a stronger message. If activists knew that the White House stands behind a real shift in America’s energy policy, they could use that prompt to drive action on climate change.

What was missing

While touting the virtues of off-shore drilling, Obama overlooked other policies that could broker real change. Although he admonished Congress to pass a climate bill, he did not pressure the legislature on what he’d like that bill to include. He did not mention cap-and-trade, the mechanism the House bill relies on to tamp down emissions and dirty energy use.

President Obama did touch on transportation reforms that could decrease the country’s use of fossil fuels.

“There’s no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains,”  Obama said. He cited a high-speed rail project that broke ground on Tuesday in Tampa, FL, as evidence that America could best the rest of the world in creating new energy-efficient technology.

But one or two high-profile projects won’t be enough to challenge Europe’s network of high-speed trains or China’s investments in solar power. The White House could put the country at the forefront of sustainable technologies, but it’ll take more money than the president has committed. In AlterNet’s ideal state of the union, projects like the railway would merit sustained attention and funding. Funding for the high-speed train came from this year’s stimulus bill, and there’s no guarantee that similar projects will find federal funding in the future.

“Continued support is still needed” for green jobs and clean energy, Alternet’s editorial staff argues. “It’s unclear yet how Obama’s new proposal for a three-year spending freeze will apply to this sector, but a boost is what is needed, not cuts.”

Green jobs

Michelle Chen argues for In These Times that the president is right to subordinate climate issues to economic policy. “The jobs angle is more than sugar-coating,” she says. A recent Pew Research Center poll put climate change at the end of Americans’ long list of cares, and a Brookings Institution study found that they’re no longer willing to pay as much for greener products.

Jobless workers need green in their pockets most of all, and so far politicians’ promises haven’t made up for the slack economy.

“No matter how slick the marketing, confidence in green jobs may wilt even further absent real investments in the beleaguered blue-collar workforce,” Chen writes.

Copenhagen accord losing momentum

The small role that climate change played in the state of the union address only emphasized the downward momentum of the issue since the United Nations conference on global warming in Copenhagen. Grist’s Jonathan Hiskes talked to six leaders in climate change activism, and none of them offered a different strategy than they had last year.

That same stasis is showing up in Europe, as well. Spain, which currently leads the European Union, proposed that the European Union’s negotiating position should remain the same as its position before the Copenhagen conference, according to Inter Press Service.

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), who’s working on climate change legislation in the Senate, offered advice to climate activists at a clean energy forum in Washington, DC on Wednesday. Mother JonesKate Sheppard reports that Sen. Kerry encouraged his audience to get angrier, louder, and more active, in the mode of the conservative Tea Partiers, who have earned plenty of attention. After his speech, he also recalled the tactics that pushed landmark legislation like the Clean Air Act through Congress.

If climate change is going to play a larger role in the next state of the union, the citizens and groups concerned about this issue need to do something to put it on the agenda. Otherwise, next year, the president may find it just as easy to skim over it again.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Pull the plug on the climate change bill

Few problems require federal action more urgently than global warming. I admire the members of Congress who have been trying to address this issue. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman tried to get the best deal he could. Senator John Kerry has tried to keep things moving in the upper chamber. Senator Lindsey Graham is getting tons of grief from fellow Republicans because he admits that climate change is a problem.

I want to support these people and their efforts to get a bill on the president's desk. Unfortunately, the time has come to accept that Congress is too influenced by corporate interests to deal with climate change in any serious way. Pretending to fight global warming won't solve the problem and may even be counter-productive.

This depressing post continues after the jump.

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Analyzing Swing States: Florida, Part 5

This is the last part of an analysis on the swing state Florida. The previous parts can be found here.

Here is how John Kerry did in south Florida:

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Here is how Barack Obama performed:

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Broward and Palm Beach are marginally smaller, when compared to Obama's performance. The big difference, however, is with Miami-Dade. Kerry won it by 6%; Obama won it by 16%.

There is no other place in Florida (and, perhaps, the country) like Miami-Dade. Palm Beach and Broward counties are retiree destinations; Miami is home to immigrants and refugees from all Latin America. More than 60% of the population is Latino - and only 3% of them come from Mexico. The Miami accent is unique compared with the nation. Local government is distinct from other counties in Florida.

One would expect Miami to be one of the most Democratic places in the nation, much like New York City or Chicago.

It is not.

The reason why is below the flip.

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Analyzing Swing States: Florida, Part 2

This is part two of a series on the political structure of the swing state Florida. Part three can be found here.

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Florida can be considered as three regions distinct in culture, economics, and voting patterns. Northern Florida is deep red; the I-4 corridor is light red; and the Miami metropolis is moderately blue.

Until recently, Florida was far different from what it looks like today. It was the quintessential Southern state, and it was fairly empty in term of people. Florida's voting record reflected its southern roots. Until Eisenhower won it twice, Florida was part of the Solid South. In 1964, LBJ ran well behind his national average, due to his support for civil rights. The next election, George Wallace took 29% of the vote. Then in 1976, Jimmy Carter resurrected the Solid South for the last time, winning Florida by 5%. That was also the last time a Democrat ran above the national average in Florida.

Northern Florida and the Panhandle

Florida still is a Southern state to some extent. This is especially true in northern Florida and the panhandle, which borders Alabama and Georgia. Northern Florida is very conservative; it is not uncommon to see a Republican taking 70% or more of the vote in a number of counties there, as the picture below the flip indicates.

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Blog Action Day: The Climate Change Movement Gains Major Steam

Happy Blog Action Day!

Change.org, in partnership with groups like 350.org and the National Resources Defense Council, is pushing a climate change focus for today's Blog Action Day, and I am happy to be one of the 10,000 bloggers taking part. There is no issue more urgent than climate change. Issues like health care and poverty are tragic and pressing, but as scholar-activist Bill McKibben says, climate change is the one issue that our descendants will not be trying to fix in 100 years. The science, from the University of Cambridge to the UN's International Panel on Climate Change, is clear: in order to head off massive storms, devastating drought, expensive population shifts, massive species extinction, and other horrific events, we must become more energy efficient in our daily lives and cleaner in our national energy policy, and we must do it now. NASA's James Hansen says we may only have three years left to act.  Very few scientists put the tipping point number at higher than ten.

Yet for all the doom-and-gloom, I am excited. After decades of inaction, momentum is finally building around the movement to protect the environment and fight climate change, and it's really invigorating to see. Everywhere you look, from the faith community to corporate America to even the Senate Republican Caucus, this cause is gaining steam.

My own beat is the intersection of faith and politics. I started a new job this week working with Repower Nebraska as their part-time faith outreach coordinator. (This post is not endorsed by Repower America, but I want to be clear about who I am.) All across America, churches are waking up. I had a phone call today with an Episcopal clergywoman who said there are three areas of concern for churches on climate change: spirituality (experiencing God in nature, recognizing the environmental language of Scripture, etc.), environmental stewardship or creation care (heeding the call of Scripture to take care of what we have been given), and eco-justice (climate change will disproportionately affect the poor). Churches are getting that message. I wrote here last week about Day Six, a new effort from the progressive group Faithful America to make sure climate change legislation helps the poor. The Episcopal Ecological Network is a great resource to learn what Episcopal churches around the country are doing to green their communities.

You may be saying yeah yeah sure sure, of course the liberal mainline Protestants are getting involved - but the good news is the movement is broader than that. Thanks to the language of "creation care," many Evangelicals are getting in on the act, too. Rich Cizik, former Vice President for Governmental Affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, resigned his job after announcing his support for civil unions, but not until he had spent quite some time building support within the Evangelical community for action on climate change. Joel Hunter, a conservative megachurch pastor in Florida, was hired to be the new president of Ralph Reed's Christian Coalition in 2006. The board asked him to resign over his positions on climate change, but the fact that his selection even got that far is indicative of a huge shift within the community.

Even more important are the most recent corporate and political developments. I'll go into detail about poll numbers, bipartisan support, and more below the jump.

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