Carl Pope

McConnell's comeback to Biden's big plan is simple: Austerity, stagnation or both

Here's the biggest problem with Republican complaints that President Biden's American Jobs Act puts too little money — $621 billion — into ports, roads and bridges: Their so-called alternative would spend less than half as much on those urgent needs, only $236 billion.

So when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is asked why he opposes the act, which would fund desperately needed enhancements to the bridge which crosses the Ohio River between Kentucky and Ohio, carrying 3% of America's GDP across it every year, he doesn't say his alternative would fix it — because it wouldn't. He simply grumps that he's not willing to raise taxes and increase the deficit to fix the bridge.

The maximum the Republicans will allow for all infrastructure projects is $600 billion — but the backlog of repairs alone of U.S. roads and bridges is $740 billion. Republicans are thus opposed, in principle, to investing the funds needed to give the U.S. world class infrastructure.

Austerity is the first principle the Republicans say they won't yield on. And here's the second: stagnation. Biden's proposal contains about $600 billion to accelerate U.S. leadership in 21st-century critical technologies like broadband internet, clean energy, a modernized national grid, electric vehicles and distributed manufacturing. These technology investments can be designed to pay for themselves out of the profits they generate, if Republicans prefer it that way. For example, the fuel cost savings of electrifying new postal delivery trucks would create a hefty surplus. (In just this fashion the Obama administration's investments in wind and solar energy and electric vehicles paid for themselves and made a profit.) So there is in fact no rational fiscal argument against profitable technology investments.

But Republicans object to the very idea of investing in U.S. technology leadership, because new technologies will displace the coal, oil and gas whose corporate producers and lobbyists currently fund the Republican Party. They are clinging to yesterday's economy. At one recent House hearing, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., argued that Chinese leadership in electric cars was somehow an argument against U.S. investment in EVs. Acting as if the electric vehicle future were optional, Rodgers questioned "the security impacts of the United States trading its strategic advantage in fossil energy for more reliance on supply chains from China."

This profound commitment to technology stagnation is the second pillar of Republican resistance to infrastructure investment. That neatly captures the American reality; a bipartisan infrastructure bill is blocked not by Biden or McConnell or Chuck Schumer's attitude about how the Senate should work, but by the fiercely defended Republican principles of spending as little as possible and changing as little as possible.

It's important to understand that during the last six years Republicans could have pushed an ambitious infrastructure bill through the Senate and House, attracting Democratic support and a White House signature, and financed it with user fees, a gasoline or perhaps a carbon tax and other business-friendly revenues. They could have crafted one big enough to meet the deferred maintenance gap on roads, bridges, ports, airports, water supplies, dams and sewers; and big enough to enable the U.S. to start catching up with China on high-tech innovations like advanced batteries and electric trucks. They didn't even offer one.

Now that we have a Democratic version to start with, we need to ask the opposition party the following questions:

  1. How do Republicans propose to finance the $500 billion gap between their proposed infrastructure compromise and the funds needed just to repair America's roads and bridges?
  2. What is the Republican plan to replace the thousands of miles of lead pipes and other unsafe drinking water infrastructure that is poisoning American families, also with an estimated backlog of over $500 billion? (These two items by themselves present a bare-bones need for $1 trillion.)
  3. Since we all appear to agree that broadband is important, what is their competing plan for catching the U.S. up with its "socialist" European competitors in terms of broadband access and speed? How would they pay for it?
  4. Finally, how do they propose to win the 21st-century innovation race with China and Europe for leadership in advanced technologies like wind, solar, telecommunications, distributed manufacturing and electrified transportation?

If they can't come up with reasonable answers that go beyond polite terms for austerity and stagnation, we should recognize that allowing the Republicans to block Biden's investment agenda means choosing a grim future for our country.

It means that in 2030 Americans will still drive dirty and expensive oil-powered cars and trucks on potholed roads across unreliable and congested bridges — vehicles other countries no longer allow to be imported and sold. American shippers will pay twice as much to get goods across the country as their Chinese competitors. Households will still endure unreliable and expensive utility bills, while wondering whether the drinking water in their taps is poisoning their children.

Even more of us will know a friend or neighbor who lost their job because the factory where they worked could no longer compete with China. American workers won't be able to compete with Europe for the digital jobs of 2040 because their broadband access won't be fast enough. This won't happen because of partisanship or the filibuster, although those are major barriers. It will happen because one of our two major parties is clinging to an impoverished view of what government should do for its people and to yesterday's fading fossil-fuel economy, which very soon will genuinely be unable to afford the investments America needs.

Conservatives simply don't want majority rule. The filibuster has been their weapon since before the Civil War

Mitch McConnell's claim that "the filibuster is the essence of the Senate" has been tossed aside by his opponents as bad history, violently inconsistent with how Jefferson, Hamilton or Madison aimed to structure the Senate, and perhaps even unconstitutional. All true. But what McConnell's screed should remind us is that the filibuster has always been the essence of the politics of white supremacy — even as it now poses a broader threat to democracy itself.

McConnell draws on a playbook stretching back to John C. Calhoun, who as vice president in 1841 forged the filibuster into a conscious instrument to block majoritarian democracy as part of his project of creating a durable framework for slavery in a nation he knew would eventually vote against it. Calhoun, generations of Southern senators and now McConnell have shared a determination that majority votes should not be the last word in the United States. Privileged minorities should be able to override the will of the entire people — if their interests are endangered. Yes, Calhoun was focused on slavery and race, but his first filibuster was over national banking. The interest he sought to protect from a national majority was that of the South as a region, extending beyond slavery to issues like tariffs.

Chuck Schumer's attempts to shame McConnell for being anti-democratic — by seeking to shrink the electorate instead of persuading it — thus land flat on the right. McConnell is tapping into one of conservatism's deep obsessions: How can America avoid majoritarian democracy? And Calhoun, who was twice vice president and twice almost president, devised the precise answer that McConnell is deploying today. When McConnell refers to "consensus," he doesn't mean compromise that generates broad acceptance across divergent perspectives within a single electorate. He means that certain important subgroups — such as those who owned human beings as chattel, in Calhoun's day — should be allowed to veto legislation, however large the popular majority that favored it. Jefferson had asserted, "It is my principle that the will of the majority should always prevail" but Calhoun twisted this by asking, "Which minority cares the most?"

White supremacists have always been the exemplar of such a protected group. Calhoun devised his doctrine to protect them, calling such a system "concurrent majorities." (He envisaged them as interest groups, not political parties — his major difference with McConnell.)

Calhoun passed the torch to the leaders of the secession movement who then rooted the theory of the Confederacy in the soil of concurrent majorities. The Confederate constitution was thoroughly imbued with Calhoun's doctrine. As the Civil War drew to an end, Jefferson Davis made clear that he would not accept majority rule: "We seceded to rid ourselves of the rule of the majority…. Neither current events nor history shows that the majority rules, or ever did rule."

After the Civil War, the Reconstruction Amendments were intended to make America a democracy where the male majority ruled, regardless of race. This vision was subverted, using Calhoun's example, by repeated Senate filibusters blocking legislation to implement civil rights, a power specifically granted Congress by their authors. The justification? That "states" were a protected minority entitled to nullify majority decisions — in other words, the very issue that the Civil War was supposed to have settled!

The deep logic of filibuster and "concurrent majority" theory alike is the grant of white minority rights denied to an African-American minority. Carrying out Calhoun's theory as he envisaged requires deciding, a priori, that one race is entitled to greater deference than the other. (This exact logic led the Supreme Court to conclude, in the infamous Dred Scott decision, that to sustain the rights of slaveowners it was unavoidable to declare that Americans of African descent had no rights at all.) On matters of racial justice, defenders of the filibuster have always argued that reducing current inequalities between two groups required a supermajority, while sustaining inequality required only a robust minority.

White supremacists sustained this doctrine throughout the 20th century. Civil rights bill after civil rights bill went down in the Senate, throttled by the filibuster and defended with the argument, as Mississippi's Theodore Bilbo put it, that "a mob is a majority; without the filibuster the minority would be at the mercy of the majority." Bilbo's fears, of course, were not for the rights for the majority of Mississippians — the state was still 50% Black, and during the Jim Crow period African Americans had been a majority. The all-white political structure was the minority whose concurrence Bilbo demanded.

The broader conservative application of the concurrent majority concept was most clearly articulated by the John Birch Society after World War II with its singular focus on one goal: "America is a Republic, not a democracy. Let's keep it that way." But outside the South, ideological conservatives were too few in the Senate to otherwise abuse the filibuster.

The conventional wisdom after 1965 was that the debate about white supremacy — and the stain that most Americans thought it had laid on our national identity — had been ended by the civil rights movement, specifically the passage of the Voting Rights Act. But while explicit arguments for restricting access to the franchise by ethnic minorities, the poor or immigrants largely vanished, stripping the filibuster of its obvious racist identity actually made possible its contemporary weaponization.

Insisting on a Senate supermajority had been a challenging, expensive and rare option almost exclusively put in play to defend Jim Crow and white privilege. Now it became a strategic but routine Senate procedure, first deployed by Bob Dole to hamstring the Clinton administration and then by Harry Reid against George W. Bush. Finally, with Obama's election, Mitch McConnell unleashed the full force of the 60-vote loophole and imposed upon the Senate the very supermajority the founding fathers had specifically rejected. The toxin that Calhoun had first injected into the Senate to counter the future threat of majority rule now found its moment. The virus spread.

While the filibuster — the essence of Mitch McConnell's Senate — is the most powerful weapon the right-wing opponents of democracy have seized, Republicans in 2020 are deploying the full panoply of anti-democratic strategies devised over two and a quarter centuries by Calhoun's followers. The most important campaigns being waged by conservatives at this moment emphasize the spread of gerrymandered districts, purged voter rolls, legalized bribery, a politicized judiciary, state pre-emption of local home rule and crippling the executive authority of majoritarian governors, even Republican ones.

Every tool is designed to reduce the ability of the majority to govern. Changing voting rules or Senate processes such that the minority can prevail over the majority is a feature, not a bug. If endless voting lines in minority precincts in Georgia creates an opportunity to influence voters by offering them water, why else is the solution to make offering water a felony, rather than offering those citizens adequate numbers of voting booths?

Yes, the motivations may be — as some Republicans conceded in a Senate hearing last week — that if every American could vote easily, Republicans would lose because they are a minority. But Schumer's complaint about derailing majority rule, for many conservatives, misses the point. Some on the American right doesn't think the majority deserves to rule. Even more of it believes that voting and participation in governance are privileges to be earned, not rights to be protected. That's their understanding of "the consent of the governed." Mitch McConnell now has the Senate that John Calhoun always schemed for. That is the dilemma facing American democracy.

Mitch McConnell claims the filibuster has 'no racial history ...

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Why Texas froze -- and California fried: This disaster was 90 years in the making

The catastrophe that swept Texas last week was 90 years in the making. Its roots lie in a decision during the 1930s to escape federal regulation of power rates under the terms of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal by forcing all Texas utilities to avoid importing or exporting power across state lines, thereby pretending that Texas electricity was not actually part of the national economy.

As the biggest oil and gas producer in the world, Texas had already set itself up in the business of regulating the global price of oil through the Texas Railroad Commission, which set limits on oil and gas production to keep oil prices artificially high. So going it alone on electricity prices seemed like a logical extension — except that in the case of electricity, Texas business wanted low prices, not high ones.

Implicit in the creation of what Texans call their "power island" was an understanding that cheap electricity was the only significant goal. Reliability came a distant second and clean air wasn't even on the radar screen. When Texas deregulated its electricity sector in 1999, it went further than most states. ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, kept prices low by refusing to pay utilities for keeping standby generation capacity in case of an extreme weather event. Since Texas also remained disconnected from other regions which might have provided backup power in the case of a shortage, the state denied itself any kind of safety net, either in-state or elsewhere.

Extreme heat waves were very much on the Texas radar, because high-demand summer days were frequent — and profitable for generators. So money was made, and summer blackouts were few, for almost 20 years. As the climate spun out of control, however, even in summer Texas barely avoided resorting to rolling blackouts to manage record demand during worsening hot spells. (In fact, in El Paso, on the state's western border, they happened.)

Meanwhile, the pretense that it never gets cold in Texas kept obstructing efforts to make the ERCOT grid winter-hardened. In 1989, federal regulators pointed out that Texas lacked simple weatherization measures common to more northern states. In 2011, winter storms triggered rolling blackouts. In 2014, the term "polar vortex" came into common use as Texas once again lost winter power. In 2018 and 2019, the polar vortex struck two years in a row.

Yet Texas business and political leaders kept insisting that the cost of winterizing the power system was simply not worth it. The state's major industrial power users didn't want to pay their share of the bill. Any conversation about providing backup by connecting the Texas grid to the rest of America remained totally off limits.

This year, of course, disaster became catastrophe. Those who doggedly opposed investments in reliability have had to find a new tune — their favorite being to blame renewable energy, in spite of manifest evidence that this is untrue.

Former Texas governor Rick Perry went to bat for the state's electron isolationism: "Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business." Perry went on to blame the state's reliance on wind power for the crisis, a richly ironic canard. It was Perry himself who led the campaign to create Texas's innovative and wind-power targeted CREZ transmission project, which was largely responsible for the fact that 2020 was the first year in which Texas got more electricity from wind than from coal.

Perry's scapegoating of his own wind revolution for the blackout was echoed by current Gov. Greg Abbott, who said, "Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis." That was a lie. As the chart below shows, most of the collapse in power generation came from natural gas, coal and nuclear, since even in a normal winter Texas gets relatively little of its power from wind and solar. (Although Texas wind turbines lack simple weatherizing technology used by wind farms in other states to its north.)

Chart, histogram Description automatically generated

As the disasters cascaded — no power, shut-down oil and gas production, no water, unreliable food — voices from urban communities suffering freezing homes flooded by burst pipes began to fire back, blaming the state regulators for their refusal to invest in winter-hardy generation for the state. It was "just horrible to see," said Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson. "The power and water outages in Texas have created a situation that's worse than even the early days of the pandemic," warned Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from San Antonio.

But deeply ingrained in the Texas power sector was the governor's belief that hard freezes didn't happen often enough to be worth preparing for. That misguided belief was os deeply ingrained that when the Texas Monthly asked ERCOT CEO Bill Magness if the savings from failing to build resilience were worth it to consumers, he dismissed the question: "I am not aware that we have ever conducted a real cost-benefit analysis on that topic." That wasn't true. ERCOT had analyzed this, and it turned out that the agency's eight-year-old estimate of the daily cost of such a blackout was $2.8 billion — enough to cover a lot of weatherization. The 2020 freeze brought a whole new class of costs to bear. Not only was electricity generation shut down, but as a result so were many oil fields. IHS Markit estimated that the Texas freeze had shut down at least 20% of the nation's oil and gas production, largely in the Permian Basin, which made it harder to get gas-fired electricity back on line.

As more and more voters got more and more upset, a new refrain was heard, even from Abbott: Texas needed to weatherize. The governor called for a special legislative session to get it done, and was suddenly outraged. "Everyone knows how challenging the past few days have been for our fellow Texans," Abbott said. "All of us in the state of Texas believe it is completely unacceptable that you had to endure one minute of the challenge that you faced."

So can we write off the Texas tragedy to Lone Star exceptionalism? A quasi-secessionist electricity island, with inadequate requirements for getting ready for winter, pays the price?

Up close it looks like it. But pull back and include the summer of 2020, and it's clear that what went wrong in Texas has a lot do with the fires that brought California to its knees six months earlier. The summers of 2017 and 2018 had made it clear that California didn't have nearly enough firefighters standing by for an event like the lightning strikes that rained down in August 2020. It was also clear the state had allowed PG&E and its other utilities to invest too little in fire hardening rural power lines. Worse yet, most communities in the fire-hazard areas had failed to adopt or enforce adequate fireproofing measures on homes and businesses. But California's politics are — in the American context — at polar opposites to Texas. (In fact, California's problem is significantly harder to fix than the polar vortex threat to Texas.)

To understand why neither red nor blue America can reliably and safely provide electricity to its population, we need to contrast the American attitude towards natural disasters — they happen, but we recover — with the Dutch approach to flooding, which is more like: We can't prevent the storms, but we can protect ourselves against the damages. Since the Dutch adopted this attitude as national policy 70 years ago, not a single citizen has died in a flood. Prevention has proven cheaper than rescue and repair: Even though a third of the nation lies below sea level, Holland's annual expenditures for flood prevention, at $1.5 billion, are a fraction of American costs for flood recovery, even on a per capita basis.

If President Biden is looking for another issue on which he can unite the country, starting a conversation on the need to massively invest in fire, flood and storm resilience in a climate-stressed world offers a promising opportunity. How about "Build it back safely" as a subset of "Build it back better"?

Joe Biden's blitz on climate policy is impressive. Here's what it reveals about a broad American consensus

Just 10 days after the Biden administration took over, in alignment with the new president's overall blitz strategy, a flabbergasting phalanx of U.S. climate policies have been turned smartly on their heels and are marching toward the future. President Biden has returned the nation to the Paris Agreement, required truth-telling in government reporting, enforced a regulation that government purchases must feed U.S. supply chains rather than imports, terminated the massive giveaway of taxpayer property to coal, oil and gas extractors, restored the integrity of federal climate science, frozen a horde of horrible Trump environmental rollbacks, and even launched a New Deal-style Civilian Climate Corps. All that is already in the rear-view mirror as Biden's team moves on to the deeper work of a clean-energy, decarbonized and more inclusive economy.

Most Americans, who fear climate chaos, embrace clean energy opportunity and welcome American innovation and leadership, should be celebrating — and are. But hold your breath: The good news runs even deeper than this. The striking emphasis that the new administration has given to its "whole government" climate strategy; the repeatedly-noted climate depth of his Cabinet and sub-Cabinet appointees at the Treasury (Janet Yellen), the State Department (John Kerry), economic policy (Brian Deese), the Energy Department (Jennifer Granholm), the Department of Transportation (Pete Buttigieg), and the Department of the Interior (Deb Haaland); along with the breadth of new climate initiatives are only a part of the new administration's commitment to climate progress.

This shock-and -awe launch also reflects an external reality: The Trump administration's dogged march into the past had departed from any semblance of where America was headed. The first wave of climate progress under Biden is almost all "low-hanging fruit," "no regrets" and "we can all unite on this," because Trump's legacy was starkly at war with economic and marketplace reality, not just climate science.

Look at the chorus that has responded to Biden's climate drumbeat. Politico hails "a coalition that ranges from labor unions, anti-fracking activists and racial justice advocates to leaders of Wall Street, the auto industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce" as lining up with Biden's broad thrust. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on MSNBC boasts that his program to phase out internal combustion cars and trucks by 2030 is a winner because he already has the support not only of climate advocates but also of the United Auto Workers, Ford and General Motors.

While the obstacles still cited as lying in Biden's way are substantial, they are almost entirely inside the Beltway, where the powerful influence of fossil fuel-producing states like West Virginia (embodied in Sen. Joe Manchin) and Kentucky (Minority Leader Mitch McConnell) is repeatedly, and appropriately, recited. But what are oil companies, who wield the big fossil fuel stick, actually saying? Yes, they claim Biden is going too far, but almost exclusively in one narrow part of his program, the phase-out of oil, gas and coal extraction on federal lands.

Indeed, the oil industry is actually joining Biden's alliance in its emphasis on tougher drilling and pollution standards for extraction. Advocacy of carbon pricing in some form is also making its way into Houston lobbying memos.

In a deeply polarized Senate, getting legislation of any significance through is indeed going to test the new president's Capitol Hill negotiating chops. But climate is getting so much emphasis in Biden's first two weeks in large part because it has become a less, not more, divisive issue across American society. It's a good place for the new administration to bring the country together, perhaps because the communities that are taking the biggest climate hit — from fires, flooding, storms and energy sector layoffs — are overwhelmingly in regions where Trump, not Biden, came out on top. (A hidden secret is that rural America, which has become the heart of red America, is where storm, drought, fire and flood hit hardest. Miami Beach can afford sea walls. Cedar Rapids needs Uncle Sam to repair its levees.)

Biden's broader coalition — you could also throw in BlackRock, whose CEO, Larry Fink, devoted his annual letter to the urgency of business embracing the climate challenge — emerged even before the November election. Major oil companies had opposed Trump's efforts to block the cleanup of methane from oil and gas drilling. Ford and Volkswagen had partnered with California to undercut the Trump administration's rollbacks of auto emission limits. Most of the biggest power utilities had pledged to cut from 80% to 100% of their current carbon pollution. Sixteen states had persuaded even the deadlocked Congress to commit the U.S. to phasing out climate dangerous HFC refrigerants as part of the pandemic relief bill.

So climate progress is now a powerful American consensus, precisely because we have realized that it is not a matter of sacrifice, but of opportunity; not austerity but prosperity; not American decline but American recovery.

None of this means we can relax. Big coalitions, like convoys, can bog down at the speed of the slowest member. And the biggest looming barrier is that the faster decarbonization races ahead, the greater the risk to workers and communities left behind. While there are lots of good ideas floating around for how to enable fossil-dependent segments of our nation to ride the clean energy wave, most of them remain somewhat uncertain and gauzy — after all, only a year ago we were having trouble getting McConnell to agree to sustain pensions and health care for mineworkers in his own state.

If we don't take more seriously our need to spread the benefits of the clean energy transition to every zip code and every demography, we will blow our best change to make America truly great — for the 21st century.

Trump and the right share a Darwinist 'herd mentality' — and preference for sacrificing the weak to capitalism

Donald Trump's promise in an ABC News town hall last month that the United States would soon achieve herd immunity for the coronavirus, and conflating that with herd mentality, may be explained because Trump is counting on the latter to rescue his second term. It's otherwise impossible to imagine a campaign whose endgame is to recover the lost loyalty of voters over 65 selecting as its closing argument, "Not enough of you have died yet."

It's a safe bet that none of his 2016 Republican primary challengers would have embraced the idea that the solution to the pandemic was more American casualties than the Civil War and World War II combined. But many of Trump's Republican comrades-in-arms have embraced, often eagerly, a default preference for herd immunity — harkening back to the harsh social Darwinism that underlies much of modern conservatism. Early on in the pandemic there were Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Rep. Trey Hollingsworth of Indiana and radio host Glenn Beck, all of whom argued that the loss of more American lives was preferable to scaling back the economy. Then, when the issue became wearing masks, some opponents argued "if I'm going to get COVID and die from it, so be it …" Of course they really meant, "If you are going to get COVID ..." Wearing masks was a deprivation of freedom — although this argument seems never to have been extended by Republicans to the prohibition on public nudity.

As the pandemic surged again, by October Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin was referring to "unjustified hysteria" about covid, and asked, after he became infected, ""Why do we think we actually can stop the progression of a contagious disease?" (The obvious answer is that we have been doing so, with increasing success, since the 1854 cholera pump moment. That is rejected by many on the right, because stopping a pandemic may require the government to prevent citizens from endangering others.)

Herd immunity can sometimes reduce mortality from a disease, but over the centuries has failed to end the curse of influenza, tuberculosis, smallpox, polio, rabies or dengue fever. It fits neatly, however, into a social Darwinist framework. Those who die are the "weak" — the poorest, the youngest and the oldest young — or can at any rate be classified as weak and deserving to die, because they died. Survival of the fittest requires discarding the weak. Remember the "let them die" hecklers who populated some of the 2011 Republican debates on health care.

This underlying value distortion — my personal freedom extends to my right to endanger you — spreads out across a range of other issues. Today's Republican reluctance to curb pollution even when it is demonstrably is killing a power plant's neighbors, to keep pesticides that kill farm workers out of the fields or to do anything at all about the climate crisis, which conservatives have privately conceded for years was real and caused by carbon pollution, are all illustrations of how the toxin of social Darwinism still contaminates much of the right's thinking about freedom.

So Trump's response to the COVID crisis — and the willingness of the Republican congressional establishment to enable it — illustrates a deep-rooted flaw in the American right. In a world in which we are, like it or not, all bound together, a tolerable conservatism is one that is willing to protect me from irresponsible neighbors, whether those are COVID-risking teenagers, irresponsible gun owners or multinational chemical companies.

The West faces apocalypse — and we need a national solution

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How the so-called champion of American business fought to protect profiteering — and endangered millions

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Biden's campaign is pivoting dramatically as the world undergoes a staggering shift on climate

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The administration's radical attempt to sabotage auto emissions rules is more than a damaging assault on pollution regulations. It's a stealth attempt to rewrite federal law

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Trump was elected on promises to boost the coal industry and halt the transition to electric cars. It's not working

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At least seven 2020 Democratic candidates have serious climate plans — and they're not bowing to fossil-fuel interests

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Howard Schultz is an enemy of democracy

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The shutdown is an impeachable offense if Trump vetoes a bill to reopen the government

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Are the Paris 'yellow vest' protesters enemies - or future comrades?

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Trump Tweets Nonsense as California Burns

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3 New Years Resolutions That Will End the World’s Dependency on Fossil Fuels

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Can Democracy and Fossil Fuel Extraction Coexist?

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5 Things You Need to Know About Obama’s Clean Power Plant Rule

Thursday and Friday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will hold the final in its series hearings on its proposed rule to clean up carbon pollution from coal fired power plants. There will be a lot of theater, and a lot of opposition as well as support. Some of the opposition comes from workers from coal mining communities or those with power plants fired with coal; their livelihoods are at risk from the changes sweeping the utility industry, including the declining dominance of coal. Others are ideologically motivated, clinging to the view that for society to limit pollution is merely another disguised form of socialist collectivism—it is not the role of government to protect people from the risks of industrialism, doing so saps the “rugged individualism” that made America great. 

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Gulf Spill: America's Chernobyl?

As the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe worsens by the minute, and as BP desperately tries to tame an underwater gusher, one thing is overwhelmingly clear:

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Why We Are Failing to Protect Our Drinking Water

"Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink ..."

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Can Bush's Assault on Our Waterways Be Undone?

The Bush administration is exiting with three major regulatory assaults on our nation's waterways. Yesterday, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers issued a new guidance document to clarify how many of the nation's waterways will not, for Clean Water Act purposes, be protected. In doing so, they broke the promise that Bush made to hunting and angling groups during his 2004 reelection campaign that he would continue to apply the Clean Water Act to vitally important wetlands and headwaters streams.

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Palin's Trajectory to National Prominence Powered by her Anti-Environmentalism


Sarah Palin's candidacy is now widely viewed as a political liability. As a result, the substantive threat posed by her candidacy is in danger of being overlooked. But the more we find out about her, the worse she looks.



A new article in The New Yorker makes clear that Palin's trajectory to national prominence was, in fact, powered by her anti-environmental instincts.  In 2007 The Weekly Standard and The National Review both ran cruises to Alaska for conservative heavyweights.

The cruises stopped in Juneau. Governor Palin had William Kristol, the Standard's Washington-based editor; Fred Barnes, the magazine's executive editor; and Michael Gerson, Bush's former chief speechwriter, over to the governor's mansion for lunch. The article then goes on to describe how Palin's rise to national prominence got its start:

According to a former Alaska official who attended the lunch, the visitors wanted to do something "touristy," so a "flight-seeing" trip was arranged. Their destination was a gold mine in Berners Bay, some forty-five miles north of Juneau. For Palin and several staff members, the state leased two helicopters from a private company, Coastal, for two and a half hours, at a cost of four thousand dollars. (The pundits paid for their own aircraft.) Palin explained that environmentalists had invoked the Clean Water Act to oppose a plan by a mining company, Coeur Alaska, to dump waste from the extraction of gold into a pristine lake in the Tongass National Forest. Palin rejected the environmentalists' claims. (The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Coeur Alaska, and the dispute is now before the Supreme Court.) Barnes was dazzled by Palin's handling of the hundred or so mineworkers who gathered to meet the group. "She clearly was not intimidated by crowds -- or men!" he said. "She's got real star quality."

By the time the Weekly Standard pundits returned to the cruise ship, Paulette Simpson said, "they were very enamored of her." In July, 2007, Barnes wrote the first major national article spotlighting Palin, titled "The Most Popular Governor," for The Weekly Standard. Simpson said, "That first article was the result of having lunch." Bitney agreed: "I don't think she realized the significance until after it was all over. It got the ball rolling."

So her campaign was born because of her defiance of the Clean Water Act. But Palin has also shown a stunning disregard for other environmental values, as a recent article in The New Republic makes clear.  Alaska, for example, has a birth-defect rate that's twice the national average -- and its Arctic regions end up as the final sink for persistent organic pollutants released all over the Northern Hemisphere. Palin can't do much about airborne toxics -- but when she has a chance to deal with local toxic threats, she comes down consistently against the public health. She opposed a requirement that schools give parents 48 hours notice before a school was to be sprayed with pesticides and other toxic chemicals.



And sometimes Palin's indifference to environmental protection means creating toxic risks for others. In the summer of 2007, Palin allowed oil companies to move forward with a toxic-dumping plan in Alaska's Cook Inlet, making it the only coastal fishery in the nation where toxic dumping is permitted -- putting America's food supply at risk. Running for governor, she was opposed to the proposed Pebble Mine, but once elected she helped the mining industry defeat a citizen initiative that would have controlled toxic run-off from the mine. And Palin refused to help local communities get the U.S. military to clean up the toxic waste mess it left behind at Alaska bases.



Palin looks likely this year to help drag John McCain's candidacy down to defeat, or at least make his struggle harder. But she is already being talked about as a potential presidential candidate in 2012 for the Republicans. Environmentalists need to make sure that never happens.

EPA Woud Like You to Drink Rocket Fuel

For years, the Department of Defense has used every bureaucratic trick in its playbook, including ruthlessly exploiting its power in the Bush White House, to keep the EPA from regulating a highly toxic water pollutant, perchlorate, that largely results from the manufacture and use of rocket fuel. Perchlorate "has been found in at least 395 sites in 35 states at levels high enough to interfere with thyroid function and pose developmental health risks, particularly for babies and fetuses."

But the EPA has drafted a proposed regulatory finding that, in spite of this widespread human exposure and contamination, cleaning up perchlorate would not provide a "meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction for persons served by public-water systems." No explanation of this bizarre finding is offered. Perhaps none is needed.

Everyone who's paying attention knows that EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson is acutely tuned-in to the political signals coming from the White House -- so tuned-in that his conversations with the executive branch have become a form of highly privileged state secret. The Pentagon denied any role in the decision, asserting that "We have not intervened in any way in EPA's determination not to regulate perchlorate. If you read their determination, that's based on criteria in the Safe Drinking Water Act."

Twenty million Americans get their drinking water from just one of the water bodies that are contaminated with perchlorate -- the Colorado River. Apparently protecting twenty million people does not count as a "meaningful opportunity" to Johnson and his Deputy Administrator for Water, Ben Grumbles.

Next up -- in a few weeks the EPA must decide whether to let science or politics determine where to set public health standards for toxic lead.

I wouldn't bet on science.

Five Things You Need to Know about Hurricanes

Three years ago Katrina devastated New Orleans and upended American politics. Gustav has proved to be kinder, at least so far, to the Crescent City and to the Gulf Coast in general, but it was still a sobering reminder of some basic truths. Its impact on politics remains to be seen.

Truth 1: Hurricanes are big; nature is bigger. Natural systems, not engineered ones, are the only defenses big enough to rely on in a big storm. Hurricanes get their energy from passing over heated water and lose it when they hit land. Storm surge builds in open water but dissipates rapidly in coastal wetlands or barrier islands. One acre of wetlands typically absorbs one million gallons of water.

South Louisiana is in such big trouble because we allowed its wetlands to be starved -- courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers -- of the natural silt and sand that fed them and because they were then opened up to storm surge and erosion -- courtesy of oil and gas drilling. Our first priority on the Gulf Coast after immediate recovery needs to be wetlands restoration. Otherwise, it's only a matter of time before the coastal regions become uninhabitable or vanish beneath the waves.

Truth 2: This is not new news. The oldest parts of New Orleans survived Katrina the best because the first French settlers built on "higher ground." Indeed, for most of human history, people built, whenever they could, on higher ground. They didn't need an environmental impact statement to tell them. It was common sense. They knew how big nature was and how important natural defenses were, so they used them. This common sense began to go astray in the mid nineteenth century. The Victorians, who were the first to believe that man could conquer nature, tried to relocate the capital city of colonial India, Calcutta, from its inland location behind the mangrove islands of the Sundarbans -- India's equivalent to Louisiana's wetlands. A few voices protested that Port Canning, the new city on the edge of the Bay of Bengal was doomed to die in a typhoon. But the British Raj, in the full flush of its hubris, went ahead anyway and copied Calcutta on the end of the sea. Five years later, the typhoon came, Port Canning vanished, and the Raj scuttled back to Calcutta.

Truth 3: Twentieth-century America took the Victorian pride in the ability to conquer nature and put it on steroids. The vast network of dams and reservoirs, canals, and water projects that we have built, is constructed on the delusion we can control nature. And as climate changes, these "engineering marvels" are rapidly becoming obsolescent. Thanks to drought, Glen Canyon Dam is no longer needed to store the water of the Colorado. It didn't need to be drained by the Sierra Club or Earth First -- the climate took care of it.

Truth 4: Although human systems are only a supplement to natural defenses, they are essential -- and they are the job of government. A government unable to finish the job of repairing New Orleans in the interval between Katrina and the arrival of Gustav is a government too small and too weak to keep us safe. Keeping taxes low will not defend the Gulf Coast against the bigger-than-Katrina monster sure to come.

Truth 5: It really doesn't matter -- for these purposes -- whether you think Katrina and Gustav are evidence that global warming has already arrived, or that they are merely harbingers of what climate change will be like when it arrives. It actually doesn't matter whether you think climate change is human-caused or a myth. Any way you look at it, for the past eight years the U.S. government has failed abysmally in one of its most fundamental duties -- to identify, prepare for, and cope with weather-caused natural disasters. The basic philosophy espoused by Grover Norquist, who has held this Administration terrorized in the palm of his hands, is that the federal government should be shrunk until it was small enough to drown in a bathtub. The actual consequence was that New Orleans became a bathtub. It doesn't matter what ideology you subscribe to -- we needed more, not less, government in the years before and after Katrina.

The $4 Moment


San Francisco -- National gasoline prices hit $4/gallon last week.  And the last of the auto industry's chickens came home to roost. General Motors closed four more assembly plants that had been making trucks and SUVs and said it might dump its Hummer brand.



This brings the total (and avoidable) economic carnage from Detroit's unwillingness to modernize its fleet a decade ago to 35 assembly plants and 35 parts manufacturers in just three years. The industry now concedes that consumer preferences have changed "irrevocably."



Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer lambasted the industry and the government, pointing out that by letting the oil market, instead of preventive taxes and regulation, end the SUV era, we committed economic suicide: "Unfortunately, instead of hiking the price ourselves by means of a gasoline tax that could be instantly refunded to the American people in the form of lower payroll taxes, we let the Saudis, Venezuelans, Russians and Iranians do the taxing for us -- and pocket the money that the tax would have recycled back to the American worker."



Krauthammer doesn't agree with us about the need for fuel-efficiency standards -- he thinks that gas taxes alone would have done the job. But his basic point is right. We're now transferring to petro-states hundreds of billions of dollars a year that we could have kept at home. We're also stuck with a whole decade's worth of gas-guzzling vehicles that no one can afford to drive and that will almost certainly remain a major drag on millions of household budgets for years to come.

What's Right with Kansas

Topeka, KS -- Well, King Coal did its best. The insiders in the Kansas political world huffed and puffed. The Speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives kept a vote open for two hours while the coal industry's allies tried desperately to bludgeon four more members into voting to override Governor Kathleen Sebelius's veto of a bill denying the state's chief health officer the right to block coal-fired power plants. And when the votes couldn't be found to override the veto, some legislators threatened to hire a private lawyer with public money to sue the health office for exceeding his authority. (The coal companies, of course, have ample resources to sue on their own -- and it's unlikely that funding for the mammoth Sunflower proposal would still be alive by the time any lawsuit ended.)

But none of it worked. Kansas citizens have spoken out.The Sierra Club chapter in the state organized day and night for weeks and, instead of getting closer to a veto override, the coal forces got further away.

The initial assault by the coal industry was an ad featuring pictures of Hugo Chavez, Iran's President Ahmadinejad, and Vladimir Putin, claiming that if Kansas couldn't build the Sunflower coal plant, it would be forced to import natural gas from these three despots. Since Kansas produces no coal, but a lot of natural gas (and actually exports gas to other states), these ads didn't go down very well. And the campaign got even more frenetic as it became clear that Sebelius was going to make her decision stick. Here's a sample quote from One newspaper story on why Kansas said no to coal:

John McCain Should Be Ashamed of Himself

Washington, DC -- I have just listened to carefully coached staff members for Senator John McCain lie repeatedly about the Senator's failure to show up and vote on the first Senate economic-stimulus package, which included tax incentives for clean energy. I am in a state of shock not because of the Senator's vote, although that disappointed me, nor over his desire to avoid public accountability for that vote -- that's politics. But to carefully coach your Senate staff (I assume the Chief of Staff, not the Senator, was the author of this shameful performance) in how to mislead callers in such depth is appalling, and surprising, because it was almost certain to be found out.

Here's how it played out:

McCain lands at Dulles last wednesday. He has time to get to the Senate to vote on cloture on the expanded economic-stimulus package, which includes clean-energy incentives. But he doesn't show up, musing on the plane as it landed that  ''I haven't had a chance to talk about it at all, have not had the opportunity to, even ... We've just been too busy, focused on other stuff. I don't know if I'm doing that. We've got a couple of meetings scheduled.''  (For the record, fellow candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama did find time to make up their minds).

McCain doesn't vote. The expanded stimulus package gets 59 votes, one short of what is needed for it to proceed to the Senate Floor. The next day a stripped-down version of the stimulus bill, minus clean energy, is brought to a vote. McCain votes for it; the bill passes.

The Sierra Club sends out an alert: "Where was John McCain on clean energy?" and asks people to call the Senator's office.

Immediately, people begin calling and emailing me, saying, "The Senator's office says he voted for clean energy, and that your alert is wrong." We check. He didn't. We call his office. Stunningly, his staff has been coached to mislead callers. "That's not true at all," they say, "he voted for the bill yesterday." Well, he voted, yesterday, but for a different bill. However we phrase the question, we get a lie. "No, if he had voted for the bill, it would not have passed. That was purely procedural." But McCain's staff knows that if cloture had been invoked, passage of the bill would then only require 51 votes, and the bill with clean energy would have passed.

Who's Afraid of Rachel Carson? Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn and Countless Others

For the centennial of Silent Spring author Carson's birth on May 27, members of Congress from her home states of Maryland and Pennsylvania introduced a resolution honoring her birth and another to name a post office in Pennsylvania after her. Coburn promptly put a "hold" on the bills to block them from being enacted. Why?

"Dr. Coburn believes the tremendous harm Carson's junk science claims about DDT did to the developing world overshadow her other contributions. ... Millions of people in the developing world, particularly children under five, died because governments bought into Carson's junk science claims about DDT. To put it in language the Left understands, her 'intelligence' was wrong and it had deadly consequences."

Coburn is a physician, but one who reads medical data very selectively. My one encounter with him occurred during the battle over setting new health standards regarding smog and soot levels. He was on the opposite side of a League of Women Voters debate on the issue. One of my co-panelists was a women whose son had asthma. On smoggy days, she regularly got calls from her child's school and had to take him to the emergency room. So when Coburn leaned over and said, "Will you come into my office and let me show you the scientific studies proving that smog has nothing to do with your son's asthma?" she was utterly unintimidated, and fired back, "I don't have time to come into your office because I may need to take my son to the hospital."

Even the Wall Street Journal, in a recent attack on the DDT ban, pointed out that Carson had called for careful use of DDT in fighting malaria -- not a ban. But the Journal did not go on to mention that DDT has never been banned for fighting malaria, and that Carson's advice, if followed from the start, might have avoided the build-up of resistant strains of insects and the toxic overloading of the feed chain that led to its loss of effectiveness. It was overuse of DDT that brought back malaria, not environmentalists, and certainly not Carson.

But Coburn is not alone. When the bill to name the post office went through the House in April, more than 50 Representatives voted "No," an almost unprecedented number for such legislation. Indeed, there is a cottage industry on the reactionary right to blame Carson for almost all of the world's ills.

Why is her memory still so charged? Perhaps because she was one of the first to use modern science to reveal the risks of over-use and over-reliance on technology. Science -- when she wrote her book -- was seen as a Promethean tool to conquer nature. She deployed science as a moral parable to warn us that we needed to walk more humbly in the world. Indeed, in this week's New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert makes a striking comparison between the kind of mindless reliance on pesticides like MIREX, which Carson exposed, and the current disdain for science shown by the Bush Administration.

So it's remarkable, but this quiet woman, decades after she dies, still stands as a focal point in the debate over whether or not we should take seriously the warning signs that science sends us and the debate over whether our efforts to control nature in the pursuit of short-term benefits can backfire and hurt us badly instead.

(Full disclosure: The Sierra Club receives some of the royalties that flow to Carson's estate from ongoing sales of Silent Spring, so her opponents may now argue that the Club's views on her legacy are tainted.)

A 10-Step Program for the U.S.

Biologists have a term for species whose habitats or gene pools are so diminished that extinction is only a matter of time: "the living dead." The Bush Administration has banished many of our most important environmental protections to this limbo. The Clean Air Act is still on the books but is not being enforced. The national forests that Teddy Roosevelt mapped out still show in green on the map, but on the ground chainsaws are converting them into clearcuts and tree farms. Superfund, bankrupt, is a shadow of itself; polluters no longer fear it. The Clean Water Act still calls for swimmable streams and fishable rivers, but its jurisdiction no longer includes the huge factory feedlots or some 60 percent of the nation's wetland habitat. What we have not lost is love for the land -- the same love that runs in a powerful undercurrent throughout US history.

Here are ten steps to reverse the Bush initiatives and transform the nation.

1. Require auto makers to make cars, SUVs and light trucks that go farther on a gallon of gas. Improved technology will reduce our dependence on Middle East oil, shrink our 25 percent contribution to global warming and reduce our trade deficit, while enabling us to save money at the gas pump, clean up air pollution and reinvigorate the Big Three automakers. We should also put a tax on fuel inefficiency, which could be used to subsidize the purchase of efficient vehicles and help build new auto plants.

2. Reindustrialize America by creating a twenty-first-century energy industry. Our highest energy priorities are still cheap gasoline and big domestic coal and oil industries -- an indefensible policy for a society that burns 25 percent of the world's oil but has only 5 percent of its population and 3 percent of its oil reserves. The amount of electricity we could generate from solar power, wind and other renewables is limited largely by our investments. The labor-backed Apollo Project calls for investing $300 billion in innovation and efficiency: high-performance buildings, efficient factories, energy-efficient appliances and better mass transit as well as efficient hybrid vehicles. These programs could create 3.3 million new manufacturing jobs.

3. Install modern air-pollution control equipment in old power plants, refineries and factories. The owners of these plants have had thirty years to clean them up; it's time to pull the plug. Proposed legislation would require all plants to be cleaned up by the time they are forty years old, or by 2014 at the latest. Cleaning up pollution from just the fifty-one plants that the Clinton Administration sued would save between 4,300 and 7,000 lives a year and prevent between 80,000 and 120,000 asthma attacks.

4. Restore the Superfund tax. Getting the program back up and running, with the polluters rather than their victims paying for it, is the first step. There are 1,200 facilities on the list today, and probably another 600 that ought to be added. If Congress restores the tax, we can get back to cleaning up eighty sites a year.

5. Reinstate the environmental protections enjoyed by our national forests, rivers, wetlands, wildlife habitat and public lands as recently as January 21, 2001. Restoring these safeguards will leave us with a core of wild country that can act as a repository and nursery for endangered and threatened species fighting for survival, and as a sanctuary where future Americans can find renewal and inspiration.

6. Restore rural America. Right now we're spending $18 billion a year on agricultural subsidies, 70 percent of which go to the largest agribusinesses, drive family farmers out of business and destroy rural communities. The subsidies even affect other nations: Subsidized US corn, for example, drives Mexican farmers into urban slums. That $18 billion could help small farmers, restore wildlife habitat, clean up rural waterways and reduce erosion and pesticide use. Rural America would have more jobs, rural families would have better health and more economic security, the quality of our food supply would be enhanced and the country's air and water would be cleaner and healthier.

7. Retire Smokey Bear. If we invest $2 billion a year to thin trees in Community Protection Zones -- the quarter-mile perimeters around homes or towns that firefighters need to stop wildfires from destroying structures -- we should be able to safeguard most communities from fire danger within five years. We need to give priority to community protection over timber preservation.

8. Restore our national patrimony of public lands. Phase out the Forest Service's commercial timber program and manage our national forest system for public benefits like wildlife, recreation and watershed protection. We also need to keep the promise Congress made to use royalties from oil and gas drilling to fund the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.

9. Solve the sewage problem. Restore watershed quality and, where necessary, separate stormwater and sewage systems. Deal with the problem of runoff from farms, feedlots and logging and development sites. Thousands of beaches are still closed every year because of inadequately treated sewage, and 40 percent of our waterways are not safe to swim in.

10. Rejoin the world. The rest of the planet is waiting for us to join the coalition of the environmentally willing. Our agreement alone could put the Kyoto Protocol into effect. We also need to rejoin such international initiatives as the proposed conventions to reduce emissions of mercury, protect rain forests, stop overfishing and preserve biodiversity. On trade policy, we need to start by fixing the North American Free Trade Agreement, not by signing new agreements that embody all of its flaws.

We need to make our political leaders accountable. They are supposed to be the stewards of our dreams and aspirations as a society; they work for us, however different it may sometimes seem. The Bush Administration has been intent on taking us backward. But this crabbed, Hobbesian spirit of social Darwinism has been bested before, and we can overcome it again. After that, the future will be ours to make.

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