Under heavy pressure from lobbyists for Dominion coal, Virginia announced yesterday that it's going to permit the construction of a new coal-fired power plant, even though doing so clearly violates the law.
Just days after NASA's James Hansen testified that avoiding climate catastrophe will require immediately stopping construction of new coal fired power plants around the world (and shutting down old ones), and just months after the Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide is a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, Virginia decided that what the state and the world really need is another coal fired power plant with no controls on release of carbon dioxide -- and gave Dominion power the go ahead to build their "Hybrid Energy Center" in Wise County in Appalachia (hybrid because it will burn two different types of dirty coal).
That's in clear violation of the law, as Cale Jaffe, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center testified, since the Supreme Court's ruling in Massachusetts vs. EPA, states are required to implement the best technology available to control carbon dioxide -- which were the grounds Kansas used when it rejected a similar power plant proposal.
What makes my jaw drop a little about Virginia's decision is that it not only screws the environment, but actually explicitly raises power costs to finance plant construction at a time when Virginians are reeling from an 18 percent increase in electricity (and continuing high fuel costs). In fact, state officials actually estimated that the increased electricity bills will cost 1,474 jobs (PDF) as businesses lay people off just so they can pay their electricity bills -- far outweighing the 75 permanent jobs the plant will create.
This seems to create extraordinary political vulnerability for Tim Kaine, who's said to be on Barack Obama's short list: would Democrats really want a vice presidential candidate whose administration just broke the law to raise electricity rates at a time when the national political debate is centered around bring fuel costs down?
The only silver lining here is that there's some chance that Dominion could spend over a billion dollars building the plant, only to have it rendered financially obsolete by new limits on greenhouse gas emissions. Today's Washington Post coverage of the decision offered what should be sobering advice for Dominion officials:
An explosion in our ability to detect planets in other solar systems has made astronomers increasingly confident that it's only a matter of time until we discover life on other planets. Astronomers just discovered methane on a planet 63 light years from Earth -- a sign that life just may exist. Here's what Carl B. Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute said following the discovery in this fascinating Washington Post article by Marc Kaufman.
Like many progressives, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d heard all the explanations for Democratic failings, and they all boiled down to this: a lack of smarts or competence. But was that realistic? After all, weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re the egghead party, the party of science, the party of the PhD. Could we really just be as stupid as we say George Bush is? What IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve seen is something quite different: a lack of courage that makes Democrats afraid of implementing the strategies that work. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s why even when Democrats win, they lose.
After Democrats took back Congress in 2006, Republicans still manage to bully Democrats and the media into controlling their agenda. It seems like Democrats forgot James Carville's basic lesson of political summer school "It's hard for your opponent to say bad things about you when your fist is in his mouth." Unfortunately, too often, the Democrats are the ones coughing up fingernails. What follows is an excerpt from my new book, Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party (Maisonneuve Press), which illustrates this debilitating weakness in the Democratic Party.
"The senator agrees with you, but he's not sure about the politics," the senior Democratic Senate aide told me. "But if the politics changes, the senator would definitely like to vote your way -- so good luck; we're behind you." The aide was explaining to me why his boss, a Democrat who represents a rural, Republican-leaning state, hadn't supported higher fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks in a recent vote. The aide told me that though the senator agreed with the environmental group I was working for that increased auto mileage made sense, he was afraid that his constituents might not support his stance, especially after being bombarded with auto industry ads on the airwaves.
It was a response I would hear over and over again from Democrats as I went from leading local and state level environmental campaigns to helping direct those campaigns on the national level. When Democrats voted against us, it was rare to hear them say they didn't agree with us on the merits. Instead, they'd tell us they were afraid: afraid that their constituents wouldn't support a pro-environment position; afraid of defying President Bush and the Republican noise machine; or they'd even admit they were afraid of angering this or that corporate lobby and losing campaign contributions to the Republicans.
To be sure, on a basic level, I found their explanations infuriating: shouldn't leaders do the right thing, even when doing so might entail some political risk? But even when I put myself in their shoes and tried to see their positions from the perspective of a purely self-interested politician, these rationalizations still didn't add up: polls consistently show strong support in all parts of America for stronger environmental protections -- it's one issue that unites grassroots Republicans and Democrats. What's more, in my experience, politicians who were willing to confront powerful interests in tough battles came out of those battles more, not less, popular.
When I looked outside the environmental movement, I saw the same thing. Starting with President Clinton, through the 1990's, and down to the present, Democrats shied from a full-throated campaign for government-financed universal health care, not because they disagreed with experts' assessment that it was the best and most affordable way to provide health coverage to the greatest number of people, but because they were afraid of taking on the HMO's and insurance companies. Many Democrats supported President Bush's tax cuts for the ultra-rich, not because they thought giving billionaires a tax break while the working and middle classes were feeling economic insecurity was a good idea, but because they were afraid of opposing President Bush, no matter how worthy the cause.
And of course, dozens of Democrats failed to speak out against Bush's rush to war in Iraq, not because they thought George Bush would bring peace and democracy to the Middle East, but because they were afraid that Republicans would paint them as weak. Again, I found their explanations morally and politically bankrupt: not only were they the wrong decisions, they also served to empower the very corporations and special interests out to defeat Democrats.
There has been no shortage of explanations for these Democratic failings. But they're all based on the notion that Democrats are at some level stupid; that they lack the knowledge or expertise to practice politics effectively. This book takes a very different line: that the problems diagnosed above are not themselves the source of Democratic failings, but rather symptoms of a deeper problem: a lack of courage. It is not a crisis of competence that we face, but rather a crisis of confidence. It will be impossible to implement any of these solutions until Democrats gain the backbone to do so.
Let me explain: it's not so much that large numbers of Democrats suddenly swallowed the free market Kool-Aid and overnight started believing in Republican Voodoo economics; rather, they became afraid that voters would no longer support a populist economic agenda. It's not so much that Democrats lack the ability to communicate effectively or are ignorant of basic political psychology, but that they are afraid that using the hard-edged messages that work will turn off some small group or another. It's not so much that Democrats lack the smarts or tactical expertise to build an effective party infrastructure, but that they shy from deploying that infrastructure with the aggressive, confrontational spirit necessary to beat an opponent as ruthless as the modern Republican Party. And it's not so much that Democrats lack big ideas, but that they are afraid that actually articulating those big ideas will provoke big enemies.
Here is the basic problem of any politician who allows their rhetoric to be guided by their fears of failure. You can't spread the gospel if you're afraid to speak it. Until Democrats everywhere are willing to stand up and articulate progressive values, all the advice in the world about how to do it effectively won't be worth a Harold Ford campaign button. Democrats have got to be willing to speak their values even when they're down in the polls. As I discuss in the book, it's hard to win independent votes without projecting courage and it's hard to do the key work of engaging liberals in electoral politics without fighting hard for their values. But it's also impossible to create new progressives unless progressives and Democratic leaders articulate and defend progressive values. Indeed, the political history of the last decade is a history of Republicans taking unpopular positions and using their media machine and clear messaging to convince the American people to support them, or at least to make other issues a higher priority.
It's how they were able to build, over the space of two months, supermajority support for the war in Iraq. It's how they passed the Central American Free Trade Agreement over the opposition of more than 60 percent of the American people. It's how they were able to move the number of Americans favoring the construction of a wall between the United States and Mexico from less than 15 percent to a majority as high as 80 percent at the key moment right before they voted on the fence (support has declined since then). Democrats and progressives have also shown an occasional ability to rally public opinion to their side like when they maintained public opposition to President Bush's Social Security privatization scheme.
That's the kind of effort required to beat back a bad proposal with powerful backing. But what about creating real long-term change in public opinion? 50 years of public opinion polling shows one thing -- almost all big shifts in public opinion on issues come slowly and in a similar way: when a determined group with a compelling message that doesn't much care about the polls say, says the same thing over and over and over again. And then says it again. This is true even on issues on which there have been the biggest national changes in sentiment. At no point did public opinion on civil rights undergo a sudden, dramatic shift -- despite titanic national showdowns like Brown v. Board of Education, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Instead, it changed slowly over time as civil rights advocates on all levels explained their positions in the media and in personal interactions. Between 1942 and 1985, for instance, the percentage of people favoring black and white students being allowed to attend the same schools rose from 31 percent to 93 percent, with an almost constant, uniform rate of change of 1.4 percent a year. To be sure, persuasion wasn't the only force at play -- the rising popularity of racial integration had a lot to do with old racists dying off. But as civil rights advocates became the dominant voice, young people coming of political age in the 1950's, 1960's, and 1970's grew up in an environment in which legalized racism was increasingly unthinkable -- and so was electing its advocates.
That kind of courage is what's needed for Democrats who want to create not only a progressive future, but also a lasting Democratic majority. Every time Democrats stand up to polluters, to HMO's, and to banks, they're making the case for a politics where corporate interests and their Republican lackeys aren't the ones determining the fate of our nation. And if they do it for long enough, with enough confidence and a dash of spunk, they just might make a return to Republican rule as unthinkable as a return to Jim Crow.
Lately, I've been inundated with phone calls from venture capitalists, private equity guys, and hedge fundistas. They're coming to me because I'm their environmentalist friend and they all want to know one thing: how they can make a buck off the surge in interest in combating global warming.
In a way, that's a sign that the environmental movement has finally arrived. After decades of struggling to convince the titans of finance that protecting the planet and making money weren't mutually exclusive, the tycoons are now coming to us.
But many of these capitalist converts need watching. While Wall Street's eco-splurge has generated a flood of financing for legitimately clean ventures like wind and solar power, it's also spawned extremely dangerous projects that are painted green by their unscrupulous backers, but that at their core are as black as, well, coal.
The green sheen plastered on some of these projects -- like burning down the rainforest to generate electricity for homes -- has actually convinced some members of Congress to start throwing billions of taxpayer dollars their way. Of course, not all those representatives and senators are gullible enough to believe that making forests into electricity is really good for the planet. Some just think voters will be so dazzled by the spin doctors' lovingly applied emerald veneer that they won't notice them pocketing these eco-pretenders' campaign donations.
Take that burning-the-rainforest-to-power-your-iPhone proposal. All over the tropics, international agribusiness giants like Cargill, as well as smaller domestic operators, have turned pristine rainforests into millions of acres of soy, sugar, and palm oil plantations. Much of that provides raw material to make biodiesel, touted by its numerous backers as a quintessential green fuel.
Unfortunately, rainforest biodiesel is triply bad for the planet. When rainforest is burned to clear the land, the carbon that had been safely stored in tree trunks, orangutans, and other living matter gets incinerated and becomes the carbon dioxide responsible for warming the planet. Also incinerated: vital habitat for endangered species (like the orangutans) and indigenous people who need intact rainforests to survive.
Then, the farms that replace the forests spew out greenhouse gases as workers drive their tractors and spray pesticides made in factories running on coal, natural gas, or more biofuels. And when that biofuel finally arrives in your gas tank or the local power plant, it may actually produce slightly more cancer-causing toxins than regular old gasoline, according to a recent Stanford University study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology (though the study didn't evaluate rainforest biodiesel, but other biofuels instead).
But you don't have to go to the tropics to see billionaire faux-environmentalism at work. Just drive out to West Virginia, where Big Coal executives are hoping for a renewed mining bonanza if they can somehow convince members of Congress that coal is clean and that liquefied coal can replace gasoline. They're lobbying hard for taxpayer guarantees for liquid coal projects that they argue can help free America from its reliance on foreign oil. That's the kind of sweetheart deal that could make even oil executives jealous.
But not only is the proposal expensive, it's also extremely dangerous to the environment. Turning hard coal into an automotive fuel takes a lot of energy, which is why liquid coal produces twice the greenhouse gas emissions of regular coal. Liquid coal backers claim that, with the right amount of additional taxpayer support, they can use advanced technology to capture and store that extra global warming pollution. Even if that's true (and taxpayers are willing to take the hit), it doesn't do anything about coal's remaining non-climate environmental hazards: the soot and smog that kill more than 30,000 people every year and the destruction of mountaintops across Appalachia and elsewhere.
That's bad, but it's nothing compared to the scam being pushed by the timber lobby. The logging industry not only cuts down the forests that act as the planet's lungs, they also use tremendous amounts of energy to turn dead trees into furniture and paper. If Congress takes serious action to stop global warming, the loggers would have to clean up their act. But their resident wonks at the American Forest and Paper Association have found a way to reap a financial windfall from likely climate legislation.
Call it the Sofa Scheme. They're arguing that every sofa, Post-It note, and Kleenex tissue they produce should be counted as carbon storage, just like forests are. Their logic is that even when these forest products are discarded and put in a landfill, they're keeping that carbon safely in the ground rather than sending it into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide.
If the timber lobby gets its way, that could mean big money for the logging companies. Under the carbon trading schemes likely to be a part of any global warming legislation, they could use all the credits they get from producing furniture and paper to avoid having to make any actual reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions or preserving actual living forests. Alternately, they could sell those credits to other polluters who would use them to avoid making their own reductions.
That could perversely endanger recycling programs, which are huge energy savers (it takes less energy to make paper from paper than from virgin trees). If wood and paper are given value just for lying in a landfill, it could create an incentive for trash operators to dispose of them that way, rather than recycling them. Indeed, whoever is able to get credit for landfilling the 59 million tons of forest products disposed of annually would reap more than $1 billion in profit, based on the price of carbon pollution permits being traded in European markets.
The good news is that some lawmakers are starting to get wise to these polluter schemes. Facing worries about the impact of increasing demand for palm oil grown in ecologically sensitive parts of Southeast Asia and Colombia, Europe may ban biofuels grown unsustainably. During the debate over the energy bill, the Senate defeated an attempt to provide billions of dollars in subsidies and loan guarantees for liquid coal. And there's growing support for giving financial value to living forests instead of forests that have been turned into toilet paper.
But even if these particular scams are beaten back, environmentalists and others must remain vigilant. Capitalism is, for good and bad, an infinitely creative phenomenon. America must be sure to harness that creativity to solve the climate crisis rather than letting rogue billionaires make it worse.
This article is available on The American Prospect website.
Ã‚Â© 2007 by The American Prospect, Inc.