Archive for February, 2009

It’s the Planet, Stupid

February 11, 2009

President Obama has his hands full, to say the least.

And with so many crises needing attention, it’s hard to believe any one issue could rise above the rest to provide a central guiding principle for this administration, but one does.

In the vernacular of the 1992 Clinton campaign (and with apologies to our obviously very intelligent President), it’s the planet, stupid. It’s global warming.

It’s easy to understand why many argue the economy must come first, but it’s been humankind’s long-running illusion that the environment is somehow separate from and subordinate to our economy, when in fact the exact opposite is true. Global warming may not feel like the most pressing issue in the middle of an economic crisis, but it’s the one threat that can and will destroy our planet – taking our economy, and most of human civilization, with it.

And the process is frighteningly well underway – witness the devastation currently being wrought by record heat waves and droughts in Argentina and Australia. James Hansen, NASA’s chief climate scientist who has been sounding the alarm on global warming, and who recently sent a personal plea to the Obamas, puts the timeline rather bluntly: we have four years to save the planet.

Does President Obama truly get this? While there have been huzzahs from the advocacy community for his recent actions on the issue, the early record is more mixed than that.

Certainly the $800 billion+ stimulus package contains many good things – many of them energy and climate related. And it’s evidence that Obama understands that conservation and renewable energy create jobs. (In fact, they’re the best way to help the economy.)

But in trying to do a little bit of everything, the plan is missing any driving policy focus, and as a result some of the particulars are less than they might appear. Doubling our renewable energy capacity, for instance, sounds less impressive when you realize we currently get only a microscopic 2-3% of our energy from wind and solar power. Compare this to the transformative strategic vision of Al Gore’s proposed goal of 100% of our electricity from renewables within 10 years.

And of the purportedly “massive” spending in the package devoted to transportation, in the House version approximately $30 billion will go to roads, highways and bridges – but only $10 billion to mass transit. What’s the principle here?

According to Rep. James Oberstar, chair of the House Transportation panel, the mass transit funding was cut to make room for tax cuts. (Haven’t we been down that road before?) And just to keep things in perspective, $10 billion is how much the Pentagon burns through in less than one week.

In other policy decisions, it’s encouraging to see the new EPA put a hold on a coal-fired power plant in South Dakota, but will we see the moratorium on all new coal-fired power plants (and quick phase-out of existing ones) deemed an absolute necessity by the science on global warming? The Obama administration did announce, with considerably less fanfare than it’s closure of Guantanamo, that they will continue Bush’s plan to open our coastlines to oil and gas drilling, as well as promoting the development of oil shale in western states. Again, what’s the principle here? (Also note that producing oil from shale requires immense amounts of water, and that western states are straining to meet current water needs as it is.)

Looking to the immediate future, will President Obama move to end our insane policies of subsidizing corn (think corn ethanol and high fructose corn syrup) and cheap, fatty industrialized meat – policies that are destroying our national health even as they contribute massively to global warming?

And what about a carbon tax on producers with the proceeds going directly to consumers, also known as “cap-and-dividend?” This is arguably the Holy Grail of global warming policy – the boldest and most effective way to reduce carbon emissions. Yet Democrats in Congress, including Rep. Chris Van Hollen, are pushing a cap-and-trade plan that would inevitably be a boon to special interests, lobbyists and speculators – and which has notably failed to reduce carbon emissions when tried in other countries. Such “market-based” responses to the ecological crisis of global warming are also bound to fail because they repeat our fundamental economy-over-ecology confusion. Simply put, nature doesn’t participate in the market, and disappearing polar ice caps don’t give a damn how much a utility will pay for a ton of “traded” carbon emissions.

In his December 29th appeal to the first couple, James Hansen noted “There is a profound disconnect between actions that policy circles are considering and what science demands for preservation of the planet.” (He was referring, among other things, to cap and trade policies.) Will President Obama, having freed science from the shackles of the Bush Administration, proceed to ignore its urgent pleas on the single most important issue facing our planet?

Like everyone other than the Rush Limbaughs of the world, I want Obama to succeed – our lives depend on it. But this will only happen if he follows a clear-eyed and decisive guiding principle from the very beginning. And that principle cannot be political pragmatism, or economy-first, everything-else-second.

What’s the principle? It’s the planet, stupid.

Missing the Point on Daschle

February 5, 2009

Once again the pundits, members of Congress and the mainstream media are getting it all wrong. And in the process giving us a profoundly constricted view of what “change” can and should be in our political system.

Not that I’m shedding any tears over the withdrawal of former Senator Tom Daschle as Obama’s choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services. It’s obnoxious, to say the least, that another very wealthy American is not paying his taxes – and then being nominated for a high government position to boot. But the major ethical crisis here is not non-payment of taxes. It’s the idea that this is the person chosen to reform our health care system.

Just to review, tens of millions of Americans have inadequate insurance, tens of millions have no health insurance at all, and thousands more are added to the roles of the uninsured every week as they lose their jobs.  And the system is controlled by private insurance companies that have a financial incentive to deny coverage so they can boost their own profits, and that maintain their control by regularly contributing millions of dollars to members of Congress while flooding their offices with lobbyists.

So how is it possible that the person “best-equipped” to reform such a system is a) a longtime member of Congress, b) a consummate Washington insider, and c) a multimillionaire, who just happens to have made a chunk of his money by d) giving paid speeches for the health insurance industry?

Just as with top picks in the Defense Department and Treasury (see post below), it seems that the choices to fix our biggest problems are too often the very individuals who helped create them in the first place.  And yet according to official Washington, the only issue is whether or not they paid all their taxes.

Now that’s an ethical crisis.