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Bill Scher

Bill Scher

Posted April 29, 2009 | 02:10 PM (EST)

At The 100 Day Mark, Climate Is Losing


At the 100 Day mark of the Obama Era, climate protection is behind health care for all.

This shouldn't be and isn't a contest. Solving both domestic crises is critical to sustain our economy and our planet.

And the fact that health care is farther along the political process is no reason to be complacent about its final outcome. The insurance and drug lobbies may be on their heels, but they are not beaten.

But the political reality is clear. The proposal to create a public health insurance option had cultivated enough support that the President could successfully insist on leaving open the possibility of passage with a simple majority vote in the Senate. The proposal to cap carbon emissions had no such momentum, as the Senate set a higher supermajority threshold of 60 votes.

Why is this so? Because with the addition of Sen. Arlen Specter to the Democratic caucus, there are now 18 Senate Dems from the top coal-producing states, another four from oil-producing states, and others from states with electricity primarily coal-powered.

Perhaps many of these politicians are sincerely skittish at what a real transition to a clean energy economy would mean for their states. Or as Clean Air Watch's Frank O'Donnell suggests, perhaps they are unduly influenced by campaign cash for fossil fuel industries.

Whatever the specific reason, these fossil fuel ties are certainly creating a disconnect between them and the will of the President and the public.

Just today, the NBC/Wall Street Journal found that by a 58% to 35% margin, the public supports President Obama's proposal for, "Charging a fee to companies that emit greenhouse gases ... and using the money to provide tax cuts for middle-income families," even though the poll question raised the possibility of "higher utility bills."

Yet the Senate flinched from incorporating revenue from such a carbon cap system into the budget resolution.

How can we remove this political barrier between the public and these fossil fuel state Dems?

My earlier Omaha World-Herald oped proposed a policy solution: reinvest the revenue from polluters back into their states for clean energy jobs and consumer rebates. That way, fossil fuel states don't bear the brunt of a clean energy transition.

But that policy solution needs to be backed up with political muscle if we are to separate the constituents in fossil fuel states from the coal and oil CEOs supplying all that campaign cash.

And that will require mass mobilization.

As Robert Borosage says today:

...what Obama has been missing has been an independent, obstreporous citizens' movement demanding fundamental reform ... it is precisely these movements - independent, disruptive, passionate, demanding bolder reform, taking on entrenched powerful interests - that enabled Roosevelt and Johnson to achieve far more than they ever thought possible.

Similarly Kim Phillips-Fein, author of the new book Invisible Hands chronicling how the conservative movement, drew lessons for progressives in her recent appearance on Bloggingheads.tv.

Progressive change in this country has come about through ... mass mobilization and a genuine populism that is much more difficult for conservatives to attain ... There needs to be and kind of consistent emphasis on how ...to really engage people in politics and in the struggle to create a more just society...

...The ability to kind of engage large numbers of people in this kind of democratic project is the true strength of progressive politics ...To cut taxes, and to deregulate industries and to fight unions you don't actually need mass support to do those things. But ... to build unions, to create national health care, to provide a more democratic structure for the economy you do need to have deep levels of support, mass popular political activity to accomplish those things.

We do have a nascent infrastructure to spark such mass mobilization. Organizations like Powershift, Focus The Nation and Alliance for Climate Protection are helping to prioritize the issue among America's youth. MoveOn.org and VoteVets are activating their memberships and funding TV ads. The Blue Green Alliance and the Apollo Alliance are bringing unions and environmental organizations together to support climate protection legislation.

We even have an important assist from the EPA. Administrator Lisa Jackson said this month the agency is prepared to use its legal authority to follow science and act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. That puts fresh pressure on Congress to act if it wants to design any new system to cap carbon.

But even though the House is in the midst of public debate on a comprehensive clean energy and climate protection bill, we are not seeing a mass mobilization necessary to diminish special interest influence, and make clear to Senators that the interests of voters in fossil fuel states is vastly different that the interests of fossil fuel CEOs.

Further, I would bet that most Americans, including progressives and liberals, aren't even aware that we are in a sensitive moment with climate legislation, and do not recognize the time is now to influence it. Why would we, when news items about the hearings are buried in the back pages? Meanwhile, special interest lobbyists are acutely aware of the moment we are in.

As I suggested in my own Bloggingheads.tv appearance last week, much of the progressive grassroots' recent attention has been on the torture memos and not on the House climate bill.

Again, this shouldn't be a contest. Holding torture architects accountable is extremely important.

But as it is ridiculous for pundits to chastise President Obama for "doing too much" when there is much to do, we progressives must also be able to walk and chew gum simultaneously.

If we are to mobilize when it matters, we cannot simply chase the hot news of the moment as decided by cable TV. We must know our goals, and diligently pursue them every day.

Originally posted at OurFuture.org