A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for.
- William G.T. Shedd
Here is a trick question: Now that the 2012 election campaign has begun, should you vote Republican or Democrat?
The correct answer: Neither of the above. In this election, maybe more than ever, it should be courage that counts, not party affiliation.
It's the tough issues in tough times that are the best tests of courage -- and right now, few issues are tougher in American politics than confronting global climate change. It requires that we stand up against godzilla vested interests and say goodbye to a carbon economy which has served us so long that no American alive today remembers life without it.
The lack of political courage on this issue is well-documented in the emerging field of Republican presidential hopefuls. Almost every prominent Republican who has announced or is considering a run for the presidency has changed position on carbon cap and trade, even though it is a "market-based" approach once promoted by GOP leaders. Here's how the Atlantic describes current climate politics:
Supporting a cap-and-trade approach to greenhouse gas regulation is basically taboo in the GOP these days, but most of the top-tier Republican presidential contenders have backed it in the past...Nowadays, you'd be hard pressed to find a Republican who supports the policy, after conservatives railed for two years against "cap-and-tax" as a job-killing government overreach...Republican candidates campaigned against cap-and-trade en masse in 2010, and it worked out in their favor. After all that, Republican White House hopefuls have revised their previously held energy stances.
The flip-floppers include Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich. The Atlantic notes that Palin was obligated to give climate change a cool embrace while she campaigned two years ago with John McCain. Now Palin can claim she did it for the ticket and her feet are planted firmly back in denial.
McCain has no excuse. He was once one of the Republican Party's most outspoken advocates of climate action. He co-sponsored an early cap-and-trade bill with Joe Lieberman in 2003 and reintroduced the legislation in 2005 and 2007. He said then:
I have proposed a bipartisan plan to address the problem of climate change and stimulate the development and use of advanced technologies. It is a market-based approach that would set reasonable caps on carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions, and provide industries with tradable credits... offering a powerful incentive to drive the deployment of new and better energy sources and technologies...
In April 2007, setting the stage for his presidential race, McCain gave an energy policy speech in which he described global warming and America's dependence on foreign oil as national security issues. Two years later after losing the election, the maverick apparently had been beaten out of him. McCain joined other climate deserters in his party and slammed President Obama's approach to cap and trade. By November 2009, he was criticizing another prominent cap-and-trade proposal -- the Graham-Lieberman bill in the Senate -- as "horrendous", a "monstrosity" and a "cap-and-tax" scheme. As Politico reported it "Former aides are mystified by what they see as a retreat on the issue, given McCain's long history of leadership on climate legislation."
McCain's reversal was so dramatic that Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times, called the senator a "climate coward".
When he was in the House in 1989, Newt Gingrich authored HR 1078, the "Global Warming Prevention Act". Its judgment about climate change was unequivocal:
The Earth's atmosphere is being changed at an unprecedented rate by pollutants resulting from human activities... global warming imperils human health and well-being (and is) a major threat to political stability, international security and economic prosperity.
Gingrich published "Contract with the Earth" and called for green conservatism. In 2007, he said he would strongly support a carbon cap-and-trade regime, "much like we did with sulfur".
In 2008, he appeared in a television spot in which he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, sitting together on a couch like chums, agreed that "America needs to do something about global climate change." The ad was part of Al Gore's campaign to rally public support for climate action. But by 2009, Gingrich was distancing himself from Gore, calling for more oil production and endorsing "green coal". In congressional testimony, he strongly disputed Gore's interpretation of climate science and called cap-and-trade a "tax" and "secular socialism".
He blasted Obama's support for carbon cap-and-trade, saying it "would have the effect of an across-the-board energy tax on every American".
It's not just Republicans who flip-flop on climate change or who simply don't want to talk about it. Congressional staff in both parties acknowledge that "climate change" is not something their bosses want to discuss right now. In the aftermath of his bin Laden mission, no one can accuse President Obama of lacking courage as a leader. But many in the environmental community, one of President Obama's natural constituencies, were disappointed that his support for cap-and-trade legislation during the 111th Congress did not match the conviction they heard during his campaign. Conservatives whine that although Obama has flip-flopped on some issues, the media cut him slack and call him a "nuanced thinker".
One has to wonder what a life in politics does to our leaders. I am not the only baby-boomer who remembers and admires John McCain's uncommon courage and honor as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Or that moment in 1971 when a young John Kerry -- who served with distinction both in Vietnam and in Vietnam Veterans Against the War -- gave what may be the most eloquent truth-telling speech ever uttered before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Yet today, Sen. McCain is called a "climate coward". Sen. Kerry, still a man of principle whose remarkable journey has brought him to chair the Senate committee he addressed 40 years ago, seemed shell-shocked during his presidential campaign in 2004 when character assassins from the Right Wing smeared his military service -- a shameful and ludicrous attack under any circumstances, but especially when the candidate with questionable military service during the Vietnam war was Kerry's opponent, George W. Bush.
The brutality of cage-fighting in the political arena today makes good people battle-weary and gun-shy. Yet political candidates are not forced into the arena; they volunteer. Fighting for us and our children is why we pay them the big bucks and give them special parking spaces at Reagan National Airport.
I'm writing about this not because flip-flopping is new or previously undocumented, or because changing one's mind is always wrong. We grow, we learn. We come to understand that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," as Emerson put it.
But consistency in confronting climate change is not foolish. The reality of the threat is not a matter of opinion, belief or political philosophy. It is physics. It's about accepting facts and probabilities, and separating from the pack if necessary to prevent an unprecedented security risk that extends far beyond our generation, our political districts and our nation. The 2012 election campaign is a fresh opportunity to judge the candidates on whether they have the guts to do this. Each candidate and every voter would do well to think about the observation by psychologist Rollo May: "The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity."
It is instructive to compare what we hear in Congress and presidential politics today with what we hear from distinguished national leaders who have no axes to grind and no more elections to win. Consider the statement published in 2009 by the Partnership for a Secure America. It was signed by these retired government leaders from both political parties:
Sen. Howard Baker, National Security Advisor Samuel Berger, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Sen. John Danforth, White House chief of staff Ken Duberstein, Sen. Slade Gordon, Rep. Lee Hamilton, Sen. Gary Hart, U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills, Sen. Nancy Kassebaum-Baker, Gov. Thomas Keen, National Security Advisor Tony Lake; National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Donald HcHenry, Sen. Sam Nunn, Secretary of Defense William Perry, Secretary of Commerce Peter Peterson, Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering, U.S. Ambassador to China Joseph Prueher, Sen. Warren Rudman, Secretary of State George Shultz, White House Special Council Ted Sorensen, Chief of Staff of the Army Gordon Sullivan, Gen. Charles Wald, Sen. John Warner, Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, Sen. Tim Wirth, Under Secretary of State Frank Wisner, and Central Intelligence Director James Woolsey.
Here's what they said:
Climate change is a national security issue. The longer we wait to act, the harder it will be to mitigate and respond to its impacts. U.S. leadership alone will not guarantee global cooperation. But if we fail to take action now, we will have little hope of influencing other countries to reduce their own harmful contributions to climate change, or of forging a coordinated international response. We must also help less developed countries adapt to the realities and consequences of a drastically changed climate. Doing so now will help avoid humanitarian disasters and political instability in the future that could ultimately threaten the security of the U.S. and our allies. But most importantly, we must transcend the political issues that divide us - by party and by region - to devise a unified American strategy that can endure and succeed. We, the undersigned Republicans and Democrats, believe Congress working closely with the Administration must develop a clear, comprehensive, realistic and broadly bipartisan plan to address our role in the climate change crisis. WE MUST LEAD.
The emphasis on the last sentence was theirs, not mine.
Follow William S. Becker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sustainabill