The planet still groans, not that we'd hear it

  • Article by: JAMES P. LENFESTEY
  • Updated: June 21, 2012 - 10:15 PM

The fossil-fuel lobby, and a complicit media, have silenced the alarm.

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Under the headline "U.S. energy lobby hits the campaign trail," the Financial Times reported on June 6: "The American Petroleum Institute [API] has announced rallies in 15 states, most of them key battlegrounds for the presidential election, and has been advertised widely."

The API's so-called nonpartisan arm organizing these events, "Vote 4 Energy," is headed by Jack Gerard, a close friend of Mitt Romney and, should Romney win the presidency, a top candidate to be his chief of staff.

And, according to Kantar Media CMAG, "more than 80 per cent of the 16,991 negative ads broadcast across the U.S. in April concerned energy and overwhelmingly opposed Mr. Obama."

Others have reported that lobbying expenditures for energy-sector companies increased by 92 percent from 2007 to 2009, when climate-change bills were actively debated in Congress.

This is not to mention the constant chattering against climate science on Fox News, right-wing radio, websites and faux think tanks bankrolled by energy billionaires like David and Charles Koch and a few others.

Anyone still wonder why climate change is not at the center of the U.S. presidential campaign? Or why there is not one iota of optimism that the once-promising Earth Summit on sustainability underway in Rio de Janeiro this week will produce any agreement of substance?

Meanwhile, the beleaguered scientific and economic community is increasing its already harsh alarms about climate change and its costs. The June 7 edition of the respected scientific journal Nature, under the headline "Return to Rio: Second chance for the planet," despaired over the lack of promise for the Earth Summit: "It is hard to avoid a certain sense of gloom, if not doom," the editors wrote. "Despite progress on some issues -- ozone loss, for example -- the disconnect between science and politics seems to be growing, not shrinking."

The conservative British magazine The Economist agrees. Its June 16 special report, "The Vanishing North," dispassionately discussed the pros and cons of Arctic economic exploitation as the ice rapidly disappears. Nevertheless, it opined that "the world would be mad to ignore" the "grave" dangers: "The impact of the melting Arctic may have calamitous effect on the planet."

Yet, voters hear little about these "grave dangers" in regular election coverage, and few have an inkling that a once-promising, planet-saving Earth Summit is going on at all.

The disconnect between politics and climate change is especially pronounced in America, where the fossil-fuel lobby is entrenched and aggressive, with a history of bending the facts and winning elections, and where one of the two major political parties has taken the shameful ostrich position that all the world's climate scientists are simply wrong.

The two are linked. Remember Bush vs. Gore? You may think that election in 2000 was decided by a few votes in Florida, or by the Supreme Court. The fossil-fuel industry and Republicans know that the few deciding votes were cast in West Virginia.

That election pitted Bush-Cheney, overt oil industry representatives, vs. wonky Al Gore Jr., who studied climate science at Harvard and held the first congressional hearings to publicize the concern, which had been quietly discussed in government circles as far back as the Johnson and Nixon administrations.

The fossil-fuel industries threw everything they had to prevent a Gore presidency. As reported in Minnesota attorney Barbara Freese's excellent book, "Coal: A Human History," West Virginia's coal industry took the lead in raising unprecedented sums of money and support for George W. Bush and ultimately delivered the state by 52 percent. Freese cites a Wall Street Journal report that top White House staffers agreed "it was basically a coal-fired victory." If Bush had not won West Virginia's traditionally Democratic five electoral votes, Gore would have won the election.

Yet very little campaign coverage in 2000 or since has stressed the roles of black vs. green energy, even though they represent one of the major differences between the two candidates and parties.

"It's the economy, stupid," has been the political frame since the Clinton years, but that was before the evidence of climate change was so hot we could touch it (31 states broke heat records this spring, and this week's Duluth deluge certainly fits a pattern of more-extreme weather events).

Today, it is inexcusable that the political frame is not "it's the economy and the environment, stupid." Yet journalists have so far not learned that lesson, and therefore neither have voters. One party, and one industry, like it that way. Their children, not to mention the grandchildren, will not.

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James P. Lenfestey is a former editorial writer for the Star Tribune covering energy and education.

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