David Coates

Green Politics in the Wake of the November Mid-Term: Updating Chapter 4


When Making the Progressive Case went off to the publisher in late December 2010, the green agenda in the United States had already stalled; and since then the gap between the U.S. and the best of the rest has continued to widen. Three developments have been  particularly striking in the intervening six months; (a) the arrival in Washington of new Republican lawmakers convinced that climate change is a hoax, and that the U.S. national interest is best served by closing the Environmental Protection Agency; (b) the near cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami in Japan on March 11, which threatened a nuclear meltdown in its wake but left those Republican lawmakers apparently unmoved; and (c) the subsequent decision of the German government to phase out German reliance on nuclear energy by 2022. It is worth noting, as we go into this update, that the German decision was taken by a government of the center-right, not of the center-left; and was taken in the context of an economy that currently relies on nuclear power for 23% of its electricity. Being conservative and being green is clearly not impossible, so long as the conservatives in question are not Tea Party Republicans.


(a)    When the Republican-dominated House of Representatives convened in January 2011, the initial move of the majority was to threaten to shut off funding for the federal government unless certain key programs/institutions were denied any money: specifically Planned Parenthood to satisfy the social conservatives, and the EPA to satisfy the climate deniers. The deal eventually struck between the legislators and the Obama Administration left funding in place for both, but at a price. As was noted earlier on this website, “the riders on Planned Parenthood and on NPR funding were dropped. But precious budgets were pruned, and some were pruned heavily. The EPA budget, for example, was cut by some 16 percent, with its programs relating to climate change losing $49 million.”[1] Even after the budget settlement, the EPA continued to be pressured by a series of congressional hearings and industry statements – pressure which certainly induced a retreat by the EPA on a raft of regulations, particularly those governing emissions from industrial boilers. The force of the Republican argument throughout the first half of 2011 was that EPA regulation was costing U.S. companies orders and U.S. workers jobs. (It is an argument effectively refuted by the Economic Policy Institute’s tallying up of the impact of the new rules.[2])  Sadly however, Republican lawmakers don’t read EPI briefing papers: certainly not the 240 Republican members of the House who voted against an amendment moved by Henry Waxman in April 2011 to one of the Republican attempts to constrain the EPA, an amendment stating that “Congress accepts the scientific findings of the Environmental Protection Agency that climate change is occurring, is caused by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.”[3]


(b)   While denial reigned in rightwing quarters in Washington, mayhem reigned in Japan. Earthquake and tsunami combined to destabilize 10 nuclear reactors at Fukushima in March 2011, and underscored the fragility of even the strongest shock-proofing precautions in the face of the forces of nature. The general message of the Japanese crisis, taken by many in the global community, was that the safety of nuclear power was again in question. That is definitely how the German government interpreted the event: but not it would seem more conservative commentators both here and in Europe. As the Germans temporarily closed 7 of their 17 nuclear reactors, emissions there increased by as much as 10 percent, the product of a sudden switch to imported electricity from coal burning plants further east in Europe.  This was taken by advocates of nuclear power as a sign of things to come, and as a justification for the retention of nuclear power, not for its phasing out. “Put simply,” Nordhaus and Shellenberger told readers of The Financial Times, “there is no credible path to stabilizing, much less reducing, global carbon emissions without more nuclear power.”[4] If only nuclear power stations were as protected from reality as the advocates of their expansion currently appear to be, we would all be totally safe in tsunamis and earthquakes to come!


(c)    But the German Government at least has taken the more sensible route, committing its economy (May 30, 2011) to an eventually nuclear-free future. This transition will be a huge undertaking. It involves leaving closed the reactors suspended in March, and it involves closing the rest by 2022. Only Italy, among G8 economies, has a similar anti-nuclear state – the French and British definitely do not – and whether this German decision survives remains to be seen. But again, the fact that such an announcement was even possible shows the gap between the center of gravity of debate on climate change within the E.U. and the center of gravity of that debate in Washington D.C. It even points to the gap in centers of gravity in this debate between Washington and New York, where in June the executive secretary of the U.N. framework convention on climate change called for a new ceiling of temperature increase: not 2% as previously agreed, but 1.5%. “Two degrees is not enough,” Christiana Figueres said, “we should be thinking of 1.5C. If we are not headed to 1.5C, we are in big, big trouble.”[5]


All this, in a year whose first half was marked by a series of weather-related catastrophes here in the United States: a snow storm 2000 miles wide that dumped snow from Texas to Maine, flooding in the Mississippi Valley on a scale not seen since the 1930s, and a rash of tornedos across Missouri and Illinois which leveled vast parts of the town of Joplin. 2010 tied 2005 for the hottest year on record. Of course, as Bill McKibben rightly said, “there have been snowstorms before, and cyclones – our planet has always produced extreme events.” But it is worth remembering that “chemistry and physics work. We don’t just live in a suburb, or in a free-market democracy: we live on an earth that has certain rules…more carbon means more heat means more trouble – and the trouble has barely begun.”[6] Green politics is about more than votes in Washington. It is about the application of science to the protection of the human condition.  Right now, however, votes and science are not as aligned here as many of us would have them be.[7]




[2] See Isaac Shapiro, Tallying Up the Impact of New EPA Rules, Economic Policy Institute Briefing Paper #311, May 31, 2011: available at http://www.epi.org/publications/entry/tallying_up_the_impact_of_new_epa_rules


[4] See their “Fukushima only boosts green case for nuclear” article, The Financial Times, May 10, 2011


[6] Bill McKibben, Catastrophic Weather Events Are Becoming the New Normal…., posted on Alternet.org February 2, 2011: available at http://www.alternet.org/story/149774


[7] For one way forwards, see Bracken Hendricks, Sean Pool and Lizbeth Kaufman, Low-carbon Innovation: A Uniquely American Strategy for Industrial Renewal, Washington DC; Center for American Progress, May 2011: available at www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/05/pdf/gcn_low_carbon.pdf


David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

One Response to “Green Politics in the Wake of the November Mid-Term: Updating Chapter 4”

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