The Search for Climate Change Leadership

The Democratic controlled Congress is considering an energy bill.

The likely outputs are pretty grim. Coal state members of Congress are pushing for coal-to-liquid projects that might help move in the direction of “energy independence” for the United States, but will make global warming worse. Senators from Michigan are set to gut efforts to increase auto fuel efficiency standards.

It is completely reasonable and critically important to denounce these maneuvers, which suggest that the Democratic controlled Congress is on course to do little or no more to alleviate global warming than its Republican predecessors.

It is also hard to avoid complaining about the spinelessness of the Democrats, or feel, as Lee Iacocca says, “Where Have All the Leaders Gone?” And there’s some justification for that, as well.

But there is another, more important way to look at the present energy bill mess. And that is to acknowledge that members of Congress are responding to powerful constituencies — most importantly the polluters’ lobby, but not just big corporations. The unions in these sectors are supporting retrograde positions, which is reflective of their short-term and misguided calculations about jobs and members’ well-being.

We may pine for enlightened leadership, but it is not likely to be bestowed as a gift.

To face up to the challenge posed by climate change — and it is, literally, apocalyptic — is to acknowledge that forestalling global warming must become the organizing principle of society.

We’re a long way from that recognition and orientation. The only way we are going to get there is for those willing to look honestly at the situation to build a powerful movement. It must be broad, and it must very aggressively demand change. There is a role in this for celebrities and concerts. But there is a crying need too for people who insist on shaking things up.

That movement has been slow in coming, but it is just possible to see the beginning signs that it may be starting to crystallize. (Yes, all those qualifiers are necessary.) A very important early manifestation of what may be a new movement is the call for a No War, No Warming mobilization in Washington, DC, from October 21 to 23.

Details of the protest activity are just starting to be worked out, so stay tuned for more. But while all efforts have to made to block the lunacy now on display in the Congress and to achieve some incremental gains for renewable energy and efficiency (getting started sooner will make the hard work to come much easier), the real leadership on this issue will not be found on Capitol Hill. The leadership is going to come from the streets.

Disclosure: Essential Action, a project I direct, is an endorser of No War, No Warming.