Congressional Candidates' Views on Clean Energy, Climate Change: IA-03

Originally posted on The MarkUp. This is the eleventh article in a continuing series by the NRDC Action Fund on the environmental stances of candidates in key races around the country.

 

Today, we examine Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District, stretching from Des Moines to the Cedar Falls-Waterloo area.  The district’s economy is heavily agricultural, but also has a large financial and insurance sector component, with Des Moines referred to as “the Hartford of the West” for that reason.  Since 1997, Democrat Leonard Boswell has represented the 3rd congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives.  This year, Boswell is being challenged by Republican State Senator Brad Zaun.

 

So far in this campaign, Boswell has strongly defended his record and has attacked Zaun for “his opposition to Iowa's biofuels industry, which employs thousands of farmers and factory workers in the state.” For his part, Zaun has attempted to tie Boswell to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama, while running a series entitled, “Fourteen Reasons Why We Need a New Congressman.”

 

On clean energy and environmental issues, Rep. Boswell has an excellent record.  In 2009, for instance, Boswell received a near-perfect 93% rating from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), as well as a 100% rating from Environment America. Boswell voted for the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), an extraordinarily important piece of environmental legislation which the New York Times described as “the first time either house of Congress had approved a bill meant to curb the heat-trapping gases scientists have linked to climate change.” At the time of his vote for ACES, Boswell said that the legislation  “would harness the most innovative workforce in the world to create a clean energy future, creating millions of jobs in the process.”  Boswell added that “[e]nergy independence is vital to our national security and economic future, and this legislation advances this goal while confronting the serious challenge of climate change.”

 

For his part, Brad Zaun received a mediocre rating of 42% on the environment from the Iowa Sierra Club in 2009-2010.  In this video, Zaun declares, “I question global warming” and claims – incorrectly – that ACES will “cost businesses and all of us that have homes millions of dollars.”  In addition, Zaun claims that coal-fired power is far more economical than wind power (certainly not true if you count environmental and other “externalities”), brags that he’s being “compared to this one lady that says ‘drill, baby, drill,’” and argues that “we need to take advantage of our resources.”  On his website under “Energy and Natural Resources,” Zaun argues that America “must increase domestic oil and gas supply by exploring and utilizing more of the energy resources we have at home.” Message to Brad Zaun: we saw the results of that approach in the Gulf of Mexico this past summer!

 

On the other hand, Zaun has not joined most of his fellow Republican candidates this year and signed the Americans for Prosperity “No Climate Tax Pledge.”  Zaun also advocates “exploring alternative sources of energy…including nuclear, wind, solar and other alternative energies.” And, Zaun says, “We must be careful stewards of all of our precious natural resources by always avoiding strategies which unnecessarily damage our landscape or environment or pose health risks to our citizens.” That’s all well and good. But advocating for coal-fired power, “drill, baby, drill,” and global warming skepticism is a very funny way to accomplish those goals.

 

The NRDC Action Fund believes that it is important for the public in general, and the voters of specific Congressional districts, be aware of this information as they weigh their choices for November.

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We failed the people who cleaned up 9/11. Will we fail the people cleaning up the Gulf?

In the aftermath of 9/11, we saw thousands of workers develop devastating respiratory conditions and other illnesses as a result of exposure to toxic dust that filled the air in the days and weeks after the twin towers fell. To this day, these peoples’ plight continues to add misery to the ongoing tragedy of 9/11. What makes it even worse is that these people were assured the air was safe.   As we all know now, it wasn’t.

Today, sadly, history may be repeating itself in the Gulf of Mexico.

(Thank you to Ligia Ercius-Dipaola, who posted this video on the NRDC Action Fund Facebook Page)

Amazingly, despite reports like this one, BP “continues to pretend that – just like an oil spill of this magnitude could never happen – there also could not possibly be a worker health concern.”  While the potential health hazards posed by chemical dispersants and oil itself are debatable, it is clear that significant risks existed.  

Already, we’ve seen evidence of the impact that spilled oil can have on human health. For starters, an increasing number of workers and residents in Gulf Coast areas have reported “suffering from nausea, vomiting, headaches and difficulty breathing.”  Considering that oil contains “petroleum hydrocarbons, which are toxic and irritating to the skin and airways”, as well as volatile chemicals “which can cause acute health effects such as headaches, dizziness and nausea” it’s no surprise that these symptoms are appearing.

(Thank you to Gary Chattem, who posted this on the NRDC Action Fund Facebook Wall)

So now, with the “60 exposure-related complaints filed with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals”, not to mention the “overwhelming evidence that many of the compounds found in crude oil are dangerous,” shouldn’t BP be protecting the people who are cleaning up this mess? If they aren’t doing so, why aren’t they?

The bottom line is this: people along the Gulf Coast deserve to know the facts regarding the dangers they are facing and how to protect themselves.  It’s bad enough that their economic livelihoods are in danger of destruction in part due to BP’s greed and recklessness.  But if their lungs and other organs are damaged by oil and dispersant particles in the air, more than their economic livelihoods could be damaged.

None of us should ever forget that this disaster was brought on, at least in part, by BP cutting corners to save a few (million) bucks, and by the government’s failure to prevent the company from doing so.  As a result, the unthinkable has happened.  We must learn from those grave mistakes, not repeat them.  That means, in the long term, ridding ourselves of our dangerous, destructive addition to oil.  But what must happen now – right now – is for BP to stop cutting corners with the health of the people cleaning up the Gulf.

At the minimum, BP must switch its philosophy from “hope for the best” to “do whatever it takes, whatever the cost, to make sure people are safe.”  If BP won’t “make it right,” as the company’s ads like to say, then the government should force BP to do so.  In the words of one Venice, LA mother: “I’ve got the two most beautiful children in the world. If something were to happen to them, how could I look in those baby blues and say, Mommy didn’t know?”  It’s a great question.  What’s the answer, BP?

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Our Senators, the Climate Bill, and Tying Your Shoes with One Hand

Last Thursday, the Senate voted 53 to 47 to defeat the Murkowski resolution that would have undermined the EPA's ability to reduce global warming pollution. The vote provides a useful guide to how senators might act on a climate vote.

Of course, it is not a clear-cut comparison because some people voted against the flawed resolution to make a point about process or simply to support the science. It is significant to note that we have 10 more votes in favor of reducing carbon emissions than we did the last time climate change was discussed on the Senate floor two years ago.

But here is what I find most interesting about last week's vote: the number of Senators who have all publicly exclaimed that global warming is a pressing problem but who voted to block the EPA from dealing with it. Are they sitting on an “election year fence” or are the deep pockets of Big Oil & Coal companies propping up their campaign contribution fences? The question must be asked – Why do these senators benefit from burning caveman fuels?

Senator Rockefeller, for instance, said: “I am not here to deny or bicker fruitlessly about the science… In fact, I would suggest that I think the science is correct. Greenhouse gas emissions are not healthy for the Earth or her people, and we must take significant action to reduce them. We must develop and deploy clean energy, period.”

And yet the man voted to hamstring the EPA. Indeed, Senator Rockefeller intends to push his own bill that would put the EPA's effort to confront global warming on hold–giving West Virginia's coal industry a free pass for two more years.

Senator Chambliss from Georgia, meanwhile, said, “I know the climate is changing.” And Senator Hutchison from Texas declared: “As a solution to climate change, we need to work together to promote the use of clean and renewable sources of energy….It is important that we work together. We are the elected representatives of the people.”

And yet both of them voted against one of our main tools for combating global warming pollution: the EPA.

I'm sorry, but if you really believe this is a crisis, why wouldn't you want to fight it with every weapon available? Why wouldn't you deploy the muscle of both Congress AND the federal government?

While I was listening to last week's debate, I couldn't help but be reminded of teaching my three-year-old how to tie her shoes. I showed her how to do it with two hands, of course. Why on earth would I suggest she do it with one?

Yet that is what these Senators seem to be proposing. Senator Collins from Maine said:
“I believe global climate change and the development of alternatives to fossil fuels are significant and urgent priorities for our country.”

Why would she want us to fight global warming with one hand tied behind our back?

On the one hand, these statements are good news – despite the yelping of Inhofe and Hatch, the Senate is not a bastion of climate deniers. There's even a consensus that something must be done. The bad news is they're still not doing it. What is it that these Senators actually would support that isn't just some vague theory?

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Who is the Worst Offender: The Climate Denier or The Complacent Staller?

This is a pivotal week in the clean energy debate. The Senate will vote on Murkowski's short-sighted resolution to take away the EPA's authority to regulate pollution. As we head into this critical time, it's not the Inhofe-cloned climate deniers who trouble me – it's the knowing bystanders who are keeping me up at night.

Before I start this rant, let me just state for the record that I still think deniers are about as accurate as my three year old is when she is trying to describe quantum physics at her make-believe tea parties (although they are wholly less adorable). The vast majority of these deniers resist climate legislation because they really don't believe global warming is a problem – yes their heads are in the sand. But for the purposes of the Murkowski resolution, their vote is already lost.

Lately I am even more frustrated with Senators who recognize that climate change is an urgent challenge, but who sit idly by on the sidelines doing nothing. For me, they raise the fundamental question – Who is worse – those that deny the existence of climate change or those that believe in the upcoming catastrophe and continue to lack focus or alarm?

Take Senator Schumer for example. He has stated that he thinks the Senate should confront the impacts of climate change. Yet just this week, when leaders should be pushing hard for climate action, Schumer's support has been tepid at best. On Morning Joe, he showered Senator Bingaman's energy-only bill with praise, then said, “What do you do about climate change? Kerry has a proposal that has pretty broad support…He is going to get a chance to offer that opinion, and we will see if it has the votes.”

We are looking for more from our Leaders than a passive wait and see attitude. Senator Schumer is the third ranking Democrat, and that means he needs to do more than wait around to cast a vote. It's time for real leadership, which means rolling up his sleeves and making sure a bill passes. We need him in the trenches. In fairness, the Senator walked himself back a bit after people threw a fit over his Morning Joe ambivalence. He has pledged to meet with Senator Kerry on a path forward but until he demands action and puts him ample political muscle behind that call, I am skeptical.

Exhibit #2 is Senator Rockefeller. As a Senator from West Virginia, he wants the federal government to do a better job of regulating mine safety, especially after the horrifying disaster at the Massey coalmine. I applaud him for that stance, but here is where I get confused. When it comes to global warming–something Rockefeller says, “America must address”–he suddenly gets allergic to federal regulation. He wants the Senate to block the EPA from reducing global warming pollution until Congress gets it's act together. The federal government can and should be involved – today. Just as federal regulation needs to be strengthened to deal with mine safety, we need to let the regulators use the tools on the books begin addressing greenhouse gases.

And finally, the fence sitters continue to be the best example of willful negligence. The Senate is going to consider a resolution this week from Senator Murkowski to put the breaks on EPA's efforts to address greenhouse gases. There is a small group of Senators – like Collins, Snowe, Pryor, Webb, and Scott Brown – who say they want to reduce global warming pollution but may vote for Murkowski's resolution to overturn the EPA's authority to do so. If you think carbon emissions are dangerous, wouldn't you want to use every weapon at your disposal to fight it?

When I see Senators backpedalling, downplaying and side stepping climate action, I want to ask them: what are you waiting for? When is there going to be a better time to transition to clean energy? America is watching the cost of failed energy policies literally washing up on our shores. Our nation is desperately in need of the jobs and economic growth that a clean energy economy can provide. Congress has the most pro-clean energy members we are likely to get for several years.

I think I just answered my own question – which is worse, a climate-denier or a knowledgeable staller…. I vote that someone who fails to act when they know the stakes is much worse.

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Obama or Bust: We Need Leadership from the Top

If you look at any of the 24X7 news shows or even the Today Show, you will see everyone proclaiming that there is an anti-incumbent mood spreading across America. There is good reason to say that as evidenced by the size of Tea Party rallies and even a few of the races last Tuesday. But, my personal opinion is that this is less about an anti-incumbent mood and more about a “pro-change” disposition. Voters are angry about the current state of blame and stall politics. They expect elected officials to keep their promises – and that extends to clean energy and climate legislation.

Even though clean energy and climate issues are rarely at the heart of the anti-incumbency rhetoric, the frustration with all things Beltway could block comprehensive energy legislation this year.

President Obama's leadership is the only force that can change that.

You see, when the electorate turns anti-Washington, Congressmen freeze up. They get scared of taking bold steps and they start saying “no” to everything.

Even on a good day, the odds of passing any bill in Congress–no matter the issue–starts at about 5 percent. Smart gamblers always bet the no vote in Congress.

But being a naysayer becomes even more attractive to politicians when they think their job is at risk. Voting “no” on a big, transformative bill allows them to give the illusion that they are “playing it safe” and to keep the bull's-eye off their back for potential mid-term popularity contests.

“No” may be an easy decision for politicians, but it is the wrong choice for the American people.

We need to say yes to a clean energy and climate bill that will generate nearly 2 million jobs, put our nation at the forefront of one of the biggest markets of the 21st century, end our reliance on oil, and reduce dangerous pollution. Yet so many lawmakers are in a panic over elections that they can't see these benefits.

They need to snap out of it. In a movie, this is the moment when someone would come along and slap the panicking person in the face. In politics, that slap is leadership.

President Obama must take charge of clean energy and climate legislation. The only major bills that pass through Congress are the ones with White House support. We are fortunate that President Obama backs climate action, but given this anti-incumbent mood, we need him not just to support it; we need him to lead it.

What would that look like? We saw it in the heath care debate. President Obama went into campaign mode and stumped on that bill every single day. He called in political chits. He got people in the same room to negotiate. He dragged it over the finish line because he went farther than asking for change. He demanded it.

That is what we need him to do for a clean energy and climate bill. Because let's be frank: either we see some leadership or we call it a day.

If we don't pass the bill this year, we won't get another chance for years. Dave Robert's painted the grim prospects for national climate action given the likely outcomes of future election cycles in his Grist blog this week. It doesn't look good for another eight years – at least.

We need to get America moving right now toward a clean energy future, and we need President Obama to lead the way.

This week, Robert Redford appeared in a television ad for the NRDC that has already been written about in the Washington Post and New York Times. Interestingly, he didn't call on Congress to take clean energy and climate action. He called on President Obama.

The president is the one with the bully pulpit. Tell him to use it on behalf of clean energy and climate solutions. Securing our future depends on it.

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