Last Saturday, 200 rallies were held around the country to recognize a "National Day of Climate Action." Democrats from Hillary Clinton to Dennis Kucinich attended to speak at events that were largely ignored by Republicans.
Sadly, stewardship of the environment has become a partisan issue.
For years, the political debate over global warming has been driven by partisan extremes.
Conservatives ridicule "environmentalist wackos" as anti-capitalists who hate technology, want to ban automobiles and live as agrarian socialists. Liberals caricature conservatives as flat-earth, smokestack-loving, Humvee-driving, religious fundamentalists who hate science.
Lest we think talk radio and liberal blogs are the only places we hear name-calling and hyperbole, hear what the distinguished senators from Oklahoma, New York and Nevada have to say on the matter. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) calls global warming the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," while Hillary Clinton warns that the policies of "right-wing, white [Republican] Southerners" would lead to catastrophic hurricanes, and Harry Reid blames the Southern California wildfires on "global warming" driven by "Republican ideology."
And it’s no better in the House, where the climate change science is debated as either completely true or totally false – and inaction is the inevitable result.
Little wonder Congress’ approval ratings languish at an all-time low.
It is time for Democrats and Republicans to put aside their partisan differences and personal career ambitions to develop bold, American solutions to potential energy and environmental crises. They can start by identifying areas of common ground.
Republicans and Democrats alike agree that sending over half-a-billion dollars every day to foreign governments like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela undermines our national security. Americans recently sent $107 million to Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan dictator who jails or kills opponents, rigs elections, undermines neighboring democracies and seeks to surpass Fidel Castro as our nation’s great nemesis in the Western Hemisphere. And this year we will send $50 billion – more than the total GDP of over 130 foreign governments – to Saudi Arabia, which uses our money to fund Iraqi insurgents, Palestinian terrorists and Wahhabist mosques in the United States.
Billions more goes directly to Libya, while our addiction to oil indirectly leaves Iran awash in capital to fund its nuclear ambitions. That Congress has done nothing to address this is scandalous.
So, while Republicans and Democrats may disagree whether guzzling gasoline warms the planet, we can all agree that it fuels our enemies, a situation – particularly during a time of war – that is irresponsible and unsustainable. If both sides agree that depriving our enemies of petrodollars is urgently in our national interest, they may also agree on some of the means to achieve that end.
Nothing will more immediately reduce American reliance on foreign oil than conservation. The US Energy Department estimates that if every American home replaced only one standard light bulb with a condensed fluorescent light bulb, the country would save $600 million in annual energy costs. A wider-scale shift to energy-efficient homes could be rapidly facilitated through tax credits and rebates, saving billions more.
The same could rapidly happen with automobiles: Higher CAFE (gas mileage) standards, which would take years to fully implement, can be obviated with tax credits and rebates promoting purchase and use of efficient vehicles and use of public transportation.
Tariff policy can play a major role in rapidly shifting Americans to more fuel-efficient vehicles. While the U.S. imports Saudi oil tariff-free, we levy a heft tariff on ethanol imported from Brazil, a policy columnist Thomas Friedman questions as either "just stupid" or "really stupid."
We discourage energy imports from a poor ally while promoting energy imports from a country that doesn’t allow women to drive cars or vote, or leave their homes without the permission of a male guardian. Friedman promotes a 50 cents per gallon gas tax across the board in the US to help push Americans into fuel-efficient cars and practices – a bad idea in that it harms American oil producers. What is realistic, however, is a major tariff levied against oil imports from OPEC countries like Saudi Arabia.
Conservatives concerned about interfering with free international energy markets must remember that OPEC – the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries – is a cartel: There is no free market with OPEC, since member countries agree to limit production and eliminate competition to artificially inflate energy prices. The United States cannot, in good conscience, continue to send billions each day to OPEC countries like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. And the only way to curtail it, immediately, is with a tariff.
A tariff on OPEC oil will initially raise prices at the pump, yes. But it will also drive American resources to American companies producing ethanol, electric vehicles, coal gasification facilities, nuclear power plants and more. Moreover, the regressive consequences of the tariff could easily be made revenue-neutral by using receipts to offset the regressive payroll tax, or to fund tax credits for energy efficiency.
Republicans must also remember that Ronald Reagan, so frequently cited by today’s Republican presidential candidates, was a trade realist who levied major tariffs in several instances when he considered it to be in the national interest. In 1983 he placed a tariff on motorcycle imports to save Milwaukee’s own Harley-Davidson. Through tariffs Reagan also protected and revived American steel, auto, machine tool and semiconductor industries. Finally, he negotiated agreements with foreign governments to voluntarily restrain exports to the
U.S. Ronald Reagan favored free trade, but understood that national security must always trump free trade.
If saving Harley was in the nation’s interest, how much more so is saving American lives? The petrodollars America sends abroad often promote regimes that undermine American foreign policy and, in many instances, actively fund enemies in Iran and Iraq responsible for killing American soldiers.
The best way to end it – now – is by heavily promoting conservation and rapidly curtailing our imports from OPEC countries.
Here is where conservatives and liberals find common ground. We don’t have to agree on the science of global warming to agree that it is in our nation’s interest to conserve, to shift to more fuel-efficient vehicles and modes of transportation and to end our imports from OPEC.
When that happens, Democrats can celebrate that we are doing our part to save the environment while Republicans can claim credit for promoting the nation’s security. Both sides can claim credit, and the American people will be well-served.
Perhaps then Congress might finally see its approval ratings begin to rise.
Jim Burkee is an associate professor of history at Concordia University Wisconsin.