During the hottest year global civilization has ever seen, as BP’s oil disaster spreads across the Gulf, a sense of malaise has gripped climate advocates in Washington D.C., the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin argue:
Traditionally, American environmentalism wins its biggest victories after some important piece of American environment is poisoned, exterminated or set on fire. An oil spill and a burning river in 1969 led to new anti-pollution laws in the 1970s. The Exxon Valdez disaster helped create an Earth Day revival in 1990 and sparked a landmark clean-air law. But this year, the worst oil spill in U.S. history — and, before that, the worst coal-mining disaster in 40 years — haven’t put the same kind of drive into the debate over climate change and fossil-fuel energy.
Political observers are confused why environmentalists and green economy advocates are struggling to build the case for sweeping action to end our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and protect us from their toxic pollution. As the Post reporters note, “53 percent of people said they were worried about climate change” in a mid-May poll by academic researchers, “only slightly different from January, and still down from 63 percent in 2008.” However, for the first time, the pollsters found a majority of the public said that “most of my friends are trying to act in ways that reduce global warming.”
To get from the BP disaster to comprehensive climate legislation requires not just an understanding of the catastrophic risks of fossil fuels, but also a belief in the need for a strong, decisive government that protects its citizens. Without public desire for government to regulate the failures of the free market, there can never be an effective campaign to move Congress to action. In April, on the eve of the oil disaster, tea-party anti-government ideology had reached a fever pitch, with nearly a third of the American public who believed that “government is a major threat to their personal freedoms and want federal power reined in.” Energy lobbyist Rich Gold, who is “trying to work out a compromise climate bill that is more amenable to the industry,” said the disillusionment in government that came from Bush’s failures is a major roadblock:
There’s a feeling: “The government really can’t control all this stuff. They can’t keep us safe.” After Katrina and 9/11, we’re in the post-”government can fix it all” world.
Obama needs to prove to the American public that government can work in times of crisis — starting with the BP disaster. The Gulf disaster is a fundamental threat to our national interests requiring a national response, a point made by the likes of Chris Matthews, Russell Honore, and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). Unfortunately, the Obama administration has not decisively taken over the spill response, as the Center for American Progress and many others have recommended (despite right-wing ravings that CAP has “more influence on spill policy than the president’s in-house advisers”).
Obama has decided to let BP manage a secretive network of private contractors, instead of asserting authority over the foreign oil giant. Although approval of Obama’s presidency has stabilized around 50 percent, public confidence in his ability to “make the right decisions for the country’s future” have declined to 43 percent in a new Washington Post/ABC poll. Meanwhile, public support for a government takeover of the spill response grew from 28 percent in May to 45 percent in June. A strong majority of the American public believes the administration should “pursue criminal charges against BP and other companies involved in the oil spil.”
President Obama can’t pass comprehensive green economy legislation on his own — the U.S. Senate must break from the shackles of industry inaction. However, he can restore confidence in the government of the United States by taking on the sins of toxic polluters, starting with BP and the Gulf Coast. If his administration can prove itself in this crisis, the American people will trust his leadership on the path to a cleaner future.
In an interview with Grist’s Jonathan Hiskes, historian Adam Rome opines:
For most of the time between 1980 and 2008, we’ve had national political leadership that has been hostile to the idea that government can be an agent of reform, change, and improving the lives of citizens. In spite of Obama and “yes we can” and the people that voted for him, I’m not sure that they’ve really come to believe that we can, if “we can” means that we can help address some of the deepest problems of society through government. And it’s possible that they don’t really, in their deepest hearts, believe that they can make a difference in the political realm. I’m not saying either one of those is true, but a year from now, if the disaster turns out to be as big as people imagine and we don’t respond, then you have to wonder.