The fireworks of fear

There will be fireworks over the Fourth of July, and not just in the sky. The GOP attack dogs plan to bare their teeth and bark with fervor at the swing-district Democratic House members who one week ago supported passage of the historic measure that slashes global warming emissions. Fourteen lucky Democrats will be able to see and hear themselves portrayed, in TV and radio ads, as job-killers who voted to drive up energy costs for the average American.

The Republicans are gleefully convinced that these House Democrats have irreparably damaged themselves by voting for the landmark climate and energy bill - which aims to cut greenhouse gases, wean America from foreign oil, create millions of clean-energy jobs, and require utilities to get more electricity from alternative sources. Indeed, the Republicans are planning to wield those swing Democratic votes as effective weaponry in the 2010 House races; hence their decision to seed the ground now, by launching attack ads 17 months in advance of the actual elections.

The GOP attacks are replete with slippery statistics, the kind intended to scare the bejeezus out of people. It's yawningly predictable that the Republicans have put up ads claiming that the global warming bill will wind up costing the typical middle-class family an extra $1,870 a year in hiked energy bills - a fanciful figure concocted by the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank and repeated in an editorial by the conservative Washington Times - whereas the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office actually pegs the average household increase at roughly...$175 by the year 2020.

(Back in May, Republican House leaders were claiming an energy bill hike of $3,100 a year; they supposedly got this number from a Massachussetts Institute of Technology study, but the MIT authors promptly condemned the GOP's math as "simplistic and misleading." Republicans, by now citing the Heritage stat, appear to have modified their hyperbole a bit. On the other hand, even the Heritage stat is deemed so bogus that a Virginia TV station is refusing to air the GOP ad this weekend.)

Nevertheless, these Republican attacks could destabilize their intended targets - many of whom are Democratic freshmen who got themselves elected last November in traditionally Republican-leaning districts. Those voters might well swallow those scare stats; the No party in the past has proven itself quite adept at harnessing fear for political gain.

So, nothing new there. Actually, my intent today is to make a broader point about the GOP's intellectual bankruptcy on issues concerning energy and the environment.

For the past eight years, as our longstanding dependence on foreign oil mounted and as scientific documentation about man-made global warming reached critical mass, the Republicans did virtually nothing to address those pressing concerns. As late as 2006, President Bush still wouldn't even acknowledge that global warming was a crisis heavily perpetuated by human beings.

On June 27 of that year, he told reporters that, with respect to global warming, "there is a debate over whether it's man-made or naturally caused." Actually, by that point in time, the "debate" he cited was taking place only with the alternate-reality spheres of the Republican right.

In the real world, where science was actually a respected discipline in 2006, there was no such "debate" anymore. On one side of the ledger, you had Bush and the Republican congressional majorities that marched to his recalcitrant tune. On the other side of the ledger, you had a consensus about man's role. I'm talking about, for instance, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences (in conjunction with its counterparts in Britain, China, Germany, and Japan), the American Geophysical Union, the American Meterological Society, the National Climactic Data Center, 928 peer-reviewed scientific papers...and Bush's own Climate Change Science Program.

By that point, even GOP message-meister Frank Luntz had thrown in the towel. Luntz used to tell Republicans to play up that "debate" angle, but that year he went on TV and said, "It's now 2006. Now I think most people would conclude that there is global warming taking place, and that the behavior of humans are affecting the climate."

The global warming bill passed by the House last week is a rickety Rube Goldberg contraption that faces an uncertain future in the Senate. But no such reform measure has ever gotten this far, it preserves the core goals of transforming America's energy priorities, and, most importantly, it stands in marked contrast to what the Republicans did on this issue when they held power. Which is to say, they did squat.

Actually, they did worse than squat. They actively obstructed the rule of law. This is the crucial context for the attacks they are launching today; having done zip in the past, now they want to politically punish those who at least are trying to address the future.  

Here's how bad it was: Back in 2003, the Bush team signaled that it intended to do nothing about curbing greenhouse gas emissions from new cars, insisting that (a) the Environmental Protection Agency (which it had successfully emasculated) lacked the authority to curb greenhouse gas emissions, because the 1970 law creating the EPA supposedly failed to specify carbon dioxide as a pollutant; and (b) even if the EPA did have such authority, there was too much “scientific uncertainty” (there it is again!) about the causes and effects of global warming.

But on April 2, 2007, the U. S. Supreme Court shredded the Bush arguments. It ruled that the administration had ample authority to take on global warming, via EPA regulatory efforts specifically aimed at car emissions. The court wrote that Bush's lawyers had offered “no reasoned explanation for its refusal” to act, especially since the 1970 Clean Air Act defines air pollutant in the broadest possible terms, as any physical or chemical “substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air.” As the court also pointed out, the act specified that threats to climate and weather were to be viewed as issues worthy of EPA regulatory scrutiny. The act also specified, in Section 202, that the EPA shall regulate car tailpipe emissions of any “air pollutant” that “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.”

Lastly, the court majority also cited the scientific consensus that U.S. car emissions directly contribute to global warming. Bottom line: Even without lifting a finger to push a clean energy reform bill on Capitol Hill, the Bush team was free to at least compel the EPA to curb new-car emissions.

And the response from the Bush people? Nothing. They put out the word that the high court ruling was "complex," and that it would tough to set an EPA timetable for cutting emissions. They simply ran out the clock until Bush left town.

This is the record of inaction that - fortunately for the Republicans - cannot be encapsulated in a 30-second ad. For years they did nothing to address a burgeoning national problem, yet now, on the holiday weekend, they want to politicize the votes of those who at least have tried to do something. Makes you feel downright patriotic, doesn't it?


I'm off next Monday, the 6th. Back here on Tuesday.