Obama’s State of the Union: Missing the Message

by on January 29th, 2011

Overall, Obama’s State of the Union address impressed.

I was glad to have him tackle education more honestly than I’ve been used to with politicians, to the point of proposing the dismantling of the troublesome No Child Left Behind Act. Likewise, I am glad he stuck to his guns on the health care bill, while also offering concessions if they were practical and didn’t compromise the overall aim of the bill. On the environmental front, of course, he offered the good talk about the potential stimulating effects of renewable energy and expanded public transportation options on the economy and the potential for job growth. However, he never once mentioned the climate.

A former co-worker of mine rebutted to a point I made on that that Obama needs to switch the messaging to adapt to an anti-climate atmosphere. Republicans and their cohorts have been successful in re-branding “climate change” as a term tantamount to taxes and inconvenience and the death of jobs. Oh, and a fairy tale. As such, Obama needs to rebrand the message to make it palatable to the public and the new House of Representatives.

I understand, but this is dangerous terrain. I voted for Obama….there are a lot of things he’s accomplished that I am proud of (the advancement of equal pay for the genders, health insurance), but I won’t make excuses that he’s fallen way short of my expectation, especially on climate change. In the words of Jon Stewart: “he [Obama] ran as a visionary, but has served as a functionary.”

First off, Obama mentioned clean coal and nuclear.

Let’s talk about clean coal. THERE IS NO SUCH THING. It’s a myth and a distraction. It’s the real fairy tale the industry fabricated to lull us into the notion that we can keep all of our current conveniences and still combat climate change, while they still make their billions. The technology for clean coal is decades away, if it ever even comes to fruition. We don’t have that time, and we need to put our mind to real solutions.

For the most part, clean coal technology refers to CCS (Carbon Capture and Sequestration)–that is, the capturing emissions from coal plants and injecting it either terrestially (into rocks, mountains, etc.) or under the ocean floor. Again, it’s a technology that might be up to a generation away. Plus, its potential environmental implications are dire and range from the obliteration of ocean life on a micro- or macro-level (if the injected carbon escapes, it could over-acidify the ocean, causing mass die-offs of marine organisms), to eroding large amounts of our topsoil and infiltrating groundwater resources, to even the possibility of inducing earthquakes through the disruption of tectonic plates.

The implemention and execution of CCS technology would require more energy input than the process itself could possibly capture and attempt to store or neutralize. And in the end, none of it attempts to address the issue of extraction, which itself carries an enormous carbon and ecological footprint.

Contrary to popular belief, recent studies by respectable scientific authorities

(such as the National Academies of Science) indicate that we also seem to be about to enter an era of peak coal as well as oil. Though we technically may have the reserves, it is preserved so deeply in the Earth, we can’t practically go about getting it without doing great damage.

Right now, we’re blowing up hundreds of mountains in the Southeastern United states to churn out coal. This phenomenon, known as mountain-top removal (or MTR), not only is causing enormous and irreversible damage to the land, water, air and wildlife, it is also the main contributor of a form of genocide of the culture and communities of the people of Appalachia.

Whether or not it’s “clean,” there is no way we can get at the coal at the rate we would need to continue powering our current lifestyles as our populations grows exponentially without continuing and even escalating this practice. There is no way we can rely on coal on any large-scale and avert catastrophic climate change.

Then there’s nuclear, which I am a bit more ambivalent about, but also ultimately against. Unlike clean coal, nuclear is more genuinely a carbon neutral method of energy production. However, what sways me to shake my head when Obama sings its praises is this: it’s merely the exchanging of potential for one enormous environmental catastrophe for another, and it’s another distraction. The safety issues of nuclear, it’s health implications, and the waste disposal dilemma, are all things that have failed to be addressed and remedied to a sufficient level.

Here’s the thing: even people who poll in favor of nuclear poll resoundingly are against having a plant anywhere within a 100-mile radius of their house.

If and when a nuclear plant gets built, it will be built in the backyards of poor people. And when the plants leaks or has a full-scale accident (which it will), it is the poor who will suffer and die. The current plants may have escaped the infamy of a meltdown, but there are still a myriad of reports on leaks and incidences of increased disease of those who reside near them. I lived in Vermont, which depended mostly on the Yankee Nuclear Power Plant for its energy, and this was the case.

Additionally, as with “clean coal,” we can’t build nuclear power plants at the rate needed to address our current and projected emissions scenario. If there was an opportunity for nuclear to fill that gap, we missed the boat on it awhile back.

Where does this leave us?

I am a huge proponet of renewables like wind and solar (when implemented intelligently and with concern and precaution for wildlife), increased energy efficiency (most of our technology can be upgraded to be 50-75% more efficient, a low-hanging fruit), and yes, a huge expansion of mass transit, expecially in the railroad sector. But even these things can’t do enough to bridge the gap.

Here’s the truth: we need to scale way back on our consumption, in all ways.

We need to not only change lightbulbs, but turn off the lights when we’re not using them or don’t need them. We need to not only buy hybrids, but avoid driving whenever possible. We need to not only buy organic or local meat, but eat a lot less meat (or even no meat). Some of us may need to not only consider raising our children as ethical environmentalists, but consider the concept of foregoing having biological children at all.

We may need to break down our nationalized and globalized economy to a network of local or regional ones that can operate autonomously and interdependently as needed. Our economy may need to switch to one not based on growth, but a steady state.

We won’t need to live like a “caveman” as climate deniers like to say the evil treehuggers want, but we may need to–gasp!–revert a few decades, at least in our emphasis on indepent local economies and the amount to which we drive, eat meat and use energy.

And you know what? I think it would lead to better job stability, less debt, and more happiness, as a result.

But suggesting these things aren’t politically palatable, are they?

But here’s what I wonder: how come it is politically palatable to bash gay marriage, to praise guns, to demonize Muslims? And wasn’t there a time when talk of ending slavery, or giving women the vote, was also politically infeasible? Wasn’t the argument against these things partially its inferred economic implications?

The Right has gotten pretty good at playing the moral highground, even when ironically preaching prejudice, hate and violence (however thinly veiled in hypotheticals and metaphor). Democrats have gotten good at being overintellectual, and talking policy. But the common people, including me, at the end of day, don’t care about policy. They care about being safe, having their bills payed, getting medical treatment when needed and without much complication or fuss, and having their children fed and educated. And I think, after that, a good many of them do care about being moral, though some may be confused as to what morality means.

Climate change is a moral issue. The poor people will suffer first and foremost the worst of its implications. They already are. Countless species will go the way of the dodo, many of which we depend on for our own livelihoods and survival. Ultimately, climate change threatens us all, our ability to feed our children, and be safe.

This is the message Obama missed.

Even if he understandably steered clear of controversial hot topics like population, he should have reminded us of the moral angle of doing something about climate change, he should’ve dug in his heels as he did on healthcare.

Just as he brought in patients who benefitted the healthcare law, he should’ve brought in an Inuit to sit in the audience, whose homeland is melting away, a girl from Africa whose land is drying up…

As for the green-collar message, it’s good and needed, but it’s not enough. By itself, it’s just static-fluff.

Want to convince working class America of it’s opporunity? Bring in people who actually work installing solar panels, whose lives have changed. There are those out there. Show them to the world, and then give us something real to grab on to, something that really inspires hope.

Otherwise, even to me, it sounds like we’re pinning too much hope on pipedreams.

For original post, please see my “Writing for Survival” blog at www.survivalwriter.blogspot.com

Laura Kiesel