Eugene Weekly : News : 3.20.08

Changing the Political Climate
Notes from PIELC
By Eva Sylwester

What do you do if you’re convinced you know the truth about a problem with the potential to destroy the world, but voters and politicians are unwilling to do what you think necessary to solve the problem or even acknowledge that the problem exists?

Two panel discussions at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) in early March addressed these aspects of the global warming issue.

“Global warming has the potential to kill everybody,” UO law professor Mary Wood said at a March 7 panel on “Building a Better Atmosphere.” While Americans are used to incremental policy changes, she said, that will not work for the climate change issue.

“We’re dealing with nature’s climate imperatives,” Wood said. “We’re not dealing with political imperatives.”

David Van’t Hof, Gov. Kulongoski’s senior policy advisor on climate change and renewable energy, said climate change has been one of the governer’s top priorities since he took office in 2003. Kulongoski began working on the issue with the governors of Washington and California in 2003 and adopted California’s clean car standards in 2006. California, Oregon and many other states are currently involved in a lawsuit against the federal EPA seeking to implement the current standards, but Van’t Hof expected the standards will prevail.

Van’t Hof said the clean car standards had to be implemented administratively in Oregon because it could not be done legislatively at that time.

“That is changing,” he said.

Rep. Jackie Dingfelder (D-Portland) said some pro-environment measures still fail in the Oregon Legislature, but that HB 3612, which mandated that state agencies must reduce non-renewable energy use by 20 percent by 2015, passed unanimously last month.

“The good news is, my colleagues ‘get’ energy efficiency,” Dingfelder said. Tougher sells, she added, are changing attitudes toward transportation, which makes up about 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and dealing with what she called “resource extraction” industries.

The federal government has been absent on the issue of climate change, Dingfelder said, adding, “The states have really stepped up. You see that on a lot of issues, not just climate change.”

Wood said many cities around the world have implemented carbon taxes. Van’t Hof said that might work in cities like Portland, Eugene and Corvallis, but that it would be unlikely to succeed statewide.

At a March 8 panel on “Tragedy of the Commons,” a phrase referring to the tension between the rights of individuals and the common good when managing finite resources, Tom Bowerman of PolicyInteractive presented data showing that while most people acknowledge climate change is a problem, support is weak for policies to combat climate change. The reason, he said, is that most people consider global warming only a mid-tier issue as opposed to top-tier issues like the economy and terrorism. Therefore, he advocated focusing promotion of climate change measures on how they might impact top-tier issues — for instance, how the money saved by an energy efficiency measure might help the economy, or how finding alternatives to oil might reduce the political conflicts that foster terrorism.

Steve Bella of the progressive Wisconsin think tank Center for State Innovation said the historic tension in the U.S. between individual rights and the common good is currently at a tipping point on many issues ranging from health care to immigration. He said people are willing to vote against their own self-interest: “People don’t really vote their issues,” Bella said. “They vote their identity and they vote their emotions.”

So Bella advocated framing pro-environment measures in terms of a legacy agenda, promoting the value of leaving a better country for the next generation.

Lane County Commissioner Pete Sorenson said the U.S. has a strong anti-intellectual and anti-learning bent, which is supported by smart people in the corporate sector. Bella added that conservatives have been able to brand intellectuals as out of touch with values, and that liberals need to learn from Newt Gingrich and start doing the same branding for corporations.