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August 26, 2008

Denver Dispatch, Aug. 25 pt. 2

"How do Democrats and other proponents of reform show that environmentalism is a solution to energy problems, not an anathema?"

That was the question that The New Republic editor Franklin Foer posed to Rep. George Miller, Rep. Ed Markey, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, David Sandlow (energy advisor to Barack Obama), Matt Bennett (Third Way), Cass Sunstein (Harvard Law School), and Carl Pope at a panel that was also subtitled "The Politics of Green."

The consensus answer?  Through lots of hard work, plus political will and leadership, which has been in short supply under the Bush administration.  Other events that I've attended here presupposed that the attendees already possessed a certain level of commitment and knowledge.  This discussion focused, instead – and very importantly -- on ways to bring along a general public that, according to Bennett, wants "bold, long-term thinking" but doesn't yet seem quite "there" yet – not to mention finally seeing action from recalcitrant members of Congress who claim to want "all of the above" in addressing energy independence but whose actions are reduced primarily to chanting "drill here, drill now" and resisting anything else.

Here are the givens: consensus can't be achieved overnight, but we can't keep waiting to start the discussion; energy independence needs to be framed in terms of opportunities and job creation; and investment now can address future energy price increases.  But what about the nitty-gritty in realizing these goals?

Sunstein suggested a framework for public officials to use, based on the consensus that Congress, including all Republicans, and President Reagan reached when they agreed to ban CFC's under the Montreal Protocol:

1.    Enlist "technocrats" to persuade skeptics of the higher benefits that action will bring;
2.    Show that costs will be less than anticipated;
3.    Work to generate intense public interest for government action;
4.    Use vivid narratives of the harms of inaction.

Of course, all of this requires our public officials to play a leading role in educating, organizing, activating, and implementing policy.

At the same time, Carl noted the importance for Congress to lay the necessary groundwork. In particular, Congress should reform energy markets to create a level playing field for new technologies and energy sources, since consumers really don't have much choice when it comes to their energy use. (Ideally, Congress would work on this before the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December, 2009.)  Carl asserted that this would also give the next administration political capital with the public. 

He observed that although the possibility of increased offshore drilling hasn't really motivated environmental activists in large areas of the country, as they face $4 gas, the public nevertheless won't support politicians who are "too close" to Big Oil.  After all, GOP Rep David Davis lost in a Tennessee primary this month (the first time that an incumbent had lost a primary there in over 40 years!) after his opponent accused him of selling out to the oil companies.

I do have to wonder, though, that if the processes to achieve energy independence already exist, and just need accelerating (Markey); if Obama sees energy and the environment as a front-burner issue, and even McCain is more committed to addressing them than Bush has been (Sandalow); if there are plenty of opportunities to build consensus and coalitions, some of which already exist in the corporate world (Markey again) – what will it take to move the general public from mere "awareness" to supporting action that isn't just a reaction to Big Oil?  And what kind of action?  This panel didn't really address those questions beyond Sunstein's framework, other than Carl's observation that if we "do it right," energy prices don't have to rise, eliminating that consideration from policymaking.

Reps. Markey and Miller said the Democrats will to go to the mat for a comprehensive energy policy after Congress returns from its recess. Bennett said polling shows that the public really does want an "all of the above" approach to address energy independence.   Let's hope the leadership and will are there to fulfill the Representatives' assurance.

Til later—
Claire

Ps, The Tattered Cover Book Store hosted this event.   It's an incredible place, in which I would spend many, many hours if I weren't attending Convention functions!

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