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November 07, 2014

That Which Doesn't Kill Us...

Yes, the election hurt. We feared it would be bad -- and it was worse. By now we've all heard the Wednesday-morning quarterback analyses of how and why the Democratic Party gave up control of the Senate and lost a bunch of other races around the country. For the Sierra Club, it's especially painful to know that in far too many places we have lost long-standing, hard-working champions for clean energy, for the climate, and for the environment. And believe me, it's not going to be easy to see climate-denier James Inhofe chairing the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and Big Oil booster Lisa Murkowski picking up the gavel at the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Not to mention Kentucky coal senator Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader -- that’s a dirty-fuel dream team right there.

I could go on. But the fact is that losing elections is part of having a democracy. I may not be happy about it when good candidates lose, but I can accept it and move on. There's one troubling aspect of this election, though, that none of us should accept: an attack of democracy itself.

Without question, a rash of discriminatory voter-suppression laws in 21 states kept millions of Americans from voting in this election. Did these new voting and registration laws affect the outcome of this election? It's definitely possible. The New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Social Justice has already made a strong case that in at least four states (Virginia, Kansas, Florida, and North Carolina) enough votes were suppressed to make a difference in specific close races.

It's no secret what's going on here: The same people who are poisoning our air and our water are also poisoning our democracy. This erosion of voting rights affects all of the work that we care about: clean energy, conservation legislation, climate legislation. The Sierra Club, along with a coalition of environmental groups, workers' groups, and civil rights organizations, and others, will redouble our efforts to stop this assault on our democracy.

Even without voter suppression, though, this would have been a disappointing election for people who care about clean energy and the environment. But that doesn't mean that there weren't any bright spots. Here are a few things to keep in mind as we dust ourselves off and prepare for what will be a challenging couple of years.

First, this election marked a huge turning point for climate change as an issue. Two successful senate candidates, Gary Peters in Michigan and Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, leaned in hard on clean energy and climate. Perhaps even more telling, we're starting to see Republican candidates back away from outright climate denial -- at least rhetorically. That's why Colorado's Cory Gardner ran an ad claiming -- falsely -- that he supports wind energy.

Poll after poll has shown that the public wants clean air, clean water, and climate action. They want an end to tax breaks for oil companies and they want more investments in clean energy now. It's extremely unlikely they'll get progress from Congress on those issues during the next two years -- instead they will almost certainly see them attacked. You can bet that will be a big issue in 2016.

Second, although the oil and gas industries saw plenty of their candidates succeed, they were by no means invincible. In Nebraska, eight-term congressman Lee Terry, an ardent climate denier and proponent of the Keystone XL pipeline, was defeated. In cities and counties in Ohio, California, and (for the first time ever) Texas, activists succeeded in getting fracking bans passed -- despite being massively outspent. And in the refinery town of Richmond, CA, Chevron failed miserably in its attempt to defeat a slate of pro-environment and clean energy candidates, even after it spent at least $3 million (that's $72 per registered voter) on negative ads.

Third, the most important clean energy and climate champion of all is still in office. President Obama has made fighting climate change a priority, especially during the past two years, and there's no reason to doubt that he will stay that course. He has significant authority to speed up the transition to clean energy and to establish an even stronger climate and environmental legacy. He's also got plenty of ink left in his veto pen.

Another thing to remember: We've been here before, more times than we care to remember, and the political outlook was as bleak or bleaker than it is today. If we look back at what happened, though, progress didn't stop -- in fact, we came out stronger. The most successful activist campaign in Sierra Club history -- Move Beyond Coal -- began and flourished under Bush/Cheney. When Ronald Reagan put James "mine more, drill more, cut more" Watt in charge of the Interior Department, it inspired a generation of activists who are fighting for wilderness, wildlife protection, and clean energy to this day. Sure, we're probably going to be playing more defense during the next couple of years. But guess what? We are really good at playing defense. After all, we have something that's actually worth defending.

Our job now is to sharpen our insights, strengthen our programs, and find new and even more-effective ways to make the clean energy future a reality. As we do that, we'll see a new wave of voters becoming engaged in the political process who know that protecting nature and replacing dirty fuels with clean energy not only makes air and water cleaner and helps to stabilize our climate but also saves money and creates jobs at the same time. That will be a winning ticket all the way.  

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