Gaius Publius: Do Mainstream Democrats Really Want to Eliminate Carbon Emissions and Fossil Fuel Use?

Yves here. One could pose a more general question: When do mainstream Democrats not speak with a forked tongue? But here, they appear to have been honest via their silence.

By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. GP article archive  here. Originally published at DownWithTyranny

Rep. Joe Kennedy III gives the official Democratic Party response to Trump’s State of the Union address (source). Can he see global warming from his house? Unlike the rest of us, apparently not.

“We can’t have an energy strategy for the last century that traps us in the past. We need an energy strategy for the future – an all-of-the-above strategy for the 21st centurythat develops every source of American-made energy.” 
– Barack Obama, March 15, 2012 (quoted here; emphasis mine)

I raise the following questions because, as regular readers know, the coming climate disaster is regularly on my mind.

Do mainstream (corporate) Democrats really want to eliminate carbon emissions and fossil fuel use?

Or do they, like President Obama, want an “all of the above” energy strategy that maintains fossil fuel use (and continually enriches Big Oil firms) into the indefinite future?

Let’s consider.

As a candidate in the 2016 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton pointedly and angrily refused to stop taking money from fossil fuel lobbyists, nor would she commit to banning fracking.

For the 2018 cycle, very few Democratic candidates for national office support a ban on fracking, and very few (about 45 candidatesby my count) have signed the pledge not to take money from Big Oil in any of ways it hands out money: “Taking the pledge means that a candidate’s campaign will adopt a policy to not knowingly accept any contributions over $200 from the PACs, executives, or front groups of fossil fuel companies”.

Just 45 candidates have signed at last count, among literally hundreds of Democratic Party primary and general election candidates. And most of the signers are of the rebellious “Bernie Sanders” stripe — Randy Bryce, Ro Khanna, Doug Applegate, Kevin de Léon, to name a few — people, in other words, generally unwelcome at Party leadership tables and events.

And now comes the “official” Democratic Party response to Trump’s State of the Union address to Congress — from good-looking, groomed-for-Party-success Rep. Joe Kennedy III (Mass.) — and not one word about the climate.

From the Huffington Post:

Democrats Ignore Climate Change In State Of The Union Rebuttal

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was the only one to bring up global warming after the second-hottest year on record. 

The Democratic Party omitted any mention of climate change in its rebuttal Tuesday to President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address.

In his speech, Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) didn’t bring up global warming, sea-level rise or the surge in global greenhouse gas emissions, which threaten to become worse as the Republican White House ramps up fossil fuel production to unprecedented levels.

The Democratic Party omitted any mention of climate change in its rebuttal Tuesday to President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address.

In his speech, Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) didn’t bring up global warming, sea-level rise or the surge in global greenhouse gas emissions, which threaten to become worse as the Republican White House ramps up fossil fuel production to unprecedented levels.

The 37-year-old former prosecutor and grandson of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who was assassinated in 1968, lamented the Trump administration’s “all-out war on environmental protection,” made a passing reference to a “coal miner” and lionized Americans with the courage to “wade through floodwaters, battle hurricanes, and brave wildfires and mudslides to save a stranger.”

Yet, like Trump, the Democrat neglected critical milestones in the climate crisis in his speech.

I don’t count this an error, but a strong indicator of policy. And if Kennedy or another corporate-representing Democratic Party official rises up later to adjust this “oversight,” I recommend discounting it, just as you would discount a statement like “Of course I love you” that comes many days or weeks later than when it should have been said.

Who Is Joe Kennedy III?

Joe Kennedy III is being called, for all of the obvious reasons, a “rising star” in the Democratic Party. And certainly, Democrats are positioning Kennedy as such by handing him the opportunity to give the Party’s official response.

Why am I calling him a “corporate-representing” Party official? Here’s a list of his top contributors for the previous 12 months (h/t Lee Fang):

 Click to enlarge.

Rising star Joe Kennedy is also one of the fewer-than-100 House Democrats still not backing Medicare for All. He’s opposed to free public colleges, taxing Wall Street, and marijuana reform. In 2015, for example, Kennedy voted to let the DEA arrest medical marijuana patients and providers.

He is kindly described as a “backbencher” and less kindly as “corporate owned.”

The best characterization of Kennedy I came across in researching this piece is by Michael Steel, former press secretary to John Boehner: “Rep. Joe Kennedy (Mass.) is an old Democrat’s idea of what a young Democrat should be.”

Can Democrats Free Us from Fossil Fuels?

Back to the original question and why it matters. First, do mainstream, Party-backed Democrats really want to bring carbon emissions to zero in a strong, proactive way? Apparently, obviously, not.

Second, if mainstream Democrats won’t commit to freeing us from the death grip of oil and gas companies — and, I have to say it, the death grip of the money-obsessed sociopaths who run them — then this country will never free itself, not ever, even after the crisis is so far advanced that even a brick knows to take action. That refusal will leave a mark on us that will last millennia, assuming our species survives that long.

Third, if mainstream Democrats, as they continue to be challenged by Sanders and others to adopt climate policies that are actually effective, publicly refuse to do so — well, that’s going to leave a mark on the Democratic Party at the ballot box as well.

It won’t be as long-lasting a mark as the other one, but it could doom the Party to irrelevance for the next generation, or until actual progressives actually challenge — in a Party-dividing way — the corporate-owned for leadership, and win.

What are the odds of that happening in time to make a difference?

California resident waters a roof as the Thomas Fire approaches the town of La Conchita. Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/Getty (source)

I guess the answer depends on what “in time” means. For many, “in time” means “now.”

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  1. Phil Perspective

    The best characterization of Kennedy I came across in researching this piece is by Michael Steel, former press secretary to John Boehner: “Rep. Joe Kennedy (Mass.) is an old Democrat’s idea of what a young Democrat should be.”

    I just read Steel’s piece. He’s right, while I’d have to believe I’d totally disagree with him what the solution is. It does make me wonder though why he’s even bothering. Who is he trying to impress?

  2. kimyo

    i just don’t understand. what are we supposed to transition to? no current solar/wind tech can power snow plows or school buses or garbage trucks or agricultural/mining equipment.

    if you belong to the cult of elon, then sure, magic tractor trailers can be summoned into being to provision your local whole foods. in reality, though, no alternatives exist. if i want to drive, it’s fossil fuels, even if i own an ev. if i want to heat my house, it’s (mainly) fossil fuels. if i want new tires or a new windshield or a new washing machine, it’s fossil fuels all the way down.

    shouldn’t we have an idea of where the other end of the bridge is going to land before we start to build it? key elements of how we operate (agriculture, mining, transport) cannot be powered with renewables, given today’s technology. many of the proposed alternatives have failed to deliver positive results (nuclear, corn-based ethanol, and my personal peeve, compact fluorescent lightbulbs).

    this is not about democrats or republicans. this is an engineering problem. provide people with a real solution and they will flock to it.

    1. Skip Intro

      To get to the engineering problem, we have to clear the political problem of an entrenched industry claiming billions in direct and indirect subsidies, while using the political clout they purchase to place obstacles in front of alternatives. Framing it as an engineering problem is, at best, naive.

      1. Grumpy Engineer

        I disagree. To relegate the engineering to second-tier status is a terrible mistake. Without technical solutions in hand that are real and cost-effective, the politics don’t matter. You won’t succeed even if politics permit it anyway.

        Look at Germany. Pretty much everybody was on board with the Energiewende. They’ve been putting up wind turbines and solar panels like crazy, and they’ve shut most of their nuclear plants down. There was very little political dissent. And it’s FAILING!!

        Electricity prices borne by households have nearly doubled, and the slope of the CO2 emissions curve has gone flat. There’s been no improvement since 2009, despite the absence of political obstacles and massive investment in renewable energy. Emissions actually rose in 2016 and 2017, and their official targets for 2020 and 2030 look hopelessly out of reach:

        This is a consequence of BAD ENGINEERING. There were a few dissenting voices from “entrenched industry” who warned that it wouldn’t work, but they were overruled. German households and the earth’s atmosphere have borne the brunt of the pain.

    2. The Rev Kev

      Unless we come up with fusion power, antimatter reactors or zero point modules, then I am of the belief that a century or so from now, we may have transitioned for the better part to 1 horsepower, self-replicating units lubricated by prodigious amounts of elbow grease. The science is in and it says that you cannot have an ever-expanding economy on a planet with finite resources.
      A point is reached where you expend more resources mining a natural resources than you actually recover. Thus the science dictates the parameters of the engineering solutions and in this case it will demand an economy that is not open-ended and where nothing is discarded. If lucky, we’ll revert mostly to a sort of 19th century economy with a much reduced population but hopefully with still a high level of technology still available.

      1. Isotope_C14

        If the past 50 years of leaving policy decisions largely in the hands of bullies, drug dealers and their enablers remains our societal course, we should fully expect Venus 2.0. I see no evidence of it changing any time soon.

        The rich will burn to death in their underground bunkers. How fitting an end for them, creation of literal hell for them or their offspring.

        A runaway GHG event grows more likely every day.

      2. Christopher Dale Rogers

        Rev Kev,

        You’ve been supping at the John Michael Greer cup again I see, which, as cups and beverages go, is a good one to drink. I’m not into the tech-world that the prophets keep promising, but it never arrives. So, its either change lifestyles to one less energy reliant, or basically be part of the ‘big cull’ that the Global elite have organised for us, probably via Davos.

        Indeed, I remember growing up in the 70s & 80s, a time when my grandmother still used a marble shelf to keep things cool, and a time when some Welsh hill farmers had still not been linked up to the electricity grid. Those times are coming back once an inflection point has been reached, which I’m no doubt will come before my own daughter passes away – just hope she’s living in wales, which whilst it will be impacted by global warming, still offers sanctuary for those who manage to adapt to the new reality – certainly would not like to live in a heavily populated area when the Sh-t hits the fan.

        1. The Rev Kev

          Greer disagrees but I can see a cascade effect of failures as a likely future. Too much of industrial civilization is underpinned by oil and even things like suburbs would not be viable without the black goo. We had the chance to change course forty years ago but instead we have doubled down or even tripled down on our bets.
          As it is, energy returned on energy invested is getting worse all the time. People say that this lack of oil never seems to arrive but it is like the man that jumped out of a skyscraper. As he passed the 20th floor on the way down he was heard to mutter: “So far, so good. So far, so good..”

          1. John Steinbach

            Perhaps if society had taken to heart warnings by Lewis Mumford in the 50s, Rachael Carson in the 60s, Paul Ehrlich & Barry Commoner in the 70s & acted in a collective global manner, there might have been a chance to mitigate global ecological catastrophe. I remember. as an undergrad at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources in the early 70s, musing with other students & profs about what would happen if the Chinese & Indians began to emulate profligate western lifestyles- the consensus was the planet would cook.

    3. a different chris

      Had to laugh at “agriculture…cannot be powered with renewables”. Pray tell me what particular fossil fuel changes a seed into a cornstalk?

      1. Fraibert

        The fossil fuels that currently are expended to plant the corn, harvest the corn, and transport the mature corn to market (or for further processing).

      2. Adam Eran

        Michael Pollan notes that American industrial agriculture expends 10 calories of conventional, fossil-fuel energy to produce one calorie of food. Our agriculture isn’t even solar.

        This is also one reason, incidentally, that there’s a huge dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi. All the fertilizer rinsed off those Midwestern cornfields makes an algae bloom that sucks all the oxygen (and other life) out of the Gulf’s waters.

        It’s not necessary to farm this way. It’s certainly not sustainable. It’s just what government policy subsidizes, though (Pollan reports as much as 40% of agricultural income is subsidy, then quotes one farmer saying “Yep, we’re laundering money for Cargill and ADM”).

    4. JE

      Hot, magnetically contained fusion is not going to happen, cold fusion (anyone remember the E-cat?) is forever out of reach, and other unknown tech of the future will remain just that. Fossil fuels got us here and if anything is going to get us out, they will. Fossil fuels are just long term solar storage and as long as we can profitably get them we should use them and we must if we are to build the infrastructure to replace them. The solutions for the replacement of fossil fuels are there they just aren’t in place, it takes time to usurp 100+ years of technological and societal momentum. As some posters have pointed out, agriculture, transport, and personal driving are activities made viable by liquid fuels. With a fully developed renewable infrastructure (wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, etc) there exist methods to generate liquid fuels from electricity and chemical feedstocks (including atmospheric CO2) that while economically infeasible at today’s energy prices and methods of calculating them (what is our military but a giant fossil fuel subsidy?) and while energistically inefficient (EROEI < 1) will be needed as a way to store and transport excess renewable energy. Demonstrated tech like compressed air reservoirs in old mines, uphill pumping of water, flywheels, vanadium flow batteries, ice making, and other techniques for storing excess renewable energy when available will need to be scaled up and deployed widely. Changes in lifestyle will also need to be accepted along with population control but given the right leadership a global "Apollo Program" mentality might be able to be fostered to get it done. Might. Technologically we can do it today as long as we face the limits of growth and can put aside our squabbles and work together. I'm not optimistic.

      1. Adam Eran

        It’s technologically possible for the U.S. to consume far less energy. Both Japan and Europe use roughly half our energy per dollar of GDP…and yes, they have a far different lifestyle. Nevertheless, the austerian narrative isn’t entirely correct. There are technological solutions, but it won’t look like the Jetsons.

        1. Darius

          The US is decadent and wasteful. ACRES OF PARKING! Giant vehicles traveling down highway-grade residential streets. Just as an example. Americans could conceive of no other way. A fish doesn’t know it’s wet.

  3. david s

    Our wonderful two party system:
    One party doesn’t care about the climate.
    The other party says it does, but doesn’t.

    Something for everyone.

  4. Jack Lifton

    Why doesn’t anyone ever ask why the Tesla assembly plant isn’t running on renewable energy from Solar City installations? The answer is: Because it, like any other large scale consumer product manufacturing of raw material supply facility, needs continuous high amperage service. This can only be achieved by fossil fuel or nuclear electricity generation. To achieve the environmentalist goal only luddism will work.

    1. a different chris

      Yeah but: households do not need “continuous high amperage”. And factories don’t really have to work 24/7, did you see all GM’s attempts to give 2017 Silverados away last quarter? Incentives which seem to have slurped over into the 2018’s.

      Maybe they could have taken a day off here and there. Just sayin’

      BTW, here’s the numbers. Residential is the biggest. And I don’t see why “commercial” can’t be cut in half, even without the dying of malls. Guess ya gotta leave those lights on so the cops can see in, since our chintzy strip mall stores can be broached by any criminal equipped with a large nail file.

      1. Grumpy Engineer

        Households absolutely DO need “continuous high amperage” when their heat pumps are running in the middle of a cold winter night. Those amps must be available even when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun is many hours away from sunset or sunrise.

        Pretty much everybody needs for their power to be continuously available. Trying to do that with intermittently-available renewable power is damned difficult. And it’ll get worse once all of these companies that claim “net zero power” (by overproducing solar during the day while still pulling from the grid at night) realize that they can’t all do it simultaneously. If everybody overproduces during the day, you end up with an over-voltaged grid. And if nobody produces at night, everything shuts down and people in cold climates freeze to death. SOMEBODY has to provide power at night. How will you do that when the wind isn’t blowing?

    2. pretzelattack

      the environmentalist goal is to prevent putting our civilization at risk due to not mitigating fossil fuel emissions, to the extent that we still can, by transitioning to renewable energy. putting it off, and whining about how difficult it will be, just makes the problem worse.

      1. bob

        Agreed. Jack seems to be proposing what most would call 3rd world conditions- rolling blackouts and service interruptions. Bombed out Syria and Iraq are great demonstrations of this “planning”.

        I do believe that our oligarchs have no problem with, and would like to encourage these conditions for the masses. Cheaper slaves. But for them, and their means of production, no way.

    3. JE

      The Tesla plant doesn’t run on solar power as originally hyped because money. Everything about the conflict between fossil fuels and renewables is about money. Nevada gave the Tesla gigafactory heavily discounted power from the conventional grid. What kind of profit-minded business would invest in solar panels in that scenario? If the costs of fossil fuels (emissions, health costs, military budgets, etc) were baked into their prices explicitly then renewables would be more competitive today. Regardless, they are getting more competitive slowly as EROEI on fossil fuel extraction drops and we’ve already seen solar and wind become economically viable. I’ve had 5kW of solar on my roof for 8 years and its been a treat to track its performance and it has paid for itself several times over (self installed). We’re going to see industrial facilities powered by renewables (Iceland!!??) increase as it makes monetary sense. What we need to be doing is changing the monetary incentives, implicit subsidies, and other policies that currently favor a fossil fuel economy and shift to benefiting a renewable one.

    4. knowbuddhau

      Then what are all those hydro stations doing powering aluminum smelters and tons of other things all over the world?

      Only ff or nukes? That’s not what the science says. Nukes keep costing long, long, long to the nth degree after the power stops. When an analysis is done, and it says we’d need to keep contained lethally radioactive wastes for 50,000 years, that clearly means, don’t even think about it.

      For how many thousands of years are solar wastes lethal? How long do we need to sequester wind waste?

  5. Anthony K Wikrent

    The technology actually exists to move off fossil fuels, now. But to implement it requires $100 trillion to basically build new energy and transport systems all over the world. Railroads need to be electrified, and route densities doubled, tripled, quintupled, depending on what already exists in a country or locale. The estimate of $100 trillion includes the manufacture and building of 1.7 billion 3-kilo-Watt rooftop photvoltaic systems and 3.8 million 5-Mega-Watt wind turbines. The technology exists. It’s just an engineering problem that requires financing–more financing than anything humanity has ever attempted before.

    And that $100 trillion does NOT include rebuilding or replacing every manmade structure on the planet to achieve zero carbon footprints for each. So this is a LOT of WORK that needs to be done!

    Once we disenthrall ourselves from “free market” ideology and get busy planning and doing all this work, the major problems will probably be huge shortages of labor — everywhere in the world — and rare earth elements. Given the history of science and technology so far, I am confident that enough funding for material sciences will solve the latter problem.

    But talking to progressive activists at the local level, people just cannot comprehend either the scale of the effort required, or the incredible economic opportunity for the biggest economic boom in human history. They retreat to clinging to Malthusian bromides. After decades of rich assholes funding “doom and gloom” studies, Americans are simply no longer comfortable with technological optimism. Anyone who has read Henry Carey’s 19th century polemics against Smith, Ricardo, and Malthus — and there are not many people who have — will instantly recognize that the problem is that people have been indoctrinated to believe oligarchical bullshit about “limited resources.” The key is not the amount of resources: the key is the science and technology to use resources more and more efficiently, and to reuse them or replace them as they become scarce.

    1. divadab

      Yes – and re-purpose the military to civil defense – with rising sea levels, the job of building up the dikes to preserve farmland below sea level as they do in the Netherlands is absolutely critical – else the Mississippi valley will revert to what it was the last time atmospheric CO2 levels were this high – a vast inland sea populated by giant plesiosaurs.

      and a note on the execrable Joe Kennedy – anyone who actively promotes the prohibition of cannabis, as he most vociferously does, is unworthy of support. He is an aggressively ignorant authoritarian, the pretty face of the evil that is prohibition.

    2. John Wright

      How much of that 100 Trillion represents energy consumption pulled from the future?

      With the USA having a 19.7 trillion economy in 2017, that 20 trillion results from a lot of fossil fuels burned to produce goods WHILE making little progress against climate change.

      Isn’t the rule of thumb that a solar plant takes a year to produce the energy consumed to construct itself?

      Seems like we’d pull a lot of energy consumption from the future with this 100 trillion spend, making the GHG problem even worse.

      We’d need to divert away from our consumer society.

      Where is the political will for this?

    3. Adam Eran

      This is an opportunity for the intersection of MMT with climate measures. I haven’t seen this article from J.D.Alt linked in NC, and recommend it for a perspective different from “Eeek! We’re running out of money!”

      Alt actually proposes paying people for making environmentally sound decisions rather than relying on regulatory prohibitions… A different look for governance, to be sure.

      1. Grumpy Engineer

        MMT is not a panacea here. Please remember than even if you can print unlimited amount of dollars in your fiat current system, it doesn’t mean you can purchase unlimited amounts of resources with those dollars. Some resources are finite. For example, the cobalt used in the electrodes of lithium-ion batteries:

        The author concludes that converting 30 million vehicles in the UK from gasoline to electric would require nearly 20% of worldwide cobalt production. To convert 260 million vehicles in the US would require 175% of worldwide cobalt production. To provide the 100 TWh (at least) of energy storage necessary for a stable renewable-powered electrical grid, we’d need 1000% of worldwide cobalt production. That adds up to nearly 1200% of worldwide cobalt production just for the US. What about other countries looking for similar transitions to renewable power? They’d need cobalt, too.

        Sure. We can print lots of dollars. But regardless of how much we print, we won’t be able to buy what we need here. This is especially true given our unwillingness to open new mines in this country.

  6. tommy strange

    to answer the headline, one only has to look at Obama’s actions, not his speeches, which you’ve all said before. Near doubling of oil production, massive ok’s of pipelines (the entire Enbridge and then others..pipeline was approved in 2009, while wasted four years on Keystone as the ‘gamechanger’. ) His coal permits on federal land, which he then made a speech saying stopping ‘new permits’…the word the liberals missed was ‘new’, since the coal permits he allowed last for 20 years. Export of coal. More offshore drilling and etc.
    Then you can look at Jerry Brown, who expanded offshore drilling permits, while he is supposedly fighting Trump against expansion of the ‘zone’, authorized massive fracking in a 5 years California drought, which wastes billions of gallons of water and pollutes what aquifers we have left…..I know Trump is worse, but jeez.

  7. Gaius Publius

    As always, really useful discussion. Thanks especially to divadab for commenting on the Joe Kennedy information, and others who took note of the Democrats’ part of the story.

    As interesting as the climate-related comments were, this isn’t just a climate piece, or even primarily one. It’s first a piece about the feckless Dem Party and the progressives who are taking their time challenging its corrupt and useless leaders.


    1. Grumpy Engineer

      I’d noticed that your article was primarily a criticism of the Democratic party, but I’ve personally found a substantial majority of the political class (both Republicans and Democrats) to be feckless, corrupt, and useless for a long, long time. So your conclusion was essentially “nothing new”.

      And regarding all those comments related to climate and energy policy… Well, I personally consider the habit of the Naked Capitalism commentariat to “devolve” into policy discussions to be one of the great strengths of the site. It’s a refreshing change from the personality-driven conflicts that I see elsewhere.

  8. Synoia

    I see the Democrats as Donkey Drivers Dangling a carrot in front of the Donkey.

    All bait and no delivery. Building on unfulfilled promises, with a carefull crafter message which avoid many topics.

    Climate Change
    Medicare for all

    and so on.

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