Oily Spectre of Climate Silence Casts Long Shadow Over American Politics

For more than a century, the fossil fuels industry has exerted extraordinary influence over American politics. This has been true since the boom days of Standard Oil and continues today. At first, this influence was only destructive in that it created a privileged, monopolistic status for a single, albeit important, industry. Yet, today, the destructive nature of oil, gas and coal special interest influence over American politics is coming home to roost.

This year saw three major events that made seriously addressing the problem of human-caused of global warming mandatory to America’s future prosperity. The first was the revelation by a growing number of climate scientists that extreme weather, increasing in frequency and severity since  the 1980s, was directly linked to human-caused global warming. This revelation came during a year when the US experienced its most extreme weather ever recorded, its hottest year ever recorded and its most damaging fire season ever recorded. The second event, linked to the first, was a massive and ongoing drought, the worst in 55 years, that halted Mississippi river traffic, devastated the US corn crop, and now threatens US winter wheat. The current drought came at a time when the US West is experiencing its fifth driest period in 500 years and on the heels of a devastating drought just last year in Texas and Oklahoma. Scientists also linked the current drought to global warming — showing in climate models how drought grows worse and worse as human caused global warming intensifies.

But the third and probably most important event was, likely, one that most Americans ignored. This year, Arctic sea ice area fell to its lowest level ever recorded and is, according to many scientists, within a decade of melting out entirely.

These three events sent a climate shock-wave around the world causing NASA scientist James Hansen to state that we are experiencing a ‘global climate emergency.’ It is an emergency that risks violent and freakish events. It is a crisis that will almost certainly lead to the devastation of US agriculture, long term. And it is a crisis in which rising sea levels are more and more certain as the years advance.

Yet both the cause of this crisis — our incessant burning of fossil fuels — and its solutions — reducing and eliminating fossil fuel consumption — as well as the crisis itself remain largely off the political radar. Even worse, in a horrific display of ignorance and pandering to fossil fuel special interests, Mitt Romney proudly proclaimed he doesn’t believe in human caused global warming. Given the insurmountable pile of scientific evidence, he may as well have proclaimed he doesn’t believe in gravity.

But the actions of President Obama have also been far from comforting. Just this week at the Presidential debate Obama got into a rhetorical pissing contest with Romney over whether or not he had increased drilling. And though Obama was correct to assert that drilling had increased under his watch, contesting with Romney over who promotes drilling the most sends a very bad signal at a time when US fossil fuel use needs to start scaling back if we are to prevent a decades-long agricultural catastrophe that would make the Dust Bowl years seem but a prelude.

It is important to note that Obama does vigorously support solutions to the climate crisis. That he has developed wind, solar, electric vehicles and biofuels more than any other president in modern memory. He pushed CAFE standards to 55 mpg, a level Romney has vowed to repeal. Renewable energy production has doubled under Obama’s watch and US carbon emissions are beginning to decline.In addition, largely thanks to Obama’s policies, US energy independence is within reach for the first time in two generations.

In policy, he is decidedly not in the oil, gas and coal companies’ pockets. And for this reason alone, it appears that most of these companies are fighting tooth and nail to make certain Obama is not re-elected. A dirty ‘energy vote’ website and campaign has been started and oil companies are both implicitly and explicitly campaigning for a Romney Administration entirely willing to deny global warming reality in support of more oil, gas, and coal exploitation even as he cuts wind, solar, EVs and efficiencies. Millions and millions of dollars in campaign donations and in SuperPAC advertisements just keep flooding in. Furthermore, a constant stream of misinforming advertisements appears on public TV stations and the internet in a bid by oil, gas, and coal companies to keep the public misinformed.

Perhaps the only corollary to this type of public misinformation campaign is what occurred with cigarettes back in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. As scientific evidence mounted showing tobacco products resulted in a drastically elevated risk of lung cancer, cigarette corporations funded advertisements to re-brand themselves, to misinform the public of health risks, and to prevent any government action to inform the public of risks or to curtail smoking in public places where second-hand smoke could harm non-smokers. Eventually the public interest won out. But it took massive and ongoing efforts to surmount the resistance put up by cigarette manufacturers.

But the damage caused by an unrelenting use of fossil fuels will be far, far more harmful than that caused by cigarettes, should oil, gas, and coal special interests continue to dominate both the political debate, the public media sphere and, most importantly, the energy policy creation process. And it is important to note that the power of these fossil fuel corporations is much, much greater than that of the cigarette companies who preceded them. The companies operate on a global scale and many have revenue streams larger than entire nations. We would have to go back to the slave trade, which was a primary contributor to the first US civil war, to find an industry with such wide-ranging political power and influence.

So it should not be a surprise that the American political system, which has been removed of all protection to special interest influence by the extremist conservatives of the Supreme Court in The Citizen’s United decision, is wracked and distorted by fossil fuel special interest money. So we should be more deeply concerned that so heavy a pall of silence over the ongoing harm caused by human global warming has settled upon Washington and casts such a long shadow on the current US election. It is the reason we find Obama forced to contest a political opponent junked up on fossil fuel campaign money in the darkness and in the quiet over an issue so important to both US and world prospects.

Many have blamed the Obama campaign for not speaking out. But this blame is misplaced. The people we should blame are the oil, gas, and coal companies who have poisoned the discourse, who have funded climate change denial at every level, and who are, at every level, trying to gag politicians and prevent them from speaking out on the most important issue of the 21rst century. They are the cause of the current crisis. They are the ones deliberately altering our politics in a blatant attempt to prevent responsible action. And they are the ones forcing this terrible code of silence upon US media and politics even as they attempt to turn the candidates into puppets for their interests.

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