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Water and Wealth

How a new clean-water alliance may reshape politics

Earlier this month, Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol published a study that Barack Obama’s consultants must have read before he delivered his second inaugural address. Environmentalists, and humanity in general, should be glad that the re-elected Obama and his team decided that 2013 is a safe, politic, and opportune time for him to talk about anthropogenic climate change, nutso weather, and alternative energy sources.

Professor Skocpol’s thesis is that it was environmentalists, not Obama, whose politics failed to deliver bipartisan support for the environmental goals that enjoy overwhelming public support. Now, with the president boldly recommitted to changing American energy and environmental policy, environmentalists have another chance—mainly because the president’s team of demonstrably competent operatives can take advantage of the political opportunity that Skocpol blames the elitist, conference-loving, narcissistic, and politically incompetent enviro-schmoozers for having squandered.

It happens that we in the Great Lakes region may soon be at the center of the coming political storm. Our governors and Congressional delegations should get ready for the political economy of water to be the focus. Today, the Washington media are focused on the Republican Party talking points of the debt ceiling and spending. But soon enough, the creeping disaster of another year of widespread drought will become more and more visible in the daily news. The cameras could well turn away from talking heads bloviating about budgets to moving pictures of withered crops, dry rivers, shrinking lakes, and stranded boats.

A dose of reality

On January 16, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack declared 634 counties disaster areas because of persistent drought. All the counties of Oklahoma, most counties in Texas, and all the counties of Kansas were declared disaster areas eligible for federal disaster assistance.

These Red States voted overwhelmingly for the climate-science denialism of the Republican national ticket. Consistent with that Tea Party approach to reality, not a single Republican member of the House of Representatives from Kansas voted in favor of Hurricane Sandy disaster relief for New York and New Jersey. But in a circumstance that will enable rather than challenge cognitive dissonance, these same members of Congress will soon be delivering emergency federal disaster aid to their constituents becase the USDA’s drought programs are funded, as-of-right programs, not special aid that has to be voted on.

But as the seasons progress, the need for disaster assistance will grow because winter isn’t acting like winter. This is the time of year when drought is normally not an issue because almost everywhere in the continental US, winter is the season of precipitation—the restorative rains and snows that collect in the high country, replenish the underground aquifers of the flatlands, and bring the rivers back up to the level our country’s extensive barge and freighter shipping systems use.

None of that is happening this winter. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration drought-monitor projects that last year’s weather pattern will repeat: Last year, USDA designated 2,245 counties in 39 states as disaster areas due to drought. That amounted to 71 percent of the land area of the United States.

Not a single county near any of the five Great Lakes, however, was so designated.

The Blue States have water, the Red States are going without. Properly managed, that’s a reality that will become a political fact even more powerful than Tea Party ideation.

Locals to the rescue?

Professor Skocpol’s paper is provocative principally because she doesn’t believe that the Washington environmental elites get it. They still mainly want to pursue a pro-business, inside-the-Beltway strategy to achieve climate-change legislation, despite that strategy having failed utterly during Obama’s first term.

A section of her paper is entitled “Yearning for an easy way,” and the gist is this: Elite enviromentalists haven’t a clue about how to connect with voters. They were comfortable investing hundreds of millions of dollars in pollsters, focus groups, advertising copywriters, and TV ad-placements that didn’t deliver any Republican House or Senate votes for legislation that would have capped greenhouse gas emissions and set up a market for greenhouse gas permits, the so-called cap-and-trade bill.

Why did they fail? Skocpol says that the enviros ignored the demise of moderate Republicans, who are now constrained by Tea Party discourse and threatened with primary campaigns from the far Right. She recounts the takeover of think tanks by the forces that move rural and suburban Republicans: oil companies, pro-oil political action committees, Fox News, and the right-wing echo chamber of Rush Limbaugh and his epigones in every American media market. Republican political handlers everywhere, including right here in Paladino Country, succeed by crafting sharply anti-government, anti-green, anti-science messages that work particularly well with alienated, moderate-income white voters, especially men who lack a college degree.

Sensible policies that work elsewhere—like a carbon tax, which is bolstering the economy of British Columbia in Canada—actually enjoy bipartisan ideological support among think tankers, but because House Speaker John Boehner is still beholden to the denialist Tea Party caucus, it is a dead letter. Still, Skocpol points out, the leading enviros keep searching for nonexistent Republican moderates.

But now will come the new reality, and with it, the media stories. There will be pictures of water-starved crops and dry rivers. Unfortunately, in some of the Red States, there may be Dust Bowl conditions. The experiences of farmers without crops will be much tougher for pro-oil consultants and climate-science deniers to spin. In a nation where almost 700 counties are in severe drought in January, it would seem that such a wide experience of water shortages could become relevant to politics.

But that would mean that environmentalists would have to make contact with actual Americans who are culturally different from them. Skocpol is not alone in doubting whether national environmentalists will be able to connect the political dots. “Environmental organizations are investing way too much money in polling operations, and spending too much time imaging which phrases they should use in messaging campaigns disconnected from organized networks,” she writes.

But local and regional environmentalism has also become compromised and elitist—even though there is unquestionably broad public support for decisive government action to protect water, switch to green energy, and move forcefully to address climate change.

What to do? A modest proposal: Connect with people who go fishing, especially the moderate-inome, alienated, modestly educated white males who actually understand that clean water matters. Another thought: Resurrect a late-blooming first-term legislative proposal known as cap-and-dividend.

A policy bridge

In 2010, Maine Republican Susan Collins and Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell introduced the Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal, or CLEAR, bill in the US Senate. Like cap-and-trade, this cap-and-dividend aims to raise the price of carbon-based energy production and use—but the revenues that are raised from a tax or sales of permits are put into a public trust fund, with the proceeds divided up and mailed out as dividend checks to every individual citizen, something like the State of Alaska does for its residents from its oil permit fund. This CLEAR legislation would remit about $1,100 per family of four, a.k.a. the people enviros somewhat disparagingly refer to as “everyday Americans.”

The CLEAR bill sounds like the kind of deal that Barack Obama’s campaign team could sell with its grassroots networks—in part because an actual cash incentive that arrives in family exchequers could address the income inequality that was also part of Obama’s second inagural speech.

As the recent history of environmentalism and “shrinking cities” advocacy shows, there is a whole lot of money to be made from foundations—lots of conferences to go to, lots of junkets to take, lots of cocktail parties to enjoy after one finishes yet another round of presentations that sound exactly like last year’s. (The leading land-bank advocacy group in Washington spent more than $2 million on consultants last year—the same consultants who in 2012 produced books and articles that read like photocopies of the books and articles they wrote five years ago.) The great news for folks who live their lives beyond those charmed circles is that the competence of a winning political campaign team may get invested in actually winning a policy battle instead of talking about it some more. That’s what one should like about politics when a candidate is invested in an issue. There’s a decision date and a deliverable.

People in the Great Lakes states, where we not only have the water that the rest of America needs but also the political sense to support Obama, should be especially glad that this president made the connection between climate change, green energy, and income inequality. If he’s tasking his team to work on it, the chances of forward progress are better than ever.

Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at

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