More highways! Fight climate change! (Wait a sec...)

No one in the Democratic Party is trying to publicly reconcile these two inconveniently opposing points of view.

By Ronald A. Buel of Portland, Oregon. Ronald is a longtime progressive activist in Portland. This is the first column in a four-part series on climate change and Oregon transportation policy.

It’s an article of Democratic Party faith in Oregon that climate change and global warming threatens our planet with devastation within this century. This prevailing Democratic view follows the science that the human burning of fossil fuels is causing climate change and global warming, and that somewhere around one-third of this problem is coming from motor vehicles that burn fossil fuel in internal combustion engines on our highways.

It’s also an article of Democratic Party faith in Oregon that our highway infrastructure needs to be built out at breakneck speed in order to deal with growing congestion on the state’s highways, so that our economy can thrive. The annual Oregon Business Summit, held earlier this year, attended by thousands of businessmen, and capturing our leading politicians of both parties to speak there, recently proclaimed this congestion as the state’s number one issue. The Democratic Party in Oregon seems led by the nose by unions who also love that argument, including particularly the building trades and the AFL-CIO, who are dying for these local union highway construction jobs that used to be so numerous but have virtually disappeared as people drive less and drive vehicles that use less gas per mile.

No one in the Democratic Party is trying to publicly reconcile these two inconveniently opposing points of view. In fact, politicians of all stripes in Oregon would prefer that there be no public reconciliation. If there were reconciliation, the politicians would all be negligent by not acting to prevent the devastation to the planet that will eventually be caused by man-made climate change. That means rejecting the false arguments of the business and labor lobbies that we must somehow build our way out of job-stifling congestion with many large highway expansion projects.

Based on the support of leading Democrats, and also based on their first-time-around legislative success on the Columbia River Crossing, a substantial increase in the gas tax to fund many highway construction projects is very likely to pass in this session. We’re not talking just funding existing infrastructure maintenance (like re-paving highways) at a higher level, which seems to everyone like a good idea as our highways fall apart. We’re talking about freeway and highway expansion that is otherwise stymied, idling not only the highway construction industry, but also the union construction workers, and the many engineers in the Oregon Department of Transportation ranks whose jobs also depend on designing new construction.

The Republicans in Oregon, for their part, continue to serve the fossil fuel energy, highway and auto industry by simply denying that man-made climate change exists, this in spite of the 97% of the involved scientists who consider man-made climate change from carbon dioxide a fact, and cite the evidence for their conviction. But, as Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman wrote recently:

“Evidence doesn’t matter for the “debate” over climate policy, where I put scare quotes around “debate” because, given the obvious irrelevance of logic and evidence, it’s not really a debate in any normal sense... Indeed, at this point it’s hard to think of a major policy dispute where facts actually do matter; it’s unshakable dogma, across the board. And the real question is why.”

If the science is wrong and we are not, as a people, headed towards disaster, then it is right to deny it and to worry about the costs. However, the suspect public evidence presented by the climate change deniers is fundamentally anecdotal, not scientific. That’s a serious problem. Republicans, who now control the U.S. Senate, recently voted there that climate change exists, but would not vote that it is caused by man. Conveniently, then, under Republican rule in Congress, we can continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels – largely coal, oil, and natural gas. These industries give lots of money to the Republicans’ national campaigns.

President Barack Obama, in his recent State of the Union speech, picked an infrastructure support path that specifically didn’t include road and freeway expansion. He said"

“21st century businesses need 21st century infrastructure – modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest Internet. Democrats and Republicans used to agree on this. So let’s set our sights higher than a single pipeline. Let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than 30 times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for years to come.”

For Oregon Democratic legislators, however, who largely rely on unions to fund their campaigns (and Democrats spent more in this last 2014 set of legislative campaigns than Republicans for the first time in many, many years) the calculation works the other way – it’s better to side with the unions that are buttering your campaign bread than to worry about environmental support, because the enviros who care about long-term global warming have nowhere else to go and don’t give as much money as the unions anyway.

This means that Democratic attempts to get the clean fuels bill to avoid its sunset may pass this Democratically-controlled legislature to the delight of environmentalists, if it can avoid the business and Republican efforts to kill it. The energy industry claims the higher costs of producing clean fuel will be passed on to consumers. The bill was caught up in the Cylvia Hayes scandal, as The Oregonian and Republicans claim that Kitzhaber’s support for it was tainted by the money Hayes received for working on the clean fuels program.

However, at the same time that this Clean Fuels bill may pass, Democrats, led by House Speaker Tina Kotek, and House Transportation Chair Tobias Read, are trying to increase gas taxes to a level that allows the state to build many large highway expansion projects, to the delight of business and labor lobbies. Since fossil fuel use by motor vehicles provides 33% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and since we can’t “build our way out of congestion” anyway, this is entirely counter-productive to reducing global warming, the exact opposite in other words, of the Clean Fuels bill.

So, long-term global warming reduction is going to be severely compromised in Oregon, despite Democratic control of all statewide offices and the Legislature. Oregon politics, even for Democrats, has become all about the power of the business and labor lobbies, the power of those who give campaign money to legislators and governors for the next short-term election.

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