Climate change and the environment in Oregon's 2014 election

Kyle Curtis Facebook

Data and trends indicate that an emerging consensus that voters--regardless of party background--want immediate action taken to address climate change. But such actions aren't taken by state lawmakers. Why not, and what can be done about that?

As many Blue Oregon readers will attest, it is frustrating to be a voter who makes decisions influenced by facts, science, and common sense. For example, of course the “two Santa Claus” economic theory embraced by Republicans over the last four decades of slashing the tax burden of wealthy income earners coupled with increased government spending would result in astronomical deficits—not to mention more of a tax burden shouldered by lower-income taxpayers. Another example would be that the invasion of a sovereign country for the flimsiest pretext would result in a foreign policy disaster, loss of international standing, and a huge national cost of both money and treasure.

The obsession that myself and like-minded voters have with evidence-based decision-making was vocally disparaged by the previous administration. In a New York Times magazine profile about how decisions were made in the George W. Bush White House that was published a month before the 2004 presidential elections, a senior White House spoke dismissively of the “reality-based community” which believes that solutions can be determined by judicious study of discernible reality. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” the aide was quoted as saying. “When we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality, we’ll act again, creating new realities, which you can study too. We’re history’s actors… and you will be left to study what we do.”

As a confirmed member of the so-called “reality-based community” I continue to find that quote dripping with both arrogance and complete abjection for responsibility. In effect, the aide was simply saying that there is no consequence for our actions—if there are, they are for others to study and determine and that the only thing that matters is that we continue to make actions, ignorant of the results they may lead. While the quote was obviously stated within the context of foreign policy, it could be easily just as applicable towards the actions—or inactions—taken to address climate change.

There is nothing nearly as maddening for a reality-based voter than the so-called “debate” regarding climate change. The fact that a consensus created by the world’s scientific community is even possibly under discussion speaks volumes to the corrupting influence of money in the policy-making process. In fact, not only has every forecast projection made since the term “global warming” was popularized thirty years ago come true, they are coming true much faster than originally projected. Yet somehow we need to convince ourselves that the “science isn’t settled” in regards to this issue, and we can dig up carbon and pump it into our atmosphere—an example of complete abjection of responsibility, of basically thumbing our nose at science. It’s similar to what Bill Maher recently said in regards to the scientific evidence-based reality of the so-called climate change “debate”: “I don’t have to believe that water boils at 212 degrees,” Maher said. “It just does.”

New Reports Suggest a Consensus By Voters Regarding Need to Address Climate Change

Despite this frustration towards the lack of action taken to address an international scientific consensus that the unabated use of fossil fuels threatens to destroy perilous natural ecosystems—bringing the human race continually closer towards extinction—there were two headlines from this past year which provides optimism regarding a changing political calculus underway regarding the need to address climate change. According to an article from Grist this past November, the corporate-funded efforts to convince Americans to deny the scientific validity of climate change are having little effect—certainly not the ones desired by those signing the checks. In this story, Stanford Professor John Krosnick helped lead a study that analyzed over ten years’ worth of poll results in 46 states and found that a majority of the residents in these states—regardless of whether the state voted red or blue—were united both in their concerns about the climate, and also in their desire for government to take the necessary steps to address climate change. “We could not find a single state in the country while climate skepticism was in the majority,” Professor Krosnick was quoted in The Guardian.

The second eye-catching report was the results of polling data regarding voters under the age of 35 collected through the combined bipartisan effort of the Benenson Strategy Group, the GS Strategy Group, and the League of Conservation Voters. In a memo distributed this past July, the concern expressed by young voters regarding climate change couldn’t be clearer. “Young voters of both parties want to see action on climate change and want leaders willing to take steps to address that threat,” the co-authored memo stated. Indeed, findings of this report include two-thirds of young voters believe climate change is a problem that needs to be addressed, compared to only 27% who believe that humans can have no impact on climate change. Surprisingly, the report found that a majority of young voters that are opposed to President Obama (56%) support taking action against climate change. Perhaps most surprising, however, is the finding that over half of Republican-leaning young voters would be less likely to support a candidate that opposes President Obama’s plan to tackle climate change.

A majority of young voters side with the President of an opposing party on a key issue such as climate change? In political terms, this is what’s commonly known as a “game change.” Such results—along with the diminishing impact of the corporate-funded climate-change denial efforts—surely must have set off alarm bells for Republican strategists, correct? I mean, as the GOP’s demographic base of elderly, male white voters continue to age, they need to adopt a policy position that aligns with President Obama if they wish to retain relevancy with younger voters. Or is this simply too much of an overly optimistic tea-leaf reading of these two stories—both of which, unsurprisingly, flew under the radar of the national corporate-owned media.

OLCV: "No Evidence" of any Changing Political Consensus Regarding Climate Change in Salem

In an effort to ground-truth the findings detailed both by Professor Krosnick in the Grist story and the bipartisan polling data collected last summer regarding young voters’ perspective on climate change, shortly after the conclusion of the state legislative session I spoke with Christy Splitt from Oregon League of Conservation Voters who had spent the preceding month and a half in Salem advocating for environmental issues on the OLCV’s behalf. Sadly, Splitt was unable to confirm for these optimistic conclusions to me.

Indeed, Splitt has seen no on-the-ground evidence at Salem or elsewhere of a changing mind-set towards Republican voters. “I wish I saw some of that change occurring at the Capitol,” Splitt says, “but it’s good that it’s happening somewhere.” Splitt expressed little surprise when shared the findings of both the Stanford analysis and bipartisan polling data, but laments the lack of political will to take the steps necessary to address climate change that are favored by voters. “In both the U.S. Congress and Oregon state legislature, Republicans are united in their opposition towards climate policy,” Splitt explains, assessing the current political landscape.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the oft-repeated story of how the over-sized influence that money plays on the policy-making process that results in this unified opposition. “The fact is that Oregon doesn’t have a campaign finance law on the books; there simply are no donation limits to campaigns,” Splitt explains. The major barrier is the inability for elected officials on the Republican side of the aisle to take a stand that aligns with the voters if it doesn’t also align with the lobbyists that fund their campaigns. “The thing about money in politics is not just about where it goes, but where it doesn’t. If a Republican incumbent loses funding which is then provided to a Tea Party candidate to run from the right—and who is so much more wrong on every other issue? Some Republicans in the legislature, I’m sure, vote the way they do to ensure their seat isn’t challenged by someone much worse.”

Environmental Success Story in the 2013 Legislative Session Spurred by Court Ruling

The brief six-week state legislative session—which Splitt described as “torture of a limited duration”—resulted in very little discussed or passed by state lawmakers regarding climate change. This isn’t to say that nothing positive developed for those concerned about environmental issues. Splitt points to the compromise regarding Metro’s planned urban reserves in Washington County as an example of an environmental success story from the most recent session. “OLCV opposed a developer-friendly bill that allowed more urban development in Washington County,” Splitt says. It wasn’t until an appeals court ruled in favor of the conservationists that action was undertaken to craft a bill that would see passage. “Unfortunately, all too often environmentalists have to use litigation to force legislation. Within a few days of the decision, all the stakeholders came together to hammer out an acceptable solution.”

With the 2014 session in the rear-view mirror, it’s natural to turn one’s attention towards next year’s longer session and see if any of the OLCV’s environmental-friendly bills would be able to make it out of committee and be passed by a floor vote. Considering the state Senate’s current 15-15 split when it comes to environmental issues carried over from the previous session, with Betsy Johnson joining Republicans to halt progress and stall momentum that has stymied bills to encourage the use of clean fuels and phasing out toxic chemicals from kids’ products. “There are problems for passing anything good in the current Senate make-up,” explains Splitt. “Even if something passes a floor vote on the House, it will still need changes in a Senate mark-up.” And the mark-up process is where any regulatory teeth or impact of a bill is usually diminished.

It doesn’t help that a series of legislative champions that have advocated in favor of environmental issues have opted to not return to the legislature. Splitt rattles off a list of formerly reliable environmental champions that are no longer holding state office: “Jackie Dingfelder, Jules Kopel-Bailey, Ben Cannon, Jefferson Smith, Ben Unger. These and others have all left the legislature in the past couple of years. We can only hope that their replacements will continue to prioritize environmental issues.”

The Stakes for Environment and Climate in Oregon's 2014 Election

In hopes of getting past the stalemate in the Oregon Senate to pass environmental-friendly legislation in 2015, a couple of current Republican-owned seats will need to be flipped in favor of the Democratic challenger. And the OLCV has been actively endorsing candidates which they feel have a very good chance at winning competitive districts. In the Senate’s 26th district—an expansive district that stretches from eastern Multnomah County to Hood River—OLCV has endorsed Rob Bruce, a small business consultant based out of Sandy with previous experience in helping pass state legislation that benefits small businesses and minority contractors. Jamie Damon, a former Clackamas County commissioner running to represent Senate District 20—a largely rural district in Clackamas County—has received a nod from the OLCV in her past campaigns for Clackamas County commission due to her support for forest management, school funding, and infrastructure investment. If either of these two candidates are able to take their legislative seat this fall, the ability to pass environmental-friendly legislation dramatically improves. {For a list of all the endorsements passed by the OLCV in contested Senate—and House-- races, click here.)

If you are an evidence-based voter who cares strongly about the environment and are tired of the legislative inactivity that fails to mirror the emerging consensus about climate change, there is plenty of time to get involved and influence the outcome of the 2014 elections. “Feel free to talk to the candidates, express your concerns on these issues,” Splitt suggests. “All voters say they want improved health care, education, jobs. But guess what? These all rely on having a healthy environment!”

“Legislators want to do the right thing, regardless of the party—sometimes they just need the cover given to them by voters to do the right thing!”

Edit: to clarify the current voting split in the state Senate, preventing passage of environmental bills. Edit: to more accurately reflect Jamie Damon's current status regardning an endorsement from the OLCV.

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