A Different Sort of Hope

Towards the end of last year I wrote on why, despite all the bad news on global warming, I still have hope. With the US election tomorrow, I thought I would tackle the question from a different angle.

I’ll admit I was caught up in much of the enthusiasm for Obama in the lead-up to his first election. And yes, in many areas I have found him deeply disappointing, and in a few to be genuinely dreadful. If I was in a safe state I’d probably vote for Jill Stein. However, even now, he still gives me twinges of hope. There are a three main reasons for this, two of which are science related.

Firstly, Obama has been resolutely pro-science. He concentrated much of the money from the stimulus package into scientific research, in a way that will pay off for decades to come. He has not acted anything like as much on climate change as I would wish, but he has been resolute in endorsing the science, and defending those who conduct it. His positions on evolution, stem cell research and the other hot-button American science debates are solid beyond questioning. Over and again he makes clear that decisions should be made on the basis of evidence, rather than gut feeling. This idea should not be radical, but after 8 years of Bush, it certainly is.

Moreover, given the madness to which the Republican Party has descended, any true hope for the planet needs to involve keeping them out of power until they regain their sanity, which means we are probably talking geological ages. Given that they still have a significant chance of winning the Presidency tomorrow, and a small shot at controlling the Senate (while being almost a lock on the House) it seems Obama has done a bad job on this. In the longer term however, I think there is a case that he has laid the groundwork for change.

Many people have argued that the Republicans are in a demographic crisis, as Latinos and educated voters increase in numbers, eventually locking them out of power. I’m not convinced on this – it remains to be seen whether Hispanic voters will stay solidly Democrat, particularly if the next Republican presidential candidate is Marco Rubio.

On the other hand, I think the Republicans are in an industry crisis. They have thrown their lot in entirely and unreservedly with the fossil fuel industries. Those who have not, for example Schwarzenegger, have been ostracised from the party. That works for them now; not only do they get to pull in the big money from the Koch brothers et al, but they can appeal to plenty of voters who work in those industries, or see themselves as dependent on them.

However, the employment structure of America is changing fast. The Solar Foundation may not be an unbiased source, but their claim of 13,000 new jobs in solar, while 4000 were lost in the fossil fuel industries, is probably in the right ball park.

By 2016 the Republicans are going to have to try to explain to a lot of Americans why they tried to kill their jobs, while having a much smaller pool who fear their own jobs are threatened by Democrat environmental policies.

However, probably a bigger factor than energy generation will be car manufacturing. Obama looks likely to win Michigan and probably Ohio on the back of having saved General Motors, and through it the US car industry. Nevertheless, as long as the cars American manufacturers turned out were gas guzzlers these states were always going to hold a large number of voters wary of environmental policies.

But Obama pushed through tougher fuel efficiency standards on the back of his rescue of GM and Chrysler, ensuring that in future the US manufacturers will not be locked into the polluting end of the market. Possibly more importantly electric cars are growing. Growing really fast. And GM is leading the field. The Chevy Volt is now easily the biggest selling electric car in America. It is still a tiny portion of total US car sales, but it is not a novelty item any more. Sales of electric cars are set to triple this year. A few more years like that and Michigan and Ohio will see their state interests lying in the shift to electric cars. The oil industry will be the enemy, not a friend.

By 2016 most Americans will still be buying oil to power their cars, but there is a fair chance that there will be more workers in swing states employed making electric, or very fuel efficient, cars than there will be making gas guzzlers. Think about what that will do to the Republican chances of winning the electoral college. Meanwhile Iowa is the centre of America’s growing wind power industry, while Nevada’s best chance to get itself off gambling is to export solar energy to California. Try getting to 270 with those states against you.

Many would argue that as this change comes the Republicans will pull an etch a sketch. I have no doubt that is what the business wing of the party will try to do. However, they may not find it so easy. Environmental issues are now a culture war, and the party will find it hard to convince the primary voters that they were wrong all along, that renewable energy and electric cars are the way of the future. Particularly if Texas and North Dakota are still dependent on oil, and West Virginia on coal. These states are irrelevant in the general election, but crucial in the Republican primaries.

So what we may see is a Republican Party that can neither wean itself off polluting industries, nor win elections when tied to them. This could make for a lot of room for future Democrats Presidential candidates to be considerably more progressive in other areas, if they and the party wish it.

If that is the case Obama, through a combination of SunShot, saving the American owned car industry and then using the credibility established in this way to enforce tougher energy standards and more electric manufacturing, will deserve a huge share of the credit.

While I am writing this, I think there is another reason to support Obama that goes beyond simply not being Romney. It is perhaps best encapsulated by the speech you can see at the 4:20 mark of this John McCutcheon produced version of Woody Guthrie’s classic.

The concept that we are diminished by the suffering of others is hardly new. In one sense all Obama is doing is rephrasing John Donne (narrowed to restrict it to Americans while broadening through the use of gender inclusive language). In one sense the statement is so widely accepted that Tony Abbott or John Howard would endorse it if it was put to them. Even Romney might, with discomfort, although I doubt Paul Ryan would. Yet none of them act as if they believe it. It is, indeed the core issue that divides the left and right post Thatcher and Reagan.

Across the world, politicians of the major left parties would no doubt nod their heads in support, some enthusiastically. Yet how many of them have ever said it, even in less powerful ways? Can you imagine a Gillard or a Rudd, let alone a Shorten, expressing such a rebuke to the atomisation of society championed by the right?

Obama may not always have lived up to this rhetoric, but if he is re-elected tomorrow his words on this and so many other matters, will have been seen as having gained the endorsement of the American people at every opportunity. Ideas given credibility in this way have a capacity to wend their way into society, to subtly, slowly, change the course of history.

Of course, what Obama is saying here, and in different ways in so many of his finest speeches, is not enough. We need to extend these ideas beyond our home country, and indeed beyond the human race. Here are two particularly beautiful efforts to do this in artistic form, moving far past what Obama has said.

It should hardly be surprising artists can go places politicians, particularly American Presidents, cannot. I think Obama’s words create a platform, on which it is possible to build wider support for this most fundamental worldview.

Update: I somehow managed to miss Romney’s dismissal of Tesla Motors as a “loser” (the ultimate insult for a Republican) in the first debate. I’m amazed this didn’t get more play at the time. It is way too early to tell whether Telsa’s cars will ever be a big part of the market. However, the Republicans had better hope they don’t, because if they take off this quote could haunt them almost as much as Romney’s opposition to the GM bailout did during this election. Of course, even if Tesla never turns a profit it has succeeded; by demonstrating the technical potential of a electric sports car it has made electric vehicles cool, and contributed to the sales of cheaper brands. But to the Republicans, things like that don’t count as winning.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
This entry was posted in Enemies of science, Global Warming, Hope, Other forms of politics, Research funding, Science policy, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A Different Sort of Hope

  1. Drew says:

    Great post Stephen.

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