Two Strange and Significant Elections For Climate Change

Most US elections are held in even numbered years, but some states and cities insist on bucking the trend. Normally, in the year following presidential elections there are three big contests that dominate the news, for the governors of Virginia and New Jersey and for mayor of New York.

This year two of those look to be walkovers, but the third, and a previously obscure county council could be close. It would be hyperbolic to say the fate of the world depends on these contests, but they will matter more than most elections.

The margin of Chris Christie’s victory in New Jersey may be analysed for his prospects as Republican presidential candidate in 2016, but there is little doubt he will win. Likewise Bill de Blasio’s promises of a more aggressively left-wing approach to economic inequality may prove important down the track, but with a 40% lead in the polls election night itself looks to be a yawn.

On the other hand, the election in Virginia is still in doubt. For the last three months every poll has shown Democrat Terry McAuliffe ahead, but in some cases by an uncomfortably close margin.

This is a worry, because McAuliffe’s opponent is state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

I’ve written about Cuccinelli before. He has two main claims to fame beyond the borders of Virginia. Firstly, he is responsible for the witchhunt (and I use that word advisedly) against paleoclimatologist Michael Mann. Mann has the misfortune to have done most of his work at the University of Virginia, although he has now been driven into exile at Pennsylvania State University. Mann has become a figure of hate for climate change denialists by producing evidence that suggests the current warming is unprecedented over the last thousand years.

While pretty much any climate scientist needs to recognise these days that prominence comes with hate mail, defamation and death threats, what Mann has copped has been unprecedented. Aside from non-stop slurs across the right-wing blogosphere he has had to cope with Cuccinelli launching a Civil Investigative Demand against the university in an effort to prove fraud on Mann’s part. There is no chance that such a campaign could come up with any such evidence – flaws have been found in Mann’s methodology but his results have been confirmed over and over again and the mistakes he made did not produce results more supportive of the global warming case. However, a fishing expedition in which a political operator demands access to private emails would have a chilling effect on any scientist. Cuccinelli was demanding the right to see private correspondence between Mann and his wife, for example. There is little doubt that anything even slightly salacious would have been broadcast far and wide.

The implications for any other scientist were clear – if you publish material detrimental to the Republican cause you had better never have a personal life of utter boredom. One off-colour joke, let alone an affair or an unusual sexual preference and you would be known for that for ever more, irrespective of the quality of your research. This takes suppression of academic independence into territory where so far even Stephen Harper has not dared to go. The courts struck the effort down, but if Cuccinelli is endorsed by the electorate I think we can expect that Harper, and Abbott, will at least be considering whether they can do similar things in their jurisdictions.

Cuccinelli’s attacks on climate science may have brought in a few dollars for McCaullife, and motivated some Democrats to get to the polls in what is usually a low turn-out election, but it is unlikely the outcome will turn on them, even though in some ways the election may be seen as a referendum on bullying scientists.

However, Cuccinelli has another string to his bow. He is the guy who tried to ban oral and anal sex. For everyone. He hasn’t emphasised this in his campaign, generally focussing on economic issues (although abortion has come up a bit as well), but it could easily cost him the election. Bans on “sodomy” have been struck down by the US courts when they have been directed against gay men, and this has been done on privacy grounds, rather than discrimination, so there was no chance that Cuccinelli would succeed in this. That, however, only further emphasises how deeply he believes in the cause – to keep fighting when you have lost, and know you will lose again, is the mark of the true zealot.

Odd year elections have voters who are disproportionately older and more conservative than in the general elections, but banning sex acts that are now very common is still an unpopular position. Virginia is closing on the point where it will have a majority that is pro-same-sex marriage. That’s not true for the people who will be voting on Tuesday, but there probably still wouldn’t be a majority who actually want to ban gay sex acts, and there are plenty of homophobes who are not averse to something a little different to the missionary position themselves. Cuccinelli may not be able to make these laws stick, but they send a message about the sort of person he is, and Virginia voters don’t seem to like it.

If McAuliffe wins it will probably have been the anti-sex laws (and similar such behaviour with less or an international profile) that will do it. McAuliffe is a strong candidate, but he has run a more left-wing campaign than the very centerist ones of the two Democrat senators from Virginia. Moreover, for the last 36 years every Virginia gubernatorial election has gone to the candidate from the major party that did not control the White House. Democrats have just squeezed in during the Reagan and Bush years, while Republicans have won comfortably under Clinton and in 2009.

The Libertarian Robert Sarvis looks likely to do unusually well, and it seems that most of these votes will be from people who normally vote Republican, but cannot come at Cuccinelli’s intrusion into their bedrooms.

The contest matters for a number of reasons. As noted, a Cuccinelli win would be read as a licence to step up attacks on climate scientists across the globe. While a defeat may be read as a message not to go after people’s sex lives it can’t but tarnish Cuccinelli’s other activities. And of course the position itself has a fair bit of power.

But I think there is a wider significance. Cuccinelli is out there even among his allies, but it is noticeable that few denialists have been willing to step up and denounce his obsession with other people’s private lives. As noted in the previous article, Cory Bernardi and Barnaby Joyce probably wish they could do the same thing. I think there is hope in this. Denialists and do nothing politicians are so hard to defeat on the topic directly, but they almost always come with baggage – you simply don’t refuse to do something about the greatest threat faced by humanity unless there are a few screws loose somewhere, and these can bring them down when their actions on climate don’t.

The other election of interest is a huge contrast. It is for the county council in Whatcom, Washington. If you’ve never heard of the place you’re not alone. I pride myself on my knowledge of American geography, and I hadn’t either. With a population of 200,000 people it hugs the Canadian border and generally gets very little attention. Elections for its non-partisan council get less still, although they do tend to be close, perhaps because an otherwise conservative area has a highly liberal university in the middle of it.

The election matters because sometime in the next few years it is likely the county council will have to vote on a proposal to build a major coal port there. A port intended to ship almost 50 million tonnes of coal to Asia every year, or almost as much as Victoria uses.

You can read about the election in Mother Jones and in the Seattle Times and I suggest you do, but a little background for those not in the know. Coal in the US is in deep trouble. A combination of natural gas, the poor economy, energy efficiency, wind and solar have been hammering domestic usage. Natural gas may become more expensive if the alleged problems with fracking prove true and more states ban the practice and the economy may well be about to start a full recovery. However, wind and solar are just getting started and could do just as much damage on their own. The price of coal has been held up to some extent through exports to Europe, but there are signs of trouble there as well. Asia is the great hope, but to do that they have to find a way to get the coal onto ships, and Watcom is the obvious answer.

The articles linked to have plenty of information about how a normally sleepy election has drawn in millions of dollars both from environmentalists and the coal industry to become a contest of global significance. I won’t reiterate them here, but I do think one aspect is worth noting. The Seattle Times article notes “In largely rural Whatcom County, council members have quasi-judicial duties and are supposed to remain impartial about matters that might come before them in the future.”

This is fits with a trend in Victoria to try to take the politics out of local politics. There is much debate about how widely applicable the Winki Pop ruling is, but to the extent it does apply it is clearly an affront to democracy. The ruling states (or at least has been interpreted to state) that councilors cannot vote on certain issues on which they have previously stated a position. So in other words voters are not allowed to know what position candidates will take on issues of importance to them – if the councilor reveals where they stand before the election they will be forbidden from actually voting on the matter when it comes up.

The essentially undemocratic nature of this should be clear. If the Whatcom port is rejected thousands of jobs will go with it in an area where unemployment is high. If it is passed rates of asthma and probably lung cancer will soar as the dust pours off the coal trains, on top of the tens of thousands of deaths caused further afield by the coal being burned. It is hardly surprising that voters might have an opinion on this, and want to vote for people who think likewise. Yet instead of being able to put their position openly, everyone has to speak in code.

We can only hope that the money poured into Whatcom by environmentalists will deliver a big turnout of uni students, and that they will be able to identify those candidates seeking to defend the future of the planet. But we should also make efforts to see to it that, even in regard to council elections of far less significance, transparency is given a chance.

Update: Cuccinelli got scarily close, losing by just 2% as votes pealed off the Libertarian. Consequently, we don’t really have the decisive blow to the denialist crowd one might hope for, but a win is a win, particularly given Virginia’s tendency to go against the president.

Whatcom county looks to have delivered a major blow to the coal export plans, with votes of between 54 and 57% for the candidates perceived to oppose the port. Of course the prices of liberty is eternal vigilance, since the coal companies can always wait for a pro-coal council to submit their plans. To some extent they only need to win once, whereas the good guys need to keep on winning. It’s also not great to know that this win, no nail-biter but still modest, was won in one of the rare situations where pro-environmental forces had substantially more money than the planet killers. Given that most of the time we are going to be outgunned in the cash department, it would have been good to see it being a bit more comfortable.


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, Psephology. Bookmark the permalink.

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