Crops, Coal, and Climate Change

Dodge Ram aired an ad in the Super Bowl last weekend featuring the late Paul Harvey’s 1978 FFA convention speech “So God Made a Farmer.” I grew up hearing Harvey’s voice on the radio in the bus on the gravel road to my small Montana school, so his name caught my attention when it flashed across the screen. I was surprised to find that none of my fellow spectators had ever heard of him. It was one small reminder of the real and meaningful gap between rural America and non-rural America. This gap runs much deeper than reactions to a Super Bowl commercial. Understanding it can provide critical insight into the behavior of the American democratic process.

The gap is perhaps clearest but most overlooked in talking about climate change. Swarthmore Mountain Justice has made news in recent months with its movement to convince the college to divest from fossil fuel companies. Whatever that particular campaign ultimately achieves, the broader environmental consciousness of college students bodes well for the future. For now, unfortunately, the prospects for climate action are much dimmer. In the last four years the government has taken important steps to tighten fuel efficiency standards and invest in clean energy. Yet though the Democratic House in 2009 passed a bill to cap carbon emissions and provide an economic incentive for companies to reduce their long-term pollution, the Senate essentially ignored it. Neither chamber ever even considered a simple carbon tax. Our political system has demonstrated no urgency about one of the most important economic and national security threats of our time.

We liberals usually describe this as a corruption problem. A cartel of gigantic, heavily-subsidized, multinational corporations has sent a legion of lobbyists and an arsenal of campaign donations into battle to defend their right to destroy the planet. Politicians desperate to stuff their campaign coffers readily comply with their every whim, blocking any chance for important policy changes. This explanation has the ring of populist common sense, but it is too simplistic and has too often led us to overlook bigger structural obstacles to climate action.

Money is certainly a factor. Particularly at the committee level, interest groups providing Congress with resources and information can make the difference between good policy and bad. Lobbyists give a leg up to those who can afford to hire them. However, much political science research suggests that money is not a critical factor in the final passage or rejection of legislation.

Republican intransigence is a worse problem. Republicans see environmental policies as big government meddling in the market. Many conservatives don’t even accept the science of climate change; right-wing media and politicians like Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma continue to insist that it’s just a grand liberal hoax. Their knee-jerk rejection of anything President Obama supports should not be discounted, either.

However, this does not explain the failure of cap-and-trade after the 2008 elections, when Republicans were at their weakest and Democrats seemed invincible. This we can attribute not to big money or obstinate ideologues, but to the simple fact that to establish congressional majorities, Democrats must win elections in rural states and districts. This remains the central obstacle to climate action.

Rural America largely sees environmentalism as a foreign invader. Farmers and ranchers don’t appreciate, in the words of a relative of mine, “over-educated yuppie environmentalists” sticking their noses into ranchers’ business. They consider the EPA a bloated tyrant with an itchy regulation finger. Disagreeable though this frame may be, it is based on legitimate concerns. Small towns seeing hope for rejuvenation in the construction of a new coal mine naturally resent lawsuits holding it back. Farmers paying huge amounts of money for fuel and equipment don’t like the idea of more Washington regulations pushing prices even higher. Many rural Americans see environmentalism as a true danger to their jobs, families, and communities.

Given this culture, being a bold environmentalist would be political suicide for a rural Democratic politician. Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, for example, is a strong progressive but has drawn criticism for occasionally being too conciliatory to the coal industry. This is because his state is heavily rural and reliant on coal for jobs. What kind of Senator – and what kind of fellow citizen – would he be if he hurt his state’s dominant industry so much that thousands of his constituents lost their livelihoods?

Most rural Democrats, though, do support some environmental causes. Montana Democratic Senator Jon Tester, for example, has an 86 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters. Only on contentious issues with salience to their constituents do they go the other way: Tester supports the Keystone XL pipeline, as do Democratic senators from Alaska, Louisiana, Arkansas, North Dakota, Indiana, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina. Perhaps Democrats from such states are especially easy to purchase, but it’s more likely that they don’t want their constituents to see them as out-of-touch liberal tree-huggers. The national Democratic establishment has no incentive to push them into that position, either; if just four of those senators lose their elections, Democrats lose the majority and can no longer do anything at all.

As we seek to force the political system to address climate change, we must search for ways to work around or, preferably, change this dynamic. We should seek to persuade a few Republicans with moderate constituents to support reducing greenhouse gas emissions, making climate change action “bipartisan” rather than “controversial.” We should advocate unleashing rural America’s tremendous potential for development of wind and other renewable energy sources – making green energy rather than fossil fuels the source for community optimism. If only to remove some of our political obstacles, liberals need to better understand the concerns of the American heartland. We cannot afford to overlook them anymore.

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