“The great thing about democracy is, that in time the people get it where they want it to go, you know, and I think this movement is… we’re gonna see that happen…. The movement is HERE.”
— Charleston Mayor Joe Riley,
on rising public demand
to address global warming
By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
Everyone from South Carolina’s governor to the U.S. House speaker to the president talks about how important it is to do something about global warming. But will they?
The Economist, the British newsweekly, took note of how both Nancy Pelosi and George W. Bush have been resonating to public concern over the issue:
“But this common interest in environmental issues will not necessarily translate into resolute action.” Why? “Neither the pressure groups nor the Democrats who control Congress have much interest in defusing an issue that might stir up voters and their money before the next election. Instead, they are likely to push for small, symbolic measures that underline their concern for the environment without jeopardising their future plans.”
In other words, in Washington, the politics come before the Earth. Nothing personal about the Earth, of course. This pattern plays out on one critical issue after another. Take health care.
Patients know we’re getting to where we can’t afford our health care, with or without insurance. Business executives certainly know it. And increasingly, physicians are thinking they’d like to get to where they can hire a couple of nurses instead of 10 accountants to run their offices.
But let one presidential candidate say “single-payer,” and within minutes an opponent or an interest group will cry “socialized medicine.” Before the 24-hour news cycle is over, the candidate is spending all his time fielding questions about whether he once said that Marx’s Das Kapital was “a real page-turner.”
Our republic is dysfunctional — and the higher you go, the more fouled up it is. We want to solve our problems in this country, but our politics keep getting in the way.
It’s not just Washington. Consider our own State House, which increasingly yearns to emulate the D.C. model. Gov. Mark Sanford authored a Feb. 23 op-ed piece — which, appropriately enough, appeared in The Washington Post — advocating quick action on global warming. Not to save the Earth, mind you, but to keep the “far left” from using government to do anything about it.
“(I)t’s vital,” he wrote, “that conservatives change the debate before government regulation expands yet again and personal freedom is pushed closer toward extinction.”
Government, he warned, “will gladly spread its regulatory reach,” even unto lightbulbs! And automobiles!
Meanwhile, the rest of us worry about Columbia becoming the next Myrtle Beach. It’s not so much that I would mind surfing in the Vista, but all those souvenir shops are just so tacky.
So who’s listening to us? The mayors — the leaders closest to the people, the ones who know what we want and are determined to provide it. The kind of elected officials who get up in the morning thinking, I’d better get that pothole filled, not What can I do today to stir up my base?
When we got fed up with choking to death in restaurants, who responded? Mayors and city councils, all across South Carolina. Meanwhile, you can’t get the Legislature to lift a finger on that point — even to remove its gratuitous, inexcusable statute forbidding local communities to make such decisions.
So what can mayors do about global warming? Well, when Mayor Riley and Spartanburg Mayor Bill Barnet came to see us about this last week, they spoke of things larger than potholes:
“The U.S. Conference of Mayors has now close to 500 mayors who have signed a commitment to meet or beat the Kyoto accord, which is a 7 percent reduction in 1990 CO2 emission levels by the year 2012 — in our communities,” said Mayor Riley. Charleston is already reaching for that goal — using less wasteful vehicles and more efficient streetlights, designing new buildings to conserve more energy.
For Mayor Barnet, it’s about economic development, about building the kinds of communities that people want to live in. It’s about “the values that will attract human beings to come and live in our environment.”
But the mayors also hope to set an example for the state and federal levels. They are careful not to criticize the holders of larger offices. They praise the governor for appointing an advisory committee on “Climate, Energy and Commerce” to study the issues and make recommendations (preferably ones “consistent with the administration’s conservative philosophy and commitment to market principles,” as he specified in his executive order setting up the panel).
And indeed, there are reasons to hope. It’s not just the Bushes and Pelosis talking climate in Washington; it’s also the less partisan likes of Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman (see last week’s column).
On the state level, Sen. Jim Ritchie, R-Spartanburg, is heading up an impressive bipartisan group pushing energy independence. They want to require the state to make its future schools and other buildings more efficient, and to shop for hybrid and biodiesel when it buys vehicles.
So maybe the movement is on, finally. Maybe the time has come when the people get democracy to go where they want it to. If so, it needs to hurry. Like the man says, that window’s closing fast.