Drill baby drill!

The candidates' attitude towards the environment in the US election is making it a case of opting fo

Back in May, Friends of the Earth endorsed Barack Obama. By August they were putting out statements attacking his decision to embrace a bill that would have allowed drilling in Alaska and slamming his support for 'dirty liquid coal'.

Such has been the pattern of this election. The environmental lobby get momentarily excited about the candidates on offer. Then someone asks a question about energy policy and their green credentials go out the window. Obama favours renewable energy targets, but is also a proud supporter of food-price boosting ethanol subsidies. John McCain says that tackling global warming will be one of the priorities of his presidency. Yet he wants to hand carbon permits to polluting industries, and has made a campaign slogan of 'drill baby drill'.

Americans are waking up to global warming. But cheap petrol and low taxes come first every time - and where voters lead, politicians will follow. "Most people want to do the right thing, but there's the big picture, and there's today," says Rich Bowden, a professor of environmental studies at Allegheny College, Pennsylvania. "If you ask if they care or would they spend money to protect the environment, they'll say yes. If you look at their actual behaviour you get a rather different answer."

Much of the nation's failure of will can be credited to its leaders' failure to actually lead. FDR called on the US to build 50,000 aeroplanes; JFK announced it would put a man on the moon before the decade was out. The best the environmental movement has found was Al Gore, and he lost.

Indeed, plenty of US politicians have done all they can to push the country in the other direction. George W. Bush has slashed environmental protections. Ronald Reagan cut funding for renewable energy, removed the solar panels from the White House, and appointed a secretary of the interior who believed it was okay to pillage the Earth because the Rapture
was coming.

Even Ted Kennedy drew pure green fury earlier this year when he tried to block a wind farm development off Cape Cod, for the marvellously patrician reason that it would ruin the view from his yacht.
("What right do people in Massachusetts have to do that?" fumes Bowden. "I live in a state where people are ripping the tops off mountains and pouring them into streams.")

This year's candidates are better - but only just. And the endorsements for Obama are as much a judgement against McCain as enthusiasm for the Democrat.

"It's a choice between 'drill baby drill' and change - but we don't know what that change will be," says Bowden. That's a worry. After all, environmental collapse is change too.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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