I said yesterday:
Friday’s progressive freakout over nixed EPA smog rules is not really about fighting smog, but the myopia of issue focus in the blogosphere and the inflated currency of online outrage. Transportation is a wonky subject that often flies below the radar. It is not sexy or cute. Much of its advocacy is local. But federal transportation policy is also crucial in reducing smog levels as well as achieving other progressive ends.
One of this blog’s foci is transportation; see the masthead and the sidebar. Transportation is a vital progressive issue, and the stakes right now are high. Without at least a renewal of the gas tax, projects stop being funded, and actual jobs start being cut. Without a budget, America’s transportation infrastructure will deteriorate and fewer jobs will be created.
In case you haven’t heard, there is going to be a speech this week. The Republican response is to yawn, because the president gives too many speeches. That’s one major complaint about Obama. The other is that he doesn’t use the bully pulpit enough, i.e. he doesn’t give enough speeches. I hear this a lot, too; the two groups should come together and get their story straight.
It’s hard not to talk about the president when discussing transportation. Many online opinionators are investing in his failure, and it’s hard to attract the interest of major linkers if you don’t offer outrage in his name. But failure this week is not an option for anyone — not unless you think the way forward is collapse, and I don’t.
This weekend was an example of how progressives can explode in daisy-chains over the issue or issues that concern them most. I’m not calling anyone a “freak” for having a freakout, either. Freakouts happen. I’ve had freakouts myself, and in fact was having a kind of freakout this weekend, for it was an important time to write on transportation issues while everyone else was freaking out over smog regulations and a pipeline.
As a progressive, the sorry condition of American infrastructure concerns me. It ought to concern everyone who calls themselves a progressive. Transportation is boring, though. It’s graphs, maps, and statistics. It’s empirical liberalism that necessarily involves federalism and planning. It’s railroads and factories and energy and power lines and sewers and broadband and walkable, bikeable roads and bridges that aren’t falling down and dams that don’t crack. It’s the stuff Rachel Maddow has in the background of her ads for MSNBC, which is about the most advocacy it gets in the “liberal media.”
Infrastructure is fundamentally green because it lets us live in dense cities and communities. The right policy controls sprawl — a goal any environmentalist should advocate. The right policy creates choices that use less fossil fuel — again, a huge environmental goal. Without those policies in effect, you will never even begin to meet the climate challenge in a country with this many people.
The president is going to spend a lot of time talking about jobs for the next year, and transportation and infrastructure will be a big part of that. And without jobs, good luck with your green agenda! We can all start talking climate survival under authoritarians who don’t believe that fuels are even fossils, much less that burning them alters global climate. We can look forward to peak oil slamming us in the face like a ton of bricks because we won’t have the infrastructure we need to meet the challenges.
What I wrote yesterday drew an outraged response from climate hawks, who sensed that I was being dismissive of their concerns. I’m not. They are great people and I take their criticisms in good spirit. But their grief reaction at Friday’s announcement was hijacked in a matter of seconds by a segment of the online left that is invested in bashing the president. This is a really bad time to let them run the conversation.
Smog is lethal; so are poor roads and bridges and unwalkable streets. To put things in perspective, 12,000 smog deaths are a tad more than one-third of US highway traffic fatalities. Roads can be improved for safety, minimizing crashes and injuries while creating jobs. Sidewalks and bike lanes save lives too: nearly 48,000 American pedestrians were killed in the last decade. Sidewalks and bike lanes create jobs.
As far as smog goes, six of the seven suggestions at this eHow article on “how to reduce smog” involve vehicles and gasoline. So how is this calculus wrong? Or as Zandar put it yesterday: is smog the hill to die on? I don’t think so. Moreover, I think the environmental movement has a basic problem to solve, and transportation shows the way forward.
Smog has been trending down for a long time, in large part because of effective mileage standards. Americans now have jobs building better, cleaner cars. Smog also comes from industrial pollution and coal smoke; beating smog could involve a green/progressive industrial policy that creates jobs and a green/progressive energy policy that creates jobs. Do you sense the pattern here?
The environmental movement often bemoans its weakness at gaining traction on its issues, and one reason is that the reigning media frame on their issues is jobs versus environment. It’s false, and unfair, but it’s become as intractable as the “kitchen table” analogy in budget debating. Transportation is an exception to this problem.
Greens should take advantage. This week is crucial to shaping the discussion of jobs and spending, and also has an enormous impact on emissions. Republicans are attacking every new EPA regulation with the help of key Democrats in Congress. The discussion this week can be about “job-killing regulations,” or it can be about job-creating (and emission-reducing) spadework.
The Friday Freakout — on Twitter, in blogs, and in email lists — didn’t actually advance the goal of emissions reduction. It’s okay to be upset by decisions with which we disagree; it’s okay to ask the president to explain himself; it’s okay to talk about the impact of his decisions and work though the five stages of grieving.
What’s not okay is to let a collective freakout catch fire all week and eat up the oxygen.
So let’s make one thing perfectly clear: like the president, I want to keep hearing from the left on environmental issues. I am glad to see climate and green activists still resisting the Keystone XL pipeline. I hope they win. Nothing I have ever said should discourage them; they have my full support (yes, even you, Jane and Dan). Nor do I wish to discourage or belittle climate hawks, who are some of my best friends. More power to them all.
And more power to the president, who has managed to get the federal government’s largest hydrocarbon-consuming department — Defense — to stop using so much oil. He has aggressively altered the nation’s transportation priorities to use less oil. Quite simply, the way to avoid drilling the world to death, to make our carbon-intensive civilization less carbon-intensive, and to never burn that awful, carbon-intense tar sands oil is to use less oil. Obama gets this, and I’m not sure most progressives do.
It’s Labor Day. There’s to be a jobs speech this week, and then lots of bipartisan common wisdom in the media, all with the word “jobs” repeated ad nauseum. It might be boring, but it’s important, and crucial for the environment, and therefore worth a little freaking out.