November 1, 2013

One year ago, survivors were still being pulled from Hurricane Sandy’s rubble. She made landfall on October 29, 2012. A year later, it is clear that many communities will never fully recover.

On Hurricane Sandy’s first anniversary, scores of elected Republicans seemed to have already pushed her out of mind. About 50 elected officials (almost all Republicans) spent part of their day speaking to a astroturfed crowd of coal supporters on the West Lawn of the Capitol. The rally was organized by the National Mining Association’s “Count on Coal” project. I attended the event hoping to speak with some of the miners that had been bussed in from coal states, but I soon learned they had been issued strict orders to avoid press. Instead, their bosses required them to send media inquiries to the public relations professionals staffing the event.

Yes, this was Astroturf.

Just to be clear: The miners were real miners. And aside from the "Impeach Obama" and other signage, they reminded me of the people I grew up with in the Adirondack mountains. They just want to make a living and enjoy their lives. But the world isn't cooperating, and they need someone to blame.

I would have liked to have been able to report on the human interest component of the transition from coal, but with billions of dollars (and lives) at stake, it was unsurprising to learn of the gag order.

Instead, I turned my camera on the politicians. I decided to ask about their views related to climate science, disasters, and the government’s role in managing carbon emissions. This video is the product of two days of such reporting. The Miley Cyrus questions were asked on September 19th, 2013. All other clips were recorded last Tuesday, October 29 (Hurricane Sandy's birthday).

The reactions you see in the video reminded me of former Congressman Bob Inglis.

Inglis used to be a far-right Republican from South Carolina. Until he was soundly defeated in his 2010 primary contest, he had earned a 93% lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union (the radical group that brings us the CPAC convention). Back in the day, he was one of the fire-brand panty-sniffers that took on the crucial role of House impeachment manager in the 1998 Republican coup effort.

He served two stints in Congress. He kept a self-imposed term-limit pledge and gave up his seat at the end of his 1998-2000 term. After a failed Senate bid, he returned to the House in 2004.

At some point, he got religion on climate science:

“…my children started to grow up. My son, my oldest of five kids, was voting for the first time in 2004 when I was running again, and he said, “You know, dad, I’ll vote for you, but you have to clean up your act on the environment.” I had this new constituency, an important constituency, because they could change the locks on the doors. My son and his four sisters all felt the same, and his mother did too.

So, that was one cause. The other cause was, I got on the science committee [House Committee on Science and Technology] soon after my second period in Congress started. And I got to go to Antarctica to visit there…”

Although he voted against cap and trade (he thought it amounted to a Rube Goldberg contraption of political policy), he was honest about his understanding of climate science:

e360: You’ve talked about a key moment in your [2010] campaign that occurred, I think, in Spartanburg at a big tent meeting. Can you describe that?

Inglis: Yes, at the Landrum airport. It’s a small landing strip, which is a great place to have events. There’s a big tent out there… So a question comes to me from the Christian talk radio host who is moderating the forum, and he says, “This question starts with Bob Inglis. Congressman Inglis, do you believe, yes or no, in human causation of climate change?” And you know, I have a terrible habit of answering questions, so I said, “Yes.” And boo, hiss, comes the crowd. It’s audible hissing and booing…

As a more workable alternative to Cap and Trade, in May, 2009, Inglis proposed a carbon tax. For a Republican, aside from the dead girl/live boy scenario, there may not have been a quicker path to political oblivion.

When a Democrat occupies the White House, the change in the Republican Party is palpable. In the 90′s we had Vince Foster, the Clinton Chronicles, Mena conspiracy talk, etc. Inglis was a part of that, though he regrets it now. It all culminated in the appointment of Ken Starr and the subsequent coup effort.

A decade later, Obama took the White House, and the dynamic is the same: Instead of drug dealing, there's birtherism. Clinton had Ruby Ridge and Waco, Obama governs while Glenn Beck and Alex Jones create conspiracy theories featuring FEMA camps, Agenda 21, and gun (or ammunition) confiscation.

But while all of that is going on, there are serious policy battles (health care, immigration, carbon budgets) that are all but impossible to tackle because, even if they wanted to, Republicans are straight-jacketed by their base and conservative opinion leaders on talk radio and Fox News.

In fact, the difficulties Inglis faced did not begin and end with his acceptance of climate science. Another misstep that he credits with contributing to the toxicity of his primary campaign was the time he told an overly excited collection of Tea-Party activists to “…turn off Glenn Beck.” In 2010, that was a big, big mistake:

Beck’s role in all this is remarkably cynical, as he told USA Today Weekend that he personally believed in climate change — “you’d have to be an idiot not to notice the temperature change,” he said — but said the complete opposite on the air. “Americans know this global warming thing is a scam,” he proclaimed on the radio.

In 2007, 62 percent of Republicans believed in man-made climate change, but by late last year 53 percent of GOP voters said there is no evidence for it. In Delaware, a band of Beck aficionados called the Delaware 9-12 Patriots played a key role in ending the Senate ambitions and political career of moderate Republican Mike Castle, largely because Castle had voted for the anti-global warming plan known as “cap and trade.”

Do you think other Republicans took notice of Castle’s fate? Last month, the House Energy and Commerce Committee was asked to accept an amendment to a bill confirming that man made climate change is real. The vote among the GOP majority was unanimous — 31 votes against global warming.

But then, Beck has the GOP going off the rails on a crazy train, literally. In other industrialized capitals from Paris and Beijing, high-speed rail is seen as a futuristic way to grow the economy with the kind of a zeal that a very different America once held for its space program. But now the political tide has turned against high-speed rail, with talk radio leading the charge characterized scheduled train service as a form of totalitarianized mind control. Earlier this year, Beck summed up the far-right mantra on trains earlier this year when he said: “The trains run on time and there’s a schedule — and you’ll obey us and go where we want.” It would be laughable — except it came just as newly elected Tea-Party-darling governors Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio and Rick Scott in Florida killed high-speed rail projects that would have brought federal dollars, and more importantly jobs, to residents of their recession-battered states.

I spoke with Inglis after he lost his primary election:

And here is incredibly compelling testimony Inglis put into the record just before he left Congress:

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