Why passing a clean-energy bill might depend on health-care reform ... and what progressives can do about it. | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Why passing a clean-energy bill might depend on health-care reform ... and what progressives can do about it.

If you're concerned about climate change, it might no longer be enough to fight for the strongest possible version of President Obama's clean-energy plan. Now, according to some online pundits and activists at the recent Netroots Nation conference here, you have to battle for Obama's health-care plan too.

The reasons are political. The failure of health-care reform might hobble any progressive change, warned participants in an Aug. 13 Netroots panel talk called "A Warming Web: The Blogosphere and Climate Change." If Obama loses on health care, it could embolden conservative opposition on other fronts.

"[Conservatives'] No. 1 rule is, they oppose the president's agenda. It doesn't matter what [the issue] is," said panelist Brad Johnson, the Center for America's Progress climate expert at thinkprogress.org.

Obama's opponents also often include the so-called Blue Dog Democrats -- conservatives like Beaver-based Rep. Jason Altmire. Altmire, a former UPMC lobbyist, has opposed a Medicare-style "public option" insurance plan favored by progressives. He also voted against the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which would reduce carbon-dioxide emissions through a "cap-and-trade" scheme.

Because of the Dem's slim Congressional majority, said Johnson, Blue Dogs like Altmire "represent the balance of power in D.C." And "[t]hey're basically the corporate party," he says: Although Blue Dogs acknowledge climate change, they support policies that "protect the monetary interests of polluting entities."

Moreover, panelists noted, some of the same people are backing opposition to both clean energy and health-care reform. Exhibit A: brothers Charles and David Koch, of oil-and-gas giant Koch Industries. 

David Koch co-founded Americans for Prosperity, a conservative "Astroturf" (or fake grassroots) group that vocally opposes both legislative efforts. (The group has also backed the anti-Obama "tea parties.") Charles Koch, meanwhile, co-founded the libertarian Cato Institute, a leading climate-change skeptic. And Koch Industries contributes heavily to politicians in both parties.

Meanwhile, the entire progressive community advocating for clean energy and health-care reform, for example, may have just a fraction of the money that a single insurance company or oil conglomerate can tap. And most of those progressive groups tend to focus on single issues. 

"There's an industry on the right that's devoted to blocking progress -- any progress," says blogger Dave Roberts, of leading eco-site Grist.org. "Progressives are still so siloed. ... We need a counter-industry."

Some panelists suggested cross-issue cooperation: climate groups, say, joining forces with health-reform advocates. "You have to go to your counterparts and say, 'We need to work together,'" said panelist Tim Lange, who writes as Meteor Blades on Daily Kos, the nation's biggest progressive blog.

Better yet, said desmog.com managing editor Kevin Grandia, groups should ask each other, "How can we help you?"

"We do need to get unified," agreed Miles Grant, National Wildlife Federation communications manager.

Easier said than done. Erika Staaf, a Pittsburgh-based staffer for PennEnvironment, agrees that legislative momentum from a health-care win might help the energy bill. However, she says, "For a group like PennEnvironment to work on health care would be a tough thing." It's not what the group's members want it to do. "If we really want to pass the strongest energy and climate bill, we don't want to be spreading ourselves too thin," she adds.

Ted Zimmer, a community organizer with Pittsburgh's Consumer Health Coalition, said his group might consider co-hosting events with environmental groups, or sharing mailing lists. But he too sees large-scale cross-pollination as unlikely. "The funders, who you try to keep happy, always want you to work on specific things," he says.

Yet climate activists might have a bigger problem than single-issue "silos." Partly because mainstream media has drastically reduced its environmental reporting, Netroots panelists said, long-range, global problems like climate change generate little urgency -- especially when compared to highly personal issues like health care. "We have a hard time getting a lot of people involved in green issues," said Lange.

Thus, while fossil-fuel dollars await Congressmen who denounce clean-energy plans, there's scant reward for legislators who champion greenness. As Johnson, of thinkprogress, says, "There's not an activated community that stands up" on environmental issues.

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