On the morning after the 2012 US elections, the financial markets delivered their unique take on the ballot results. In the space of a few hours, Wall Street pummeled coal company stocks. Shares of Peabody Energy lost nearly 10 percent in value, Arch Coal plummeted 12.5 percent while Alpha Natural Resources dropped 12.2 percent. The sell-off was driven by shareholders’ anticipation of tighter environmental regulations in the coming years. It was also a damning verdict on the fossil fuel companies’ bad investments during the long campaign season.
The coal companies – along with the petrochemical barons the Koch brothers and other oil and gas interests – bet heavily on defeating President Obama and environment-friendly US Senate candidates. In the final weeks of the campaign, the fossil fuel lobby spent $270 million against Obama and Democratic Senate candidates like Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Tim Kaine in Virginia, and Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin. And, of course, they lost.
Liberal and progressive candidates might have been outspent, but they countered the corporate onslaught by out-organizing their opposition. That fact doesn’t diminish the danger of a cash-soaked political process. We needed comprehensive campaign finance reform on November 5, and we still needed it on November 7. But the election returns offer inspiring evidence that well-organized citizen energy can overcome a tidal wave of money. In the end, the will of the people trumped corporate interests’ will to power.
To fulfill the election’s promise, it will be essential to sustain the citizen enthusiasm going forward – and there are few issues on which this is more important than the threat of climate change. Global warming was the invisible issue during the campaign: ignored by most national reporters, avoided by the presidential candidates, absent from the “election narrative.” Given climatologists’ increasingly dire warnings, the omission was nothing less than grotesque.
It took Superstorm Sandy to shove climate change onto the agenda. With his city soaked and tattered, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed Obama, mostly on the grounds that the president actually acknowledges the science of climate change. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was equally forceful: “I think part of the learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality. Extreme weather is a reality.” Obama himself belatedly addressed the issue in his acceptance speech when he told his supporters, “We want our kids to grow up in an America … that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”
Yes, we do. And, more importantly, we can. With the House of Representatives still held by climate change deniers and the Senate locked in its archaic structure, the president’s options are largely limited to what he can accomplish through the executive branch and his considerable (but underutilized) power of the bully pulpit. We know from the experience of his first term that Obama won’t use those powers unless pushed to do so. Our job, then, is to push him – and push him hard. What this will require, most of all, is the investment of ourselves.
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