Given the tragedy that is unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, I figured it is best to begin with an analysis of its effects on clean energy politics.
1) As TIME writes, the oil disaster undermines President Obama’s strategy to build Republican support for climate legislation. Offshore drilling was one of the ‘carrots’ that the already troubled Kerry-Lieberman-Graham climate bill offered to Republican Senators. Already controversial before the events in the Gulf of Mexico, it is hard to imagine that offshore drilling could bridge the partisan gap in climate policy.
2) In the medium term, the oil disaster will surely strengthen the environmental movement, says Paul Krugman. One of the major challenges that the environmental movement faces is that climate change is not yet clearly visible in everyday life. It is a somewhat obscure and immensely complex problem that wreaks havoc in the distant future. And since mitigating climate change is ultimately a problem of reducing the consumption of fossil fuels, Gulf of Mexico may help build political support for clean energy by highlighting the broader harmful effects of fossil fuels.
3) Gulf of Mexico presents a difficult issue for the conservative movement, as the leading conservatives’ curious responses indicate. Most conservatives, including Sarah Palin, have understandably been on the defensive. But the popular radio host Russ Limbaugh has already proposed that the oil rig may have been sunk by radical environmentalists: “since they’re sending SWAT teams down there, folks, since they’re sending SWAT teams to inspect the other rigs, what better way to head off more oil drilling, nuclear plants, than by blowing up a rig? I’m just noting the timing here.”
4) Whether there is a silver lining will, in my view, depend on the environmental movement’s ability to present it as emblematic of the bigger problems associated with fossil fuels. If the public views the Gulf disaster as a problem with offshore drilling or oil companies, politicians may be tempted to respond by tightening regulations or freezing plans to expand offshore drilling — and that’s it. But if it helps to suppress the perception that the environmental movement is simply another special-interest group, not unlike oil companies or automobile manufacturers, it may turn the tide of environmental and energy policy in the United States.