Oil Spillover

As news reports came in that BP's "top kill" effort had failed to stanch the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon spill, some environmentally minded pundits squinted and tried to make out a silver lining. Maybe this disaster, Thomas Friedman and others wrote hopefully, will be the push America needs to finally kick the oil habit.

Others were more pessimistic. "I'm curious to see how the public's mood shifts once it becomes clear that we are powerless in the face of this thing," wrote David Roberts at the environmental news site Grist. "What if there's just nothing we can do? That's not a feeling to which Americans are accustomed."

I actually think the opposite is true: Americans are quite accustomed to feeling like there's nothing we can do. One of the reasons such a wide swath of America found Barack Obama's hope-infused campaign refreshing was that he argued against a prevailing sentiment that we are powerless to change large-scale, deeply entrenched problems. After experiencing so much stagnation -- the flat-lining economy, two seemingly endless wars, pointless partisan bickering in Washington -- everyone was ready to hear the case for big-picture change.

This is why many Americans feel both disappointed that change has been incremental and grateful that things are changing even a little. Despite some important legislative victories (the stimulus, health-care reform) and key appointments to various federal agencies, sweeping change is still a long way off. We all realize -- especially those of us who work in D.C. -- that the status quo is powerful. Many days, it can be easier to accept than fight.

I hope Friedman and his ilk are correct. A headline-dominating event like the oil spill certainly should catalyze big changes in the way we power our country and regulate our corporations. But with conservatives and politicians from manufacturing states arguing that passing a climate bill would further weaken an already-flailing economy, is a spill of even these epic proportions enough to stave off backlash against major environmental legislation? Or enough to inspire Congress to get moving on a climate bill in the first place?

Some small signs point to yes. In a USA Today/Gallup poll in late May, 55 percent of Americans said protecting the environment was more important than developing energy supplies. This was a slight increase from a poll two months earlier, before the Gulf spill, that found more interest in energy. Still, given the current state of the economy, the environment falls pretty far down voters' list of concerns -- and therefore is of little consequence to politicians, either.

Much of the hard work of progressivism is to make the personal political -- encouraging workers whose wages have stagnated to see the need for unions, making women who experience workplace sexism more aware of the need for feminism, helping not only the uninsured but those who worry about their health coverage to appreciate the need for industry -- wide health-care reform.

It can be even harder to make the political personal. Americans' insatiable appetite for petroleum is what necessitates riskier extraction methods like deepwater drilling. But do most Americans -- who don't live on the Gulf Coast and are watching the oil spill from afar -- really connect this environmental disaster to their own energy use? When they turn on the air conditioning this summer, will they picture crude gushing into the Gulf and birds slick with oil? Will it be enough to overcome their immediate fears about providing for their families in this economy and convince them to support carbon-pricing and stricter industry regulation?

Even if the Gulf spill does not catalyze a push for a major energy and climate bill, there are some smaller pieces of legislation that could capitalize on the attention currently focused on the repercussions of our oil habit. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has introduced the Clean Coasts and Efficient Cars Act, a bill that seems tailor -- made to help Americans connect their personal energy consumption with the Gulf disaster, which would halt offshore drilling and raise fuel-economy standards. Other bills encourage the use of electric cars, provide homeowners with rebates to improve the energy efficiency of their houses, and close oil-industry tax loopholes.

For progressives who want Congress to get serious about climate legislation, the task is not to show Americans how environmentally devastating the Gulf spill is. It's to connect that devastation with their own energy consumption and imbue it with a sense of urgency. To convince Americans not only that we should do something about the problem but that we can.

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