A presidential election year is upon us again, and that means the return of maps splitting the nation into red and blue states.
James Lenfestey thinks we should be seeing green and black instead.
Lenfestey, a Minneapolis poet and former journalist, spoke at a monthly Environment Minnesota breakfast Tuesday about the politics of energy. (Environment Minnesota is a member of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.)
The oil and coal industries have influenced U.S. politics so much in recent decades, Lenfestey explained, that many red states would be better represented as black for the oil and coal interests they support. Blue states, meanwhile, have led the way on green energy.
Lenfestey's first exposure to the fossil-fuel industry's political machine came while working as an editorial writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune in the early 1990s. After writing editorials about climate change, he began receiving mail from an organization called the Global Climate Coalition.
The now-defunct GCC was among the earliest fossil-fuel backed groups to begin spreading scientific-sounding misinformation about climate change issues. He calls them Potemkin villages — fake groups meant to give the appearance that science or the public is behind it.
The mission of these groups has been to confuse the public about the science behind greenhouse gases and global warming. They not only borrowed strategies from the tobacco industry, but some of the same individuals who defended tobacco now work for these fossil fuel groups.
The latter claim is documented in the recent book "Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth About Climate Change," by Naomi Oreskes (who penned an editorial this week in the Los Angeles Times and appeared Tuesday on NPR's Talk of the Nation.)
Lenfestey characterized it as an information war, and the side that believes society needs to take action to curb greenhouse emissions is "absolutely losing" the public battle.
One reason countering climate misinformation is so difficult is that those spreading it only need to sow enough confusion to stall action. "All they want is stalemate," said Lenfestey.
Another factor that makes it challenging is the state of media. "My old game, the mainstream media, is very much part of the problem," he said. The amount of coverage of climate change issues has plummeted in the past half decade, and much of the coverage that remains focuses on the controversy rather than the facts.
How do climate-change believers turn the conversation around? Lenfestey offered some advice for how people can better communicate. When people criticize government subsidies for clean energy technologies, for example, remind them that hydraulic fracturing wouldn't exist if it weren't for years of government support.
Perhaps Lenfestey and President Obama's speechwriters are reading the same pointers, because that's how Obama framed the issue in Tuesday evening's State of the Union speech.
"[I]t was public research dollars, over the course of thirty years, that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock – reminding us that government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground," the president said.
Obama only mentioned climate change once in the speech, in noting that Congress is too divided to take on the issue at all.
Lenfestey noted that presidents and their advisers have been talking about the risks of climate change or fossil fuel emissions since the Lyndon Johnson administration. Whether more energy-politics-as-usual will follow this speech is to be seen.