Undeclared Emergency: Why Berners Are Burning

"This is really quite stunning...it's completely unprecedented. We are in a kind of climate emergency now."http://www.smh.com.au/environment/climate-change/true-shocker-spike-in-global-temperatures-stuns-scientists-20160313-gni10t.html Climate Scientist Stefan Rahmstorf on recent global temperature data.

Quite a yeasty political season this has become. At this relatively late stage of the game, the field has usually been reduced to the middle-of-the-road candidates who more or less promise to keep the train rolling right down the track.

Oh sure, these promises come in different flavors according to party affiliation. "No new taxes" appeals to approximately half of the national demographic; "Hope and change" appeals to the approximate other half. And, yes, "social issues" tend to be particularly sharp and significant areas of disagreement.

But, go beyond the rhetoric and, broadly speaking, most candidates with any hope of sniffing the brass, Oval Office ring offer "more of the same" - a few more (or less) taxes here, a few more (or less) new oil drilling leases there, with cozy reassurances that, though they may need tweaking, our business-as-usual ways are the way to go - and to keep going.

This time is different; we've got some serious feather ruffling going down on both sides of the aisle. Mr. Trump's traveling carnival gets the most attention. Beneath his grotesqueries, however, lies true and deeply felt dissatisfaction with business-as-usual. It's got the entire "let's just do it the way we've always done it" GOP machinery scrambling to extinguish a blaze they dismissed as a pesky campfire for far too long.

But, speaking as a citizen located far from the Trump-Cruz-Kasich (yes, even Kasich!) part of the spectrum, I want to focus on that other skirmish - the Bernies vs. the Hillarys.

What are we to make of the chasm between the broadly defined "left" segments of our political spectrum? The other day, my 77-year-old mother put in a couple hours of volunteer work with the Sander's campaign in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. No offense to Lancaster, but it is not exactly a hotbed of zealous radicalism. My mother's reaction: "These young people are really thinking hard. And they're also really passionate; I had no idea they were so passionate."

Yes. You can see it on almost any comment thread. And most of the time the disagreements veer decidedly away from civility. Usually the supporters of major candidates this late in the game more or less "agree to disagree". Sure there may be substantive policy differences between respective candidates but usually a "Look, we're both on the same side here" mentality prevails.

Not this time. There is just about as much enmity between the two camps as between "this side of the aisle" and "that side of the aisle." What's going on here?

Most analyses seem to focus on the differences in policy approach between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders. Fair enough - policy is politics. Single payer healthcare versus a private/public amalgam is a significant difference. Vastly raised upper-end tax brackets versus, for the most part, leaving the top few percent to go on as they have been, also represents a potential sea-change.

But I'm guessing that there is an additional, less tangible factor that accounts for the urgency of many Bernie supporters. Look - full disclosure here from somebody who favors Mr. Sanders - do I believe that Bernie could deliver on even a small percentage of what he would do if he were king instead of president? Jailing Wall Street transgressors? Not-for-profit healthcare? Swedish-style taxes on our millionaires and billionaires?

No, I don't. Could he push things a bit in the direction of his goals? Maybe. But not too much. The institutional wealth and power undergirding a business-as-usual approach is massive and deeply entrenched.

So...what gives? Why would I vote for Bernie if I don't even believe he could deliver on most of what he says? Why would millions of other folks do the same? Well, I'm going to be presumptuous and guess on all our behalves.

I think, at least for many, it comes down to something much more visceral than "policy". If it could be voiced it might go something like this: "Things are not okay - they are not even close to okay - and do not tell me that they are."

Does that sound "young" and possibly "naïve" to your ears? Hell, I'm a Bern-er and it sounds that way to me. Possibly the strongest cross-current from Hillary supporters toward Bernie backers is along the lines of, "Look, even if I do support some of his policies, there is no way he can actually enact them and, in tearing down Hillary, you open the door to someone on the other side of the aisle."

Yes. This is a reasonable argument to make. Really, it is. But what if the energy - the urgency - driving enthusiasm for Sanders is most strongly rooted in "Things are not okay - they are not even close to okay - and do not tell me that they are."

It can be helpful to focus on a specific example to illustrate a point. The Grand Canyon size gulf between high and low earners is a primary issue, but I'm a climate writer so let's go there; specifically to fracking for natural gas.

Okay. Adults that they are, the entire middle-left side of the aisle accepts climate change as a scientifically proven reality. But just how urgent is the situation? According to scientists, we are well on our way to creating a "non-adaptable" world by the 2060shttp://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2012/11/18/Climate-change-report-warns-dramatically-warmer-world-this-century; about the same amount of time that has passed since the beginning of the U.S. war in Vietnam. Just to cut through the code, "non-adaptable" means the downfall of human civilization. Not hyperbole, not Chicken Little - science, physics, biology. Facts.

So it's kind of urgent. In fact, scientists are finally coming out to say it: "We are in an emergency." An extraordinary commitment, a decidedly "non-business-as-usual" commitment to cutting carbon is required; a World-War-Two style commitment. Much of Sanders' support is from "young people". They will still be alive and kicking in the 2060s; their grandchildren will be quite young.

Natural gas, methane: same thing - a greenhouse gas almost one hundred times more potent than CO2 in the short run. Natural gas has been promoted as a "green-ish energy" bridge between coal and solar/wind/hydro, due to its theoretically 50% lower carbon footprint compared to burning coal.

As a result fracking for natural gas has exploded. Bernie has vowed to ban fracking. Period. Hillary supports fracking with the stipulation that certain precautionary conditions be put in place and enforced.http://fortune.com/2016/03/07/hillary-clintons-pledge-to-limit-fracking-falls-on-unconvinced-ears/

Hillary's response is "sensible", "realistic" - Let's just make sure we impose regulations so that fossil fuel corporations limit the amount of methane that escapes into the atmosphere while fracking.

But, like many "fossil-fuel minimizing" ideas that look good on paper, this approach, it turns out, contains possibly insurmountable shortcomings. A recent study finds that the methane leaking from fracking sites is far greater than had been estimated; enough, in fact, to wipe out much or all of the supposed gains of transferring from coal to natural gas. http://www.thenation.com/article/global-warming-terrifying-new-chemistry/

Now, let's say you are twenty years old. The projected "non-adaptable" world is YOUR world that they are talking about. In other words - starting now - substantial shortcomings in the enforcement and monitoring of the sprawling and extremely well-financed fracking industry is no longer optional.

Thirty years ago, possibly twenty years ago, taking "politically feasible", incremental steps to reduce greenhouse emissions might have been feasible. That time has passed. Perhaps, just perhaps, a critical mass of younger people, with a dash of old-heads such as myself thrown in, understand that things are not okay; that they are not even close to okay.

When things are not even close to okay, being "reasonable" may seem like a prudent course to take. But, in a time of broadly denied and unacknowledged crisis, reasonableness can be the most dangerous thing of all. Reasonableness, in the real world, usually means lobbyists blunting and side-stepping the impact of regulations, especially in sectors as powerful as the fossil fuel industry.

There exists, for a variety of reasons, a not un-wide perception that Hillary Clinton, while her policies may be sensible in broad strokes, is not willing to "shake the tree" of the pervasive and entrenched business-as-usual policies and institutions of our society. Does she take more money from these institutions than most candidates before her? Probably not. As long as business-as-usual was broadly accepted as necessary, or even desirable, this seemed fine to most.

Bernie wants to shake those trees; he makes no bones about it. Would he be able to if he were president? Maybe. Maybe not. And I know that it does not sound rational or intelligent to many, but perhaps that is not even the point for many of his supporters.. Perhaps that is not where the passionate urgency comes from.

The income divide has become toxic and it has become deeply immoral. The climate situation is, just now, crossing tipping points that the general population still does not appreciate. The situation is now a "clear and present" emergency.

Would a President Clinton be able to accomplish more than a President Sanders, even in the areas of financial reform and climate change? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But, every once in a while in human affairs, there comes a time when somebody - backed by some millions - has to shout "Emergency!"

Things are not okay - they are not even close to okay - and do not tell me that they are.