In Wisconsin, Paul Ryan was as much a supporter of renewable energy as he was its enemy on Capitol Hill. Ryan’s stances provide the latest evidence of America’s political ambivalence about energy and the environment — but also a glimmer of hope that some day the poles won’t be so far apart.
Ryan became a star of his party, and Mitt Romney’s chosen running mate for the White House, through his passionate denunciations of federal spending and President Obama’s energy-heavy 2009 stimulus package. Ryan voted consistently against efforts to save energy, even including light-bulb efficiency standards. His famed budget proposal would have gutted alternative-energy programs at the Department of Energy. He has dubbed renewable energy proposals “green pork,” and said in 2010, “The administration’s actions show that attempting to reduce global warming — by a fraction of a degree over the next century — is a higher priority than keeping Wisconsin residents employed now.”
But as the Globe reported last week, Ryan kept many Wisconsin residents employed by lobbying for green jobs. His letters to Energy Secretary Steven Chu could have been written by Greenpeace.
Pitching for the Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corporation’s ultimately successful bid for a $20 million grant to create 7,600 jobs to retrofit buildings around the state, Ryan wrote that he was “pleased to learn” that the proposal was aimed at “building sustainable demand for green jobs . . . In addition, I was pleased that the primary objectives of their project will allow residents and businesses in the partner cities to reduce their energy costs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and stimulate the local and area economy.”
The “green” tone was similar in three letters backing the Energy Center of Wisconsin’s grant proposals for geothermal heat pump technology and commercial and residential energy efficiency programs. Ryan said ground-source heat pump technology was “ideal for Wisconsin’s climate.”
Such a tone is, of course, anathema for a GOP representative in Washington, where conservatives question the science behind global warming and many tend to view renewable energy as a plot to undermine oil drilling. But the opposite is true for many Democrats, whose avowed concern about carbon emissions evaporates when local industries are affected. Just as Ryan said one thing at home and another on Capitol Hill, Michigan Democrats pulled a similar trick with the auto industry. They said they cared about the environment on Capitol Hill, then worked for years with carmakers to resist fuel-efficiency standards — handing over global leadership on gas mileage to Toyota and Honda.
If only the two parties could work out their own inconsistencies, the nation would be that much further toward a unified approach to its energy challenges. For instance, Romney says if he is elected president, he would do away with tax credits for wind energy. But in Iowa, Republican Governor Terry Branstad, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, and the entire Iowa congressional delegation support the tax credits, as they reportedly have led to between 6,000 and 7,000 jobs in the state.
Grassley authored the federal tax credits 20 years ago. James Carstensen, chief of staff for Republican Representative Tom Latham, last week told the Des Moines Register that it was unfortunate that “many Americans — and frankly some members of Congress — don’t separate the failures of companies like Solyndra that got the stimulus handout and the successes fostered by the wind energy tax credit.”
All of this is evidence that energy and climate change politics do not have to be separate, partisan universes. For now, all we are getting are competing photo ops, such as the one last week where Obama campaigned beneath wind turbines in Iowa, while Romney was in Ohio, flanked by coal miners. But if Paul Ryan can utter the phrase “greenhouse gases” to lobby for jobs in Wisconsin, then there is a chance, however slim it might seem right now, that someday, all the political hot air can dissipate into real energy policy.Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.