Ecocentric

Politics: Gabrielle Giffords Is a Green Patriot

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U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords Credit: Reuters

A lot of attention has focused on how Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords’s support for health care reform might have helped made her a target. (On Monday Giffords was still in a medically induced coma after being shot in the head Saturday morning in Tucson.) Her office in Tucson was vandalized last March after she voted in favor of health care legislation, and Giffords herself noted that she’d been the subject of threats over the bill, as have other members of Congress.

But Giffords also took some heat from right-wing opponents over her support of carbon cap-and-trade legislation, which passed the House in June 2009 before dying in the Senate, although climate change legislation has never quite reached the partisan pitch that the battle over health care did—in part because energy and climate change isn’t a high priority on most voters’ minds.

Those issues did matter to Giffords, however, who not only voted in favor of cap-and-trade—not a popular position in her conservative Arizona district—but was a vocal supporter of renewable energy, and solar power in particular. Politico notes that Giffords’s first speech after she was initially elected in 2006 contained a call to repeal tax incentives for oil companies in favor of support for renewable energy. She also wanted to establish a Strategic Renewable Energy Reserve, similar to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve used as an emergency backup for U.S. oil supplies. She also introduced the Solar Technology Roadmap Act, which would have allocated $2 billion to research and demonstration projects for solar energy. (That bill passed the House in 2009, but like so much else, never made headway in the Senate.) And Giffords walked the talk—she installed a 2 kW solar photovoltaic system in her home in Tucson last year. She believed that sunny Arizona could become the “Silicon Valley of solar,” though she was aware of the political challenges. As she told the Solar Economic Forum in 2009:

Solar is very serious. Between solar hot water, concentrating solar power, and photovoltaics, solar technologies have the potential to make a dramatic contribution to our energy challenges right now. But as they say in politics, perception is reality. That, in my view, is the number one challenge facing the solar industry in the United States.

Darren Samuelsohn of Politico highlighted some of those challenges in a piece posted last night that detailed the conservative backlash Giffords endured after asking General David Petraeus whether the military planned to use solar power, renewables and efficiency to cut energy use in battle zones, in part to reduce the need for long, vulnerable supply lines:

Petraeus’s response downplayed the supply line attacks and noted the military doesn’t have access to hydropower at its Afghanistan bases. But he acknowledged Giffords’ point that the military is trying to conserve energy, mentioning billions of dollars in savings during the Iraq war that came from pumping extra insulation into rudimentary buildings and sometimes even tents.“I pause because there are a couple different components to what we’re trying to do with respect to energy reduction, if you will, and that’s really what it is about,” Petraeus said. “There’s a fairly comprehensive effort in that regard.”

On Beck’s radio program, co-host Pat Gray offered his own interpretation of Petraeus’ comments. “I pause because that’s the dumbest thing anybody’s ever asked me, you moron,” Gray said. “Are you really asking me, a four-star, a five-star general, what is Petraeus, if I’m getting solar-powered panels on our Afghanistan bases? Is that really the biggest concern I should have right now? Renewable energy on our military bases when we’re fighting a war? You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s unbelievable.”

Giffords would deflect the same criticism from her Republican opponent in the 2010 election, Jonathan Paton. She noted that:

Even Osama bin Laden recognizes the threat posed by our military’s dependence on fuel supply, calling oil our military’s ‘umbilical cord’ and telling terrorists to ‘focus your operations on oil, especially in Iraq and the Gulf area, since this will cause the [Americans] to die off.’

Of course, the irony here is that the U.S. military probably takes renewable energy more seriously than any other branch of the government, with the armed forces ordering less dependence on fossil fuels. As the veterans of Operation Free know—whom I wrote about here—there’s a direct linkage between our addiction to foreign oil, climate change and our vulnerability to terrorism. By pressing Petraeus on renewable energy—and supporting the development of solar power in her home district—Giffords was the definition of a green patriot. That’s something Americans on both sides of the political divide should be able to agree on—if they can agree on anything any longer.

More from TIME on solar:

Solar Power’s New Style

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