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Republican politics of the absurd and the climate debate

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By Joel B. Stronberg

· 6 min read


Like many Americans, I was gob-smacked the other morning when I saw the video of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key bridge collapse. Disasters of such magnitude take lives as well as forever changing those that survive.

Living in the Baltimore, Washington area, I’ve often driven over the Key Bridge, as have family and friends. The 1.6-mile-long bridge is a major route up and down the Atlantic seaboard, handling over 11 million vehicles annually. Had the collapse occurred during rush hour, the death toll could have been staggering. As it is, lives were lost, and the destruction of the bridge is going to have significant economic consequences for Baltimore, the nation, and the environment.

However, this story isn’t about the lost bridge’s economic, environmental, and human costs. It’s a story about how some Republican members of Congress have suggested some patently absurd reasons for the disaster. It’s a reflection of what’s happening in Washington.

First, a few facts about the Port of Baltimore and the Francis Scott Key Bridge:

· The Port of Baltimore is the tenth largest in the nation based on container imports, according to Moody’s Analytics.

· The port handled a record 52.3 million tons of international cargo worth about $80.8 billion. (Axios)

· It’s the largest port in the nation for vehicles. In 2022, 847,158 cars and light trucks passed through it. The facility also handled 1.3 million tons of farm and construction machinery.

· The port supports more than 15,000 direct jobs and more than 139,000 indirect jobs connected to the port, generating almost $3.3 billion in total personal income. (Axios)

· The Port of Baltimore is closer to the Midwest than any other East Coast port and an overnight drive to one-third of the nation’s population.

· In the near term, the bridge collapse will cause the loss of $2 million in wages a day and 8,000 jobs.

· The port is the second largest in the US for coal exports, especially to India.

Maryland Governor McKee announced that “state consultants believe the old bridge can be demolished and a new one built in 18 to 24 months at a cost of $250 million to $300 million.” Transportation Secretary Buttigieg has promised to “assist in removing barriers and regulations to help speed up the rebuilding process.”

Although it’s too early to know for certain, it appears that the ship (the DALI) lost power, and the currents and momentum of the massive vessel carried it into the concrete bridge support. An experienced pilot was on board, and they tried to drop the anchor. The crew acted quickly, telling authorities to stop traffic. The six lost lives were construction workers.

Responding to the disaster, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), a close ally of the former president and an uber-conservative, suggested in a post on X (formerly Twitter) that it was an “intentional act.” Steve Bannon, a far-right populist influencer, also thought that terrorism was at work. There’s absolutely no evidence of the collision being anything other than an unfortunate accident—which arguably might change once more is known.

Other Republicans in Congress suggest that the blame rests with President Biden and his administration. Representative Nancy Mace (R-SC), who cast the deciding vote to oust former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), told Newsmax that the bipartisan infrastructure bill of 2021 was mainly “the Green New Deal.”

The congresswoman implied that the administration was using most of the appropriated funds for public transportation, which is associated with reducing greenhouse gas emissions from autos—leaving very little for highway and bridge construction and repair. The claim is fanciful.

The bridge collapsed because a ship longer than a football fieldweighing 95,000 tons (empty) and carrying 4,700 containers, crashed into a concrete bridge support that wasn’t built to withstand such collisions. Greene and Mace are hardly the only Republicans attempting to turn the bridge disaster into a hyperpartisan issue. Nor are their suggestions the most outrageous—that title goes to Utah State Representative Phil Lyman (R).

According to Lyman, bridges collapsing “is what happens when you have Governors who prioritize diversity over the wellbeing and security of citizens.” His X (formerly Twitter) message reposted an image and short bio of Commissioner for the Port of Baltimore Karenthia Barber—a black woman who is a highly regarded consultant, strategist, and speaker with experience in education, human resources, and business. In a subsequent post referencing the collision, he said: “DEI = DIE.”

Baltimore’s mayor, Brandon Scott, “has been a [special] target” on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, for no apparent reason other than his being black.  A former Republican state legislator from Florida also posted a video clip of the Key Bridge collapsing with the caption, “DEI did this.” There were others.

Congress won’t return from its Easter vacation until the second week in April. Whether the GOP will support the federal government’s paying for part of the recovery bill is unclear at this point. At least one MAGA-aligned House member, Dan Meuser (R-PA), is raising questions on whether the federal government should share the cost of debris removal, reopening shipping channels, and rebuilding the bridge. His concerns came out in an attack on Biden for promising that the federal government would help pay for the recovery.

Meuser suggested that the president could find the aid money by pulling “cash from the ‘ridiculous” electric vehicle deployment program that Congress voted for earlier.” The representative refers to funds found in the previously enacted bi-partisan Infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act.

Climate activists would do well to get used to the MAGA-aligned members in Congress proposing to take funds for anything new from whatever is left in the infrastructure and IRA accounts for clean energy and combatting climate change.

What worries me—beyond the brazen stupidity and crass racism of blaming diversity policies and other unsupported accusations, i.e., terrorism, as the origin of the Dali’s run-in with Charm City’s Francis Scott Key Bridge—is having no mutually accepted, good faith, rules of engagement and resolution.

So far, the culture war comments are coming from just a few Republican politicians and far-right pundits like Fox host Maria Bartiromo, who repeatedly “attempted to link border security policies to the bridge collapse” in an interview with Senator Rick Scott (R-FL). However, that doesn’t mean that those Republicans standing mute are helping things any.

Although hyperpartisanship pre-dates the ex-president, there’s no denying that Mr. Trump has made lying and the disregard of provable facts a part of the new GOP ethos. It appears that the Republican National Committee (RNC) will not hire anyone who doesn’t swear on Trump’s God Bless the USA bible—at the very low cost of $59.99—that the 2020 election was stolen out from under him.

I know I’m hardly alone in thinking that the wheels of American democracy feel like they’re coming off the cart. How will we ever solve pressing problems when the debates are so disingenuous?

This article is also published on Civil Notion. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Joel B. Stronberg is a senior executive and attorney and the founder and principal of The JBS Group, a Washington, DC consulting firm. Joel is currently advising the Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization project at Columbia University’s Sabin Center along with his other clients.

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