Something bothers me about the national discussion about the Gulf Coast oil disaster. It’s not that people are discussing the political implications of the event or even referring to political “opportunities” that may arise from the crisis.

What kills me is that the “opportunity” being discussed involves a possible change in how the country will talk about energy politics.

Paul Krugman from the New York Times:

For the gulf blowout is a pointed reminder that the environment won’t take care of itself, that unless carefully watched and regulated, modern technology and industry can all too easily inflict horrific damage on the planet.

Will America take heed? It depends a lot on leadership. In particular, President Obama needs to seize the moment; he needs to take on the “Drill, baby, drill” crowd, telling America that courting irreversible environmental disaster for the sake of a few barrels of oil, an amount that will hardly affect our dependence on imports, is a terrible bargain…

The catastrophe in the gulf offers an opportunity, a chance to recapture some of the spirit of the original Earth Day.

Uh, yeah, I agree that this reminds us that we need to take care of the environment and need to transition toward less deleterious energy sources.

Steven Cohen of the Earth Institute at Columbia University:

We are addicts and our addiction has reached the point at which we will sacrifice human life and ecosystems, oceans and sea life to ensure our fix. Our society, economy and political stability depend on low priced energy and massive amounts of it. The dead workers in the Gulf and in a West Virginia mine and the incredible destruction of the Gulf region’s ecology are the cost side of a cost/benefit equation that many still see as largely benefit. But this latest disaster could be a game changer. The balance may be shifting.

Over the next several months the Gulf’s fishing and tourism industry will be decimated. The pictures and stories we will see should end the cry of “drill baby drill” for the foreseeable future. These stories are custom-made for the media and the strength of their emotional impact should not be under-estimated. The Obama Administration will soon be backing off its support for new off-shore drilling and will pursue the transition away from fossil fuels with greater urgency.

For better or worse, catastrophe is a prime motivator of change and action. The accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl destroyed the U.S. market for civilian nuclear power. This oil spill will clarify the environmental costs of fossil fuels in a way that the climate issue cannot. These issues are both massive, but unlike the climate problem, the spill’s impact is visible and immediate. It does not take place in the future and does not require scientific literacy to understand. All you need is the ability to see the pictures, hear the sad stories or smell the death and destruction.

Sure, totally, this tragedy provides a vivid and clear example of the costs of our energy consumption practices and might lead to shift in public opinion.

The New York Times’ Room for Debate blog has an entire thread going called “What the Spill Means for Offshore Drilling.

Mmhmm. It’s true, this disaster will come up when we debate offshore drilling.

If you anecdotally survey national opinion about this disaster, you’ll find lots of this. It is all about what this means in terms of our debate on offshore drilling specifically, energy policy in total, and on “the environment” in general.

The conversation seems to be more about environmentalists leveraging the “opportunity” to pivot off of this disaster toward something else: energy policy or offshore drilling.

Certainly, this disaster involves the practice of offshore drilling.

But isn’t the disaster at hand one which will threaten the lives, livelihoods, and environmental safety of Gulf Coast communities?

Is that not a bigger issue than the public relations disaster faced by oil companies and entrenched energy interests?

If there is an “opportunity” to be seized from this crisis, let it be one that leads the nation and the federal government to finally get serious about reversing wetlands loss on the Gulf and not one stolen by those who want to turn up the temperature on the offshore drilling debate.

If respected academics like Steven Cohen and Paul Krugman wish to be of service in the wake of this crisis, perhaps they could press Congress for a massive federal public works project to build barrier islands and reconstitute the marshes that this disaster is going to kill off and which already deteriorated over several decades. I’m sure they already understood that Southeast Louisiana was already hanging onto terra firma by a thread. Perhaps they could help articulate how an environmental disaster of epic proportions poses a significant, even existential threat to the human populations of the Greater New Orleans and Gulf South regions.

One would think that people would naturally be more concerned with guaranteeing that the actual real life people affected by this disaster receive economic and environmental justice than how this changes the short-term optics of a decades-old political debate. But it seems like it’s the opposite: this political opportunity will have been effectively seized only if it leads to progressive energy policy, whether or not all of Southeast Louisiana slides off into the Gulf.

As much as I care about passing climate change legislation and establishing a clean energy economy, these guys have the equation backward. We will have failed to seize the opportunity presented by this environmental catastrophe if we do not save the communities of the Gulf Coast. Period.

I’d like to see the nation’s best and brightest leverage their brainpower to suggest some policy programs that would accomplish that audacious goal instead of coldly assessing what this does to the national conversation about the spirit of Earth Day, or whatever the hell Krugman was talking about.