Climate Consensus: Bravery or Blunder?

WaPo raises possibility that anti-warming platforms might not win

In early October, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama unveiled their campaign platforms on energy and the environment. John Edwards hasn’t made an event out of his, but he has one, and so do the other Democratic candidates. All of them support some kind of legislation to curb climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions, but they might be doing so at their own peril, a recent headline suggests.

Coverage of the candidates’ green credentials has picked up in the last month. Most of the stories, quite responsibly, have tried to pick out the finer differences among their various platforms (there are some). Given the widespread and novel agreement among Democratic (and some Republican) candidates on climate issues, however, it’s no surprise that support for initiatives, like cutting carbon or developing renewable fuels, is generally reported as playing to a candidate’s advantage. Many papers have noted Bill Richardson’s one-upmanship: calling for a 90 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, while other Dems stick to the 80 percent that the scientific community counsels.

Indeed, energy and the environment have been a source of strength for the Democrats in particular. Three weeks ago, The New York Times ran an article that described how global warming is beginning to “divide G.O.P. contenders.” Now, compare that to this headline in yesterday’s Washington Post: “Climate is a Risky Issue for Democrats.” The concern that the public may react unfavorably to a strong pro-environment platform in the general election is a fairly novel idea for news pages, and Post writer Juliet Eilperin makes the case that it’s legitimate.

It’s hard to imagine, perhaps, that endorsing emissions reductions and renewable fuels could hurt a candidate in 2008. Everywhere-from politics, to business, to academics, to consumer affairs-people say they want to reduce their carbon footprint. And for at least a year, environmentalists have voiced an near certainty that whoever lands in the Oval Office next will surely support federal action on climate issues. But all the go-green rhetoric belies what are still significant disagreements among the general public on this subject.

“The issue has turned into a Democratic litmus test,” Eilperin writes. (In order to pass the test, many candidates have paid to offset their campaigns’ sizeable emissions.) “Democrats’ boldness, however, could carry a political price.”

Not everybody has the money to pay for travel or their home’s energy use, let alone to offset them by shelling out more cash to plant trees or capture methane. Primary elections and caucuses aren’t really the concern here, but as next November approaches, voters will inevitably begin to realize that global warming is essentially an energy issue, and that an energy issue is essentially a pocketbook issue. Then, even among voters that are environmentally sympathetic, the question becomes, “What can I afford?”

As Eilperin wisely points out in her article, reducing current greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 “is a plan that will require a wholesale transformation of the nation’s economy and society.”

This is certainly true, but the more important question is, what kind of transformation will this be? There is a lot of disagreement on this point, to put it very mildly. Yet even those that predict (as all Democratic candidates do) that green industries will be a boon for economies worldwide, admit that such gains are a long-term projection. In the short term, there will be possibly significant costs, because all change is subject to overhead expenses that pay for designing and building new technologies and systems. Matthew Wald has a useful, hard-numbers breakdown of how imposing different costs per ton of carbon might affect renewable fuels development (but not people’s wallets) in a New York Times special section on green business today.

In the Post, Eilperin gets a good quote from John Edwards, seen as a leader in the environmental arena, on anti-warming legislation: “I’d be the first to tell you: this is not necessarily the greatest political calculation.” Of course, he’s not really the first person to tell us this. Most Republicans (with the exception of John McCain and now Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback) have been praying that it’s true all along.

The extent to which a green platform could hurt a candidate is still difficult gauge, however, and few major publication besides the Post have even broached the possibility. The next logical step for reporters hunting for more concrete answers would be to leave aside the campaigns and engage the public. We know there is a large part of society that does not think the cost of reversing global warming is worth it, but are more or fewer voters beginning to think this way? The Post article doesn’t say, but it’s worth asking, especially in the context of various election scenarios-Clinton/Giuliani, Edwards/McCain, etc.-for which there is ample polling data.

Another way for journalists to assess the relative strength or weakness of pro-environment agendas is to look at the current politics on Capitol Hill. The Senate recently introduced the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, which would reduce greenhouse gas emissions around 60 percent below current levels by 2050. No doubt, this is a significant step for Congress, but few publications have analyzed the import of this legislation in terms of the presidential campaign. This is too bad, because there is something to be learned from the accompanying debate. Among news outlets and politicians alike, there is a difficult-to-decipher brew of enthusiasm, grudging support, and opposition.

A lot of newspapers covered the climate bill by way of an editorial stance. Like many environmental groups, they have given it cautious support, often arguing that it could be bolder, but also calling it a good start. Indeed, the Senate defeated a number of amendments to make the legislation stronger before sending it to committee. In the end, the Great Falls Tribune in Montana, a politically androgynous-enough state, calls the Climate Security Act “a reasonable compromise,” and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes that it “could probably use some tweaking,” but “deserves to become law.” The Gazette in Colorado Springs, however, worries that legislation “would negatively affect a large part of the economy.” The Washington Post supports the bill, but would prefer a carbon tax to a cap-and-trade system.

Among the candidates, Chris Dodd would agree that a carbon tax is better. On the other hand, John Edwards (as well as his supporters at Friends of the Earth, an environmental group) has rejected the Climate Security Act despite his support for cap-and-trade. He released a little-noticed statement on his campaign Web site stating, “The critical question is simple: are we going to do everything climate science says is needed to save our planet? The Lieberman-Warner bill says no.” Most of the other candidates haven’t really weighed in on the legislation, according to E&E News, an environmental wire service that was perhaps the only outlet that devoted an article to asking for the candidates’ positions on the bill. Hillary Clinton drew a fair number of headlines this week when she reiterated her energy and environment platform at a campaign stop in Iowa, a major ethanol producer. Again, however, few except E&E News thought to point out that Clinton sits on the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, which will debate the Lieberman-Warner bill this week. Clinton is still silent on how she will vote. Regardless, however, the Climate Security Act will face many challenges on its way to the Senate floor, if it makes it at all.

The press should use this legislation to engage the question of whether or not the various anti-warming agendas could hinder presidential aspirations. The bill, and the uncertainty surrounding its future, is a good gauge of the extent to which candidates feel they need to compromise, keep to a more ambitious environmental course, or simply stay quiet until a better understanding of public attitude emerges.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.