New York Times
January 1, 2008
Editorial: In Office
The One Environmental Issue
The overriding environmental issue of these times is the warming of the planet. The Democratic hopefuls in the 2008 campaign are fully engaged, calling for large — if still unquantified — national sacrifices and for a transformation in the way the country produces and uses energy. The Republicans do not go much further than conceding that climate change could be a problem and, with the notable exception of John McCain, offer no comprehensive solutions.
In 2000, when Al Gore could have made warming a signature issue in his presidential campaign, his advisers persuaded him that it was too complicated and forbidding an issue to sell to ordinary voters. For similar reasons, John Kerry’s ambitious ideas for addressing climate change and reducing the country’s dependence on foreign oil never advanced much beyond his Web site.
Times have certainly changed. It is not yet clear to what extent Americans are willing to grapple with the implications of any serious strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: more specifically, whether they are ready to pay higher prices for energy and change their lifestyles to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels.
Polls suggest, however, that voters are increasingly alarmed, and for that Mr. Gore is partly responsible. His film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” raised the issue’s profile. Then came four reports from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mr. Gore, predicting catastrophic changes in weather patterns, sea levels and food production unless greenhouses gases can be quickly stabilized and then reduced by as much as 80 percent by midcentury.
There is also a growing appetite for decisive action — everywhere, it seems, except the White House. Governors in more than two dozen states are fashioning regional agreements to lower greenhouse gases, the federal courts have ordered the executive branch to begin regulating these gases, and the Senate has begun work on a bipartisan bill that would reduce emissions by nearly 65 percent by 2050.
[THIS IS PATENTLY FALSE - RATHER, THE U.S. SUPREME COURT ORDERED, IN MASSACHUSETTS V. EPA, WHICH WAS DECIDED APRIL 2, 2007, THAT
(http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/06pdf/05-1120.pdf) "BECAUSE GREENHOUSE GASES FIT WELL WITHIN THE [CLEAN AIR] ACT'S CAPACIOUS DEFINITION OF 'AIR POLLUTANT', THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY MUST EVALUTE WHETHER GREENHOUSE GASES, SUCH AS CARBON DIOXIDE, "CAUSE OR CONTRIBUTE TO AIR POLLUTION WHICH MAY REASONABLY BE ANTICIPATED TO 'ENDANGER' PUBLIC HEALTH OR WELFARE", WITHIN THE MEANING OF SECTION 7601(a)(1) OF THE FEDERAL CLEAN AIR ACT. THE SUPREME COURT DID NOT REQUIRE THE EPA TO REGULATE CARBON DIOXIDE AS MANY ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST GROUPS HAVE FALSELY CLAIMED. "WHILE THE STATUTE [CLEAN AIR ACT] CONDITIONS EPA ACTION ON ITS FORMATION OF A 'JUDGMENT', THAT JUDGMENT MUST RELATED TO WHETHER AN AIR POLLUTANT 'CAUSES[S], OR CONTRIBUTE[S] TO, AIR POLLUTION WHICH MAY REASONABLY BE ANTICIPATED TO ENDANGER PUBLIC HEALTH OR WELFARE'." §7601(a)(1). UNDER THE ACT'S CLEAR TERMS, EPA CAN AVOID PROMULGATING REGULATIONS ONLY IF IT DETERMINES THAT GREENHOUSE GASES DO NOT CONTRIBUTE TO CLIMATE CHANGE OR IF IT PROVIDES SOME REASONABLE EXPLANATION AS TO WHY IT CANNOT OR WILL NOT EXERCISE ITS DISCRETION TO DETERMINE WHETHER THEY DO."]
Still, the country is a long way from a comprehensive response equal to the challenge. That is what the Democratic candidates are proposing. Senators Joseph Biden, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, former Senator John Edwards, Gov. Bill Richardson and Representative Dennis Kucinich have all offered aggressive plans that would go beyond the Senate bill and reduce emissions by 80 percent by midcentury (90 percent in Mr. Richardson’s case), much as called for in the United Nations reports.
These plans would rest primarily on a cap-and-trade scheme that imposes a gradually declining ceiling on emissions and allows power plants, refineries and other emitters to figure out the cheapest way to meet their quotas — either by reducing emissions on their own or by purchasing credits from more efficient producers. The idea is to give companies a clear financial incentive to invest in the new technologies and efficiencies required to create a more carbon-free economy.
[THE USE OF EMISSIONS CAP & TRADE REGIMES ARE QUITE EXPENSIVE TO THE PUBLIC (CONSUMERS) AND CANNOT ENSURE THAT ACTUAL EMISSIONS OF CARBON DIOXIDE INTO THE ENVIRONMENT ARE INDEED REDUCED, SINCE A CAP & TRADE REGIME SIMPLY INVOLVES ONLY 'PAPER ACCOUNTING ENTRIES' THAT REFLECT 'OFFSETS' OF FICTITIOUS CARBON CREDITS CALCULATED IN RELATIONSHIP TO A REGULATORY LIMIT, WITH ACTUAL CALCULATED EMISSIONS. THE CANDIDATES' CAP & TRADE PLANS DO NOT SPECIFY HOW SUCH CALCULATIONS CAN AND WILL BE VERIFIED. ONE NEED ONLY LOOK TO THE SELF-ADMITTED FAILURE OF THE EUROPEAN UNION'S CARBON DIOXIDE CAP & TRADE SYSTEM]
None of the Democrats trust the market to do the job by itself. All would make major investments in cleaner fuels and delivery systems, including coal-fired power plants capable of capturing carbon emissions and storing them underground. Every Democrat except Mr. Kucinich says that carbon-free nuclear power has to be part of the mix, although all are careful to say that safety issues and other concerns must first be resolved.
Internationally, the Democrats say they would seek a new global accord on reducing emissions to replace and improve upon the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. Winning agreement among more than 180 nations will be slow-going, so several candidates, including Mrs. Clinton, have suggested jump-starting the process by bringing together the big emitters like China very early in their administrations. China and the United States together produce about 40 percent of the world’s total emissions and neither has agreed to binding reductions.
The only Republican candidate who comes close to the Democrats with a plan for addressing climate change is John McCain, one of the authentic pioneers on the issue in the Senate. In 2003, along with Joseph Lieberman, Mr. McCain introduced the first Senate bill aimed at mandatory economy-wide reductions in emissions of 65 percent by midcentury. He also regularly addresses the subject on the campaign trail.
The other leading Republican candidates — Mitt Romney, Rudolph Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mike Huckabee — talk about energy issues almost exclusively in the context of freeing America from its dependence on foreign oil. All promote nuclear power, embrace energy efficiency and promise greener technologies. Only Mr. Huckabee has dared raise the idea of government regulation, embracing, at least theoretically, the idea of a mandatory cap on emissions. The rest prefer President Bush’s cost-free and demonstrably inadequate voluntary approach, which essentially asks industry to do what it can to reduce emissions.
So far, the Democratic candidates seem more engaged with the issue than some of their interrogators in the news media. In a recent study, the League of Conservation Voters found that as of two weeks ago, the five main political talk-show hosts had collectively asked 2,275 questions of candidates in both parties. Only 24 of the questions even touched on climate change.
One result is that even the candidates who urge comprehensive change have not been pressed on important questions of cost: How do they intend to pay for all the new efficiencies and technologies that will be necessary? And what kind of sacrifices will they be asking of people who almost certainly will have to pay more for their electric bills and their greener cars?
[THESE ARE EXCELLENT QUESTIONS THAT DESERVE HONEST ANSWERS, WHICH HAVE NOT YET BEEN FORTHCOMING]
Addressing these questions will require more courage of the candidates than simply offering up broad new visions. The voters deserve an honest accounting and the candidates should be prepared to give it.