The Campaign & the Environment

At this vital juncture in the earth's history, it's clear that the American people are looking for a presidential candidate who will take climate change "very seriously." One who favors "unbiased research" into the problem and promises to support regulations that are "based on science." Someone, perhaps, like George W. Bush, who in 2000 managed (in those words) to convey just enough assurance of his good intentions to defuse global warming as a make-or-break issue in the campaign. After seven years of inaction on greenhouse-gas emissions, Bush can honestly claim that he hasn't changed his position. "I take the issue seriously," he told a news conference at the end of last year.

Even back then, of course, the leaders of environmental groups understood that their interests aligned more closely with Al Gore, who would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his campaign against global warming. This year, though, those leaders want to make sure there's no confusion on the part of the voting public. The environment, which typically ranks somewhere around "regulatory reform" among voters' concerns, has emerged as a leading issue in this election cycle; last year more than three voters in 10 said they would take a candidate's green credentials into account, according to pollster John Zogby, up from just 11 percent in 2005. "It was clear starting all the way back in Iowa and New Hampshire that this campaign would be much more about the environment," says Dave Willett, a spokesman for the Sierra Club. "The questions weren't 'Do you think global warming is happening?' but 'How are you going to deal with it, what's your approach?' " Willett presumably means questions from citizens. Climate-change skeptics and deniers sometimes charge that the threat of global warming is a conspiracy kept alive by the media, but the reality seems rather different. The League of Conservation Voters tracks how often candidates are asked about environmental issues in televised debates and interviews, and the current tally shows that of 3,231 questions by the leading political reporters from five networks, exactly eight concerned global warming.

The league, which generally calls the tune for most mainstream environmental groups when it comes to national politics, hasn't chosen a candidate for 2008. Officially, it is keeping an open mind, while waiting for John McCain to elaborate on his global-warming plan. But it would constitute a major political upheaval if the league, for the first time since it began making presidential endorsements in 1980, chose the Republican. In its ranking of senators based on their positions on 15 votes in 2007 (including farm subsidies, gas mileage and biofuel standards), the Democrats are almost all clustered in the top half of the standings, while the Republicans, with a couple of exceptions (essentially, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both of Maine), bring up the rear. Specifically, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are considered strong environmental candidates. In addition to the annual rankings, the league maintains lifetime standings, which may be more significant than those based on a single year's votes. The Illinois senator has a 96 percent lifetime voting record; Clinton has a 90 percent lifetime rating and was endorsed by the league as an "environmental champion" in her 2006 re-election campaign. "It's clear from both of their voting records in the Senate that they're committed to supporting energy efficiency and slowing global warming," says league spokesman Jay Natoli. "In fact, they're too similar to say at this point that one is better than the other. [As for] McCain, his plan isn't as strong, but he has sponsored and supported legislation that shows he cares about the environment. But at this point, we're not ready to endorse."

Nor are most environmentalists willing to admit that they breathed a sigh of relief when McCain locked up his party's nomination, but he was widely viewed as the most acceptable of the major GOP contenders. "It's unusual to have a Republican candidate who openly disagrees with the Bush administration on the need for capping carbon emissions," says Dan Kammen, an authority on energy policy at UC Berkeley who has advised all three leading candidates and is now associated with the Obama campaign. "There's more disagreement with the current administration than with each other." Admittedly, McCain's 2007 league rating is zero, putting him in the company of eight other Republicans, including the global-warming denier James Inhofe. But that's because McCain missed all 15 key votes; the league counts a missed vote the same as a vote against its position. He was campaigning for president last year, of course, but so were Obama and Clinton and other Democrats. A plausible explanation is that McCain sought to avoid taking a position that would offend either conservative primary voters or the moderate ones he will need in November. A more relevant statistic might be his lifetime LCV rating, which is 26 percent, compared with an average of 16 percent for all Republicans. As recently as 2004, when his rating for the 108th Congress reached 56 percent, the league endorsed him for re-election to the Senate.

McCain is an appealing figure to some environmentalists precisely because he is a Republican from a Western state, whose occasional departures from Republican orthodoxy seem to be grounded in genuine conviction. In 2003 he introduced, with Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the first-ever bill to regulate carbon emissions in the United States. It never passed, and environmentalists have now mostly shifted support to newer, stronger proposals, but it was a landmark bill for its time. McCain has also sided with environmentalists on fuel-efficiency standards and the talismanic issue of protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He traces his environmental awareness to the sainted Rep. Mo Udall, an Arizona Democrat who took McCain as a young congressman under his tutelage. "Mo and I traveled around the state, visiting the Indians, looking at land, and things like that," he told Men's Journal in 2005. To environmentalists, that's like saying you learned about civil rights by driving around Alabama with Martin Luther King Jr.

So, ironically, McCain—with a voting record that would put him at the bottom of the heap among Democrats—is sometimes perceived as more passionate about the environment than his Democratic opponents, whose objectively much stronger rec-ords are viewed as a matter of party orthodoxy. But a legislative record is only one of the things that will factor into an endorsement; green groups will also be weighing the candidates' positions on the issues important this year. Environmentalists agree that the two Democrats, whose positions are mostly indistinguishable, are considerably ahead of McCain. Both Clinton and Obama call for identical reductions in greenhouse emissions through a "cap and trade" system—auctioning off permits to emit carbon dioxide in gradually declining amounts, and setting up a market in which these can be bought and sold among industries. They aim for a reduction of 80 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2050, which most scientists think is the minimum necessary to head off the worst effects of climate change. McCain's plan is similar, but sets a less ambitious target, and has some other provisions environmentalists are less happy about. "We're waiting for [McCain] to further define his plan before we make any judgment about him," says Nick Berning, a spokesman for Friends of the Earth. "He could still surprise folks." Both Democrats also set a target of 25 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2025, and 60 billion gallons of biofuel annually by 2030. McCain is more supportive of nuclear power, a red flag to many environmentalists, although some are starting to suggest that compared with burning more carbon-based fossil fuels, it's the lesser evil.

In the end, no president gets his program through Congress intact. The differences in emphasis and wording mean less at this stage than the emergence of environmentalism as a broad-based political force, rather than an elite preoccupation of people concerned about the effect of rising sea levels on beachfront property. Not long ago, African-American politicians talked about the environment mostly in terms of lead paint and inner-city air pollution. But Obama speaks about snorkeling the coral reefs in his native Hawaii, which are threatened by global warming. The industrial workers who are among Clinton's strongest supporters once regarded environmentalism as a plot to close their factories, but now rust-belt politicians like Michigan's Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Sen. Debbie Stabenow hope to attract "green collar" jobs building wind turbines. And tough-minded advocates of "energy independence," who once defined the problem in terms of drilling more oil wells on American soil and off American coastlines, now see conservation as an essential part of any solution. "Whoever is elected," says Berkeley's Kammen, "will need a pretty good energy plan as part of their first hundred days' agenda." The president Americans choose this fall will take office in 2009, the year in which a new international treaty on global warming is to be negotiated, replacing the expiring Kyoto Protocol. It will likely set the course of energy and technological change for the first half of the century, and if America wants to have a voice in the process, it must have leaders willing to engage in it. As matters appear now, it likely will.