Surprise: Democratic Presidential Candidates Have Far to Go to Meet Voters' Desires on the Environment


Confronted with the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, rising gas prices and the "inconvenient truth" of global warming, Americans are looking for leadership on energy independence and the threat posed by catastrophic climate change. Even George Bush, Big Oil's pocketed president, now pays lip service to the need to end our "addiction to oil." But with his policies making us more, not less, dependent on foreign oil, energy will be at the center of the 2008 campaign. The question is whether the presidential candidates have caught up with the voters.

Energy independence now rivals health care as the top domestic concern. In an April Center for American Progress poll, 60 percent of Americans supported bold action on global warming. A staggering 79 percent believe shifting to alternative energy sources will help the economy and create, not cost, jobs. Voters think the United States is falling behind other countries, and they want government to lead.

This consensus has yet to penetrate Republican presidential campaigns. While the GOP candidates nod rhetorically to the importance of energy independence, they offer little policy vision and few proposals. Frontrunner Rudy Giuliani doesn't mention energy, climate change or the environment in the issue section of his website -- a bizarre omission for someone pitching a campaign on his ability to wage a smart "war on terror." Mitt Romney echoes Dick Cheney, pitting the economy against clean energy, warning that "Republicans should never abandon pro-growth conservative principles in an effort to embrace the ideas of Al Gore."

Only Senator John McCain stands apart from the lemmings, calling for action on climate change and co-sponsoring a cap on carbon emissions. McCain couples this with strong support of nuclear power, dismissing continuing concerns about cost, waste storage, safety and proliferation.

In stark contrast, all the Democratic candidates offer bolder initiatives. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Bill Richardson and Dennis Kucinich have embraced the need for an Apollo-like program -- a multilayered drive for energy independence. And Barack Obama eloquently depicts a generational challenge: "At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the country that faced down the tyranny of fascism and communism is now called to challenge the tyranny of oil."

Each major Democratic candidate offers a signature proposal. League of Conservation Voters head Gene Karpinski praises Edwards for having the "most comprehensive" plan. Edwards argues generally that dealing with global warming is more important than closing budget deficits or sustaining the Bush tax cuts.

He would generate $13 billion a year from a carbon dioxide cap and a rollback of oil subsidies and use that to finance renewable energy technologies. He calls for reducing oil consumption by increasing the percentage of biofuels in the fuel supply and by giving subsidies to auto manufacturers to produce more efficient vehicles. He would mandate that 25 percent of our electricity come from renewable resources by 2025 and require that all new demand through the next decade be met through improved energy efficiency. He'd give consumers tax breaks for purchasing efficient cars and appliances and increase spending on clean-energy research and development. Edwards says this will help generate jobs and growth, estimating that 1 million jobs would be created.

Senator Chris Dodd is nearly as comprehensive, and more courageous. He scorns as ineffective the "cap and trade" program the other candidates support and bites the bullet for a carbon tax he estimates could generate $50 billion a year to be spent deploying clean energy and energy-efficient technologies. Dodd also calls for a job-training program to help workers gain experience and upward mobility in emerging clean-energy markets.

Senator Clinton makes jobs central to her argument. She alone of the leading candidates attended the January Apollo Alliance summit, where she argued that "the clean energy agenda is a jobs agenda." Her signature initiative is a Strategic Energy Fund of $50 billion over ten years, to be raised by taxing the "excess profits" and rolling back the subsidies of Big Oil. The fund would subsidize existing technologies and seed research and development. Of the candidates, Clinton is the most forceful in taking on the oil companies and challenging Bush Administration failures.

Senator Obama's eloquence is unmatched -- even by his policies. He has aggressively pushed for coupling renewable fuels and vehicle efficiency. His distinctive initiative links mandates for higher mileage standards to billions in incentives to auto companies to retool assembly lines to produce high-mileage vehicles. He would do this by having the government take over a portion of the companies' staggering retiree healthcare costs in return for spending half the savings on retooling. This cleverly marries health care and energy, two compelling national concerns, but it's limited to a handful of companies in one industry. Obama has run into trouble with environmentalists by championing the use of liquefied coal as an alternative to gasoline, which would aid energy independence but add to global warming and pollution.

Governor Bill Richardson, a former Energy Secretary, joins the call for a "massive ... Apollo Program." He argues that while everybody talks about these things, he's actually done them. Under his administration New Mexico has become a leader in clean energy. Richardson has established an energy standard mandating that renewables produce 20 percent of the state's energy by 2020, has provided tax credits for investment in energy-efficient buildings and created the nation's first Renewable Energy Transmission Authority, which facilitates the deployment of existing alternatives.

While his plans aren't as detailed, Representative Dennis Kucinich, a leading opponent of nuclear power for decades, offers the broadest vision, calling for a "Global Green Deal." He urges that we not only invest at home but help supply developing nations with "cheap, dependable, renewable energy technologies like wind and solar."

In sum, Democrats call for a dramatic change of course from Bush's policies, and their rhetoric touts a compelling national mission. Their policies, however, are more cautious. Except for Edwards, Democrats still hew to fiscal discipline. They scrimp on spending and emphasize caps, regulations and taxes, thus giving traction to Republican gibes that Democratic policies will hurt the economy.

Worse, Democrats seem to belie their own rhetoric by treating the issue as simply one part of a broader policy agenda. No one has yet portrayed the scope and urgency of this national imperative. A bold leader would summon the nation to action. She or he would call for a crash drive for energy independence, spurring individual, business and government action.

Public investment in research and development would galvanize the scientific community; investment in rebuilding our cities would create jobs and pay for itself in lower energy costs; aggressive support for renewables would secure our energy supply, lower trade deficits and free us from future resource wars. A green job corps could train workers and harness the idealism of the young. Contrast this vital investment in our future -- and the economic growth it would stimulate -- with the nearly $500 billion (headed toward $2 trillion) the Bush Administration has squandered on the Iraq War.

Around the globe, people are learning that we have no choice but to move rapidly to a new energy future. Corporations are getting the message. Al Gore is electrifying activists and the young. Americans will respond to a leader who inspires us to meet that challenge, unleashes our energies and imaginations, acknowledges the costs and wrenching changes required while demonstrating the benefits -- new jobs and technologies, cheaper and more dependable power, cleaner air, lower trade deficits.

The transition to clean energy is both an immense challenge and an immense opportunity. Under Bush, the right has failed the test, and so far the Republican candidates have punted. The public is looking for leadership. That job is still open.

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