How Green Is Your Candidate?


All of the Democratic presidential candidates put energy independence and climate change among their top-tier issues. They all support carbon cap-and-trade systems of varying strengths. They all at least gesture at renewable energy and hybrid cars. Most support ethanol and "clean coal." The aggressiveness of their climate and energy plans rises inversely with their chances of winning -- the better the chances, the weaker the plan.

Here's a quick and dirty rundown of some of the Democratic contenders' stances. We'll add descriptions of Republicans and additional Democrats and make any updates as needed as the campaign season progresses. These descriptions of candidates' positions are not and should not be perceived as endorsements. Grist does not endorse political candidates.

Hillary Clinton dutifully toes the Democratic line on climate change and energy independence, seeing the former as a way to reach young people and the latter as a way to sound tough. She's been somewhat vague on the details. Her distinctive contribution is the notion of a "Strategic Energy Fund" financed by repealed tax breaks and royalties from oil companies. Where she mentions specific solutions, she tends to focus on "clean coal" and ethanol. She signed on to the Sanders-Boxer climate bill, the most ambitious climate bill in the Senate, but only in May, after Edwards had endorsed bold emissions targets. On these issues, Clinton is studious and solid, but not out front.

Barack Obama's take on energy and climate is, well, Obaman: the rhetoric is soaring and high-minded, the policy proposals consensus-seeking and incremental. With the exception of showy gimmicks like his "Healthcare for Hybrids" bill, he's largely been a follower, signing on to multiple cap-and-trade bills and copping Schwarzenegger's low-carbon fuel standard. His main splash in the energy world happened when he came out cheerleading for liquified coal, which coal barons (especially in his home state of Illinois) loved but plenty of other folks hated; he later "clarified" his way back to safety. On these issues, Obama is largely platitudinous and reserved.

John Edwards is running left. What mixture of genuine sentiment and political calculation is behind that strategy only he and Elizabeth know, but it's translated into far and away the strongest, most comprehensive climate and energy plan among the three front-runners. He's stumping for 80 percent cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050, and fleshing that goal out with detailed proposals for a renewable portfolio standard, big boosts in fuel efficiency, changes to the energy grid and efficiency standards (the only front-runner to emphasize these), a green-jobs program, and more. On these issues, Edwards has done his homework and he's not trimming his sails.

Bill Richardson wants to be the "energy president" and the plan he's put forward is a humdinger. He wants to cut oil demand 50 percent by 2020, cut greenhouse-gas emissions 80 percent by 2040, and generate 50 percent of U.S. energy from renewables by 2040. Though he kisses ethanol butt in speeches, like all the candidates, there's nothing specifically about ethanol in his plan, nor about nuclear power (a subject with which he has a complicated history). At least on paper, his plan calls for straight-up renewables and efficiency, aggressively pursued. On these issues, Richardson has an appropriate sense of urgency.

Chris Dodd's climate and energy plan has largely been overlooked, much like, um, Chris Dodd. But if anything, it's more ambitious than even Richardson's. It's got similar aggressive targets, plus an item only Dodd has had the stones (or lack of anything to lose) to endorse: a corporate carbon tax. The revenue from the tax would be put in a fund devoted to renewables and efficiency. There's also a ban on new coal plants with no carbon sequestration (a bold plank he shares with Edwards), good stuff about public transit, hybrid cars, and green buildings, and much more. On these issues, Dodd is forward-thinking and aggressive.

Dennis Kucinich has long supported restructuring the electric power industry, and he backs instituting a 20-percent-by-2020 renewable portfolio standard. He would institute a Global Green Deal to share cheap renewable-energy technology with developing countries, cut off subsidies to dirty energy companies, vastly increase public investment in clean energy, and institute a Works Green Administration (modeled on FDR's WPA) that would put young people to work retrofitting buildings for wind, solar, and efficiency. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- these ambitious plans, he is not taken seriously as a viable presidential candidate by anyone but his core band of supporters, who take him very, very seriously indeed.

Joe Biden has a fairly reliable Democratic voting record on environmental issues, but hasn't shown much indication that climate and energy are animating passions. His tough talk on energy security manifests, for the most part, in lamentably enthusiastic support for biofuels. Like Clinton and Obama, he signed on to the Sanders-Boxer cap-and-trade bill when it became the safe thing to do. He also supports a new round of international negotiations on climate change. He's not an obstruction on climate and energy, but he's not particularly distinguished either.

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