When Will Global Warming Reach a Political Tipping Point?


Presidential candidates traditionally blow off the environment as an issue. But can they continue to dither as the world heats up?

"What should be the nation's top concern?" When pollsters pose such a question to voters, few, historically, have answered "the environment." Yet when asked specifically about how important global warming will be to their vote for U.S. president in 2008, more than half of respondents to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll last May answered "extremely" or "very." To learn how the quadrennial mash-up of politics and the environment will play out this election year, Sierra turned to four expert observers:

Matt Stoller is a Washington, D.C.-based political consultant and blogger who writes frequently for Open Left, MyDD, and the Huffington Post. He's worked for the campaigns of (successful) New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Jon Corzine (D) and (unsuccessful) Connecticut senatorial candidate Ned Lamont (D).

Michael Bocian is a vice president at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a D.C.-based polling and strategic consulting firm. He heads the company's environmental and conservation practice.

David Orr teaches environmental studies at Oberlin College and is the author of five books, including Earth in Mind and Ecological Literacy.

Newt Gingrich was the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1994 to '98 and architect of the Contract With America -- an effort criticized by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups. More recently, Gingrich has written (with Terry L. Maple) A Contract With the Earth, a plea for bipartisan environmentalism, and is chair of the nonpartisan organization American Solutions for Winning the Future.

Sierra senior editor Paul Rauber orchestrated the conversation by e-mail last October.

Q: How will global warming figure in the 2008 presidential election?

Newt Gingrich: Whoever wins will have a sound and realistic approach to climate change. Democrats have an advantage in developing solutions because their primary voters care more about the issue and because they are more comfortable dealing with environmental issues, which have been largely a liberal area of dialogue for the past generation. Republicans have to play catch-up in developing answers other than no.

Our research at American Solutions indicates that, by a very substantial margin, Americans prefer entrepreneurship to bureaucracy and innovation to litigation. The Republican nominee should be able to develop strong solutions to climate change that emphasize science, technology, innovation, and incentives. These will prove surprisingly popular compared with the tax increase-government control-bureaucracy and litigation model that has dominated for the past 30 years.

Michael Bocian: Mr. Gingrich is correct that the public clamors for innovation. Our polling shows that Americans feel our country is failing to lead on energy and global-warming solutions, yet they believe we have the technological know-how to lead, and we must harness it. Mr. Gingrich is also correct on the importance of incentives. But any purely voluntary solution fails to address the seriousness of the problem. Americans believe we need strong standards if we are to succeed. Setting strong standards and enforcing them require real accountability.

David Orr: The Republican Party has not done its homework on the biggest issue of our time and has persistently chosen ideology over science, even going along with the Bush administration's crude attempts to quash the evidence. The time to avert the worst is very short. To do so, we will have to create something akin to the government-business-public partnership in WWII. This will necessarily include lots of things Mr. Gingrich has opposed in the past: government regulation, taxation to change market incentives, and lots of R&D on renewables and efficiency. It will also require attention and money -- so no more wars fought for phony reasons.

Matt Stoller: Global warming may not figure directly in the 2008 race. Consider that Al Gore received only a small bump in approval ratings for his Nobel prize and continues to have high disapproval ratings. He is the political figure most closely associated with climate change, yet according to some polls, almost half of Democrats don't want him to run for president. I'm using Gore as a proxy, but there are other obvious signposts. There was no climate-change backlash from Katrina in 2005, and no candidates are making the issue the centerpiece of their campaign. Even with wildfires in the West and drought in the Southeast, I'm seeing most action take place at the local level disconnected from the federal government.

Global warming is one in a bucket of issues, along with Iraq, civil liberties, executive overreach, economic inequality, global financial instability, and corporate corruption. They are all of deep concern to a newly energized progressive movement and must be solved together. Climate change isn't a major political issue yet, but it will hit the national radar in a few years, ferociously.

Q: Given the impending end of the Bush era and a wave of Republican retirements from Congress, the 2008 election seems likely to produce a major political realignment. How should the new Congress and president address climate change?

Orr: Public opinion on climate change is at or just past a tipping point. In my view, the standard for effectiveness of any policy solution has five parts. The policy should aim to solve problems, not just switch them. The metric must be carbon eliminated per dollar spent. The solutions must be effective immediately, not, say, 50 years from now. They should be repairable, redundant, and cheap. Overall, the policy must "solve for pattern," in Wendell Berry's words: It must become the linchpin for security, economy, equity, and environmental quality.

The cheapest, fastest, and smartest approach in the near term is energy efficiency. Next we need a distributed energy system based on renewable energy -- not coal and nuclear. We do not know yet how to sequester carbon from coal-fired power plants or how to deal with the toxic byproducts of burning coal; nuclear amplifies the danger of terrorism and requires massive subsidies, and we still don't know what to do with the radioactive waste. Coal and nuclear are problem switching, not problem solving. Behind the scenes, however, well-funded lobbies are pushing hard for them, while the public interest in smarter choices is more diffuse and far less organized.

Stoller: This is really an organizing problem. There's a new economy coming, and new legislation should help shape its contours. We need to make sure that those who win in the new economy do so by reducing carbon and that the new wealth is widely shared so that a strong incentive is spread across many interest groups that know and cooperate with each other.

Bocian: Four components: first, higher fuel-efficiency standards, far bolder than those recently passed by the Senate. Second, mandates to produce more of our energy from alternative sources. Third, a cap-and-trade system that limits carbon pollution and uses market forces to do so most efficiently. And fourth, incentives for people to buy hybrid cars, install solar panels, and use energy-efficient appliances.

Gingrich: Americans are concerned about global climate change, but they want legislation that does not expand the size and severity of federal control of business enterprise. American businesses want to be part of the solution, and they have good ideas that are being implemented. Our business community is already ahead of the American government, so government must become a facilitator of innovation. The federal government could enact creative legislation that keeps businesses on task as we work to develop clean and sustainable alternatives to petroleum. Americans will elect candidates who support real changes in energy policy and market-based innovations that will lead the world to import clean American technology.

Q: Many analysts say the most straightforward way to address climate change is through a carbon tax, but conventional wisdom holds that such a tax would be political suicide. Is this true? What will it take for the public to back strong action on global warming?

Bocian: Americans are already willing to take bold action to address global warming and energy independence. But no one is asking them to do that, and someone needs to.

Even so, a carbon tax is a hard political pill to swallow. If the estate tax was renamed the "death tax," the carbon tax will become the "breath tax." Conservatives will say that liberals want to tax you from the first breath you take until after you've drawn your last.

So even if a carbon tax is the best policy option, it isn't the best political option. Fuel-efficiency and renewable-portfolio standards aspire to something better -- innovation and technological prowess. While a carbon tax may yield similar results, it sounds like it penalizes ordinary people. Even the hard-to-explain cap-and-trade system avoids that stigma.

However, if a carbon tax is the only way out of the global-warming crisis, we could reframe it. At the very least, we could call it a corporate carbon-pollution fee, making clear that the targets are corporations, not people, and pollution, not breathing.

Gingrich: Tax incentives will work better and faster than tax penalties. To dramatically change carbon emissions, the incentives need to be significant, essentially the most robust incentives we can afford. Such incentives are likely to work most effectively with advancing automotive technology.

Stoller: Why not start by taxing private jets and helicopters to pay for job training in green industries?

Global warming is a rich person's problem. If you're poor, you have more to worry about than melting ice caps or weird weather. You have transportation problems, health problems, food problems, educational problems, etc. Do you really need an energy tax on top of that to assuage the worries of wealthy elites who are so well-off that all they worry about is Arctic ice melts in 70 years? A carbon tax, as currently framed, really is a call for sacrifice to benefit rich people.

A better strategy, instead of pushing for a specific solution to global warming, is to push for a socially just society and use global warming in that framework. This means attacking the perception and reality that elites don't have to sacrifice when everyone else does. So you tax something that is a very obvious use of carbon by rich people, like private jets, and use the capital to expand training programs for "green-collar" jobs.

Orr: These are our policy tools: cap and trade (favored by business), carbon taxes (favored by most economists), education, and moral suasion.

Real solutions will require a combination of all of these. On taxes, Oliver Wendell Holmes once said they are the price we pay for civilization. Taxes have been made into a phony issue while the administration off-loads the enormous national debt onto our kids. This is morally wrong and economically stupid. We need politicians courageous enough to discuss this honestly. While they're at it, they could explain why income distribution now is roughly as unequal as it was in the late 1920s.

Q: Have the Bush years fundamentally altered the dynamic of the environment as an issue in electoral politics? With the near extinction of environmentally minded Northeast Republicans, is the environment in danger of becoming a purely partisan issue?

Stoller: The political crisis of the Bush years has turned environmentalism from a niche electoral issue into a piece in a larger ideological story. For progressives, there's no difference between the bad-faith politics of Iraq, the deniers of global warming, and the "Terry Schiavo" social extremists. All three represent betrayals of our core value system, and we are building tools and institutions in response to these betrayals.

This is a historic turning point similar to the late 1970s. Back then the political architecture shifted toward conservatism; now the Iraq debacle and the Internet have made progressive politics workable again. This will strengthen those concerned with environmental justice and weaken those who engage in business-friendly triangulation.

The end of fig-leaf Republicans, which is really what moderate Republicans were, is part of this reorganization. These Republicans are being replaced, not just by Democrats but by progressives. Bipartisanship isn't bad, per se, it's just tangential to coming up with a progressive solution to climate change that creates stakeholders across all sectors of American society.

Bocian: After pro-environment candidates and environmental groups succeeded in making environmental issues work in political campaigns, Bush's advisors realized they needed to change their titles, if not their tunes. Thus the Clear Skies initiative made the air dirtier, and Healthy Forests paved the way for clearcutting.

This makes it important for environmental advocates to sharpen the differences. Fortunately, energy and global warming make it easier to do so, because the differences are so stark. We believe America can solve these problems by investing in alternative energy and energy efficiency.

Our opponents shrink before the challenge. They say it will hurt the economy; we say it will reinvigorate the economy. They say the technology doesn't exist; we say we've been making cars and electricity with the same old technology for 30 years -- we must provide the incentives to develop new technology.

Gingrich: Conservatives are embracing an entrepreneurial, market-based environmentalism that fits with their core values. Liberals and conservatives will find common ground on the environment in a century where everyone is a mainstream environmentalist.

Orr: The Bush years, not to put too fine a point on it, have been the worst of our nation's history. The Republican Party, including all of those currently running for the party's presidential nomination, went along with a long list of outrages without a whimper of dissent. Democrats have been pretty spineless on the war, debt, and spying, but at least most are aware of climate change and the environment as issues. We are still waiting, however, for a semblance of leadership adequate to the times.

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