Liberal or conservative, declared or undeclared, candidates eyeing the 2008 presidential election are feeling political heat on climate change. They're reading polls showing that most Americans think global warming is a serious problem, and they're being pressured by interest groups who are keeping a close eye on candidates' positions.
Though questions of national security and energy policy – both related to changing climate – have been part of the campaign rhetoric from the start, Earth Day on April 22 prompted many to tout their greenness. The following day, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona made it clear he's not a skeptic in a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington:
"The burning of oil and other fossil fuels is contributing to the dangerous accumulation of greenhouse gases in the earth's atmosphere … with the potential for major social, economic, and political upheaval.
"The world is already feeling the powerful effects of global warming. And far more dire consequences are predicted if we let the growing deluge of greenhouse gas emissions continue and wreak havoc with God's creation."
All the major candidates say global warming is real, that it's caused to some extent by human activity, and that it requires government action to counter it. Not surprisingly, Democrats are more vocal in their pronouncements and tougher in their proposed remedies.
On Earth Day, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) of New York pledged to create a strategic energy fund, invest oil companies' "windfall profits" in renewable energy, and obtain 20 percent of the nation's electricity from renewable resources by 2020, the Associated Press reported.
Senator Clinton also wants to show that she can walk her talk on reducing greenhouse emissions. Her website promised that her campaign would be "carbon neutral" – purchasing carbon offsets for the energy it uses.
Democratic hopeful John Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina, made that same pledge a month ago. He is offering what is perhaps the most detailed program, what he calls "achieving energy independence and stopping global warming through a new energy economy," says a position paper on his website.
Much of the climate plan offered by Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois focuses on improved vehicle fuel efficiency. As a Midwesterner, he's a big fan of ethanol made from corn or other plant material. He says in an AP story running in the San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere that legislation he proposes would have the same effect as taking 32 million cars off the road.
Among likely Republican candidates, the proposals may be less specific, but most acknowledge that global warming is a major worry. And none are pooh-poohing what most experts say are increasing temperatures caused at least in part by human activities, such as power generation and transportation. As reported in the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and elsewhere, Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas said earlier this year in Iowa:
"It seems to me just prudent that we recognize we have climate increase and temperature change. We have CO2 loading, and we need to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere."
Even if the warnings about climate change can't be proved at this point, says former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) of Arkansas, as quoted in the National Journal's Hotline blog, "We ought to act as if that is the case."
"There is never a downside when it comes to conserving national resources," Mr. Huckabee says.
The US-government-sponsored Voice of America reported on a "debate" on global warming earlier in April between Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, a 2004 presidential candidate, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who's been mentioned as a 2008 GOP candidate. But Messrs. Kerry and Gingrich agreed on many key points, including that "urgent" steps should be taken to reduce CO2 emissions. Said Gingrich:
"The evidence is sufficient that we should move towards the most effective possible steps to reduce carbon loading of the atmosphere."
Why all the campaign talk about climate change?
For one thing, writes Washington Post political blogger Chris Cillizza, "Polling suggests that the American public is far more aware of global warming than they were even last year." In a recent Post poll, he observes, "one in three voters said global warming was the single biggest environmental threat facing the world – double the number who said that in a similar survey in March 2006."
Advocacy groups are needling candidates on climate change too.
The League of Conservation Voters Education Fund has a new program called "The Heat Is On" Among other things, it tracks where the candidates stand on a carbon cap, fuel efficiency, renewable sources for electricity, and other issues, urging voters to send letters and emails.
Meanwhile, student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) recently launched a "What's Your Plan?" initiative to directly confront candidates on climate change.
Given the increase in young voters during recent election cycles, candidates may well pay attention. Said Courtney Fryxell, national coordinator of the League of Conservation Voter's student program:
"This is a critical election for our generation and for climate legislation, and our next President has the greatest power to lead the way. But to lead the way, candidates need to have a comprehensive plan, one that has substance, not just hot air."