Now that Sen. John McCain is the presumptive GOP nominee, all three of the leading presidential candidates seem likely to tackle climate change in a way that clearly will distinguish the next president from the George W. Bush administration.
Senator McCain was one of the first on Capitol Hill, and one of the few of his party, to acknowledge the reality of global warming and the need to act quickly. His position on the issue is one reason why hard-core conservatives have been suspicious of McCain.
On the eve of this week's "Potomac primaries" in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, Senator Obama aligned himself with former vice president Al Gore's push to make the US take the lead on reducing greenhouse gases. The Washington Post reports:
"[Obama] said he would start developing the U.S. position on a pact to replace the Kyoto Protocol before the general election in November…. 'I think we need to start reaching out to other countries ahead of time, not because I'm presumptuous, but because there's such a sense of urgency about this.' "
All three candidates favor a "cap and trade" system that would issue oil companies, power plants, and other major big polluters permits to emit carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas thought to cause global warming.
The two Democrats have more detailed plans, including energy proposals aimed at big oil companies. But all three favor letting states set their own limits on CO2, which the Bush administration opposes.
As is usually the case, environmental groups lean Democratic rather than Republican. The League of Conservation Voters has yet to endorse a candidate, but spokesman David Sandretti says the proposals from Clinton and Obama are "very good." The Baltimore Sun reports:
" 'They address the overall need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and they set forward goals that accomplish those,' Sandretti said. 'On the Republican side, clearly one candidate stands out, and that's John McCain. He has been working on this issue for a number of years, he has legislation that will reduce greenhouse gases, has a target, it's economywide. Unfortunately, his goals are not what we feel are necessary to stem the worst effects.' "
For one thing, McCain has backtracked on his earlier opposition to ethanol subsidies, critics say. He also stresses the role of the marketplace and the profit motive in addressing the challenge of cleaner energy. In an interview published in the environmental news website, Grist.org, McCain says:
"I think most, if not all, of the ways that we can address this issue are through profit motive, free-enterprise-system-driven green technologies. General Electric dedicated itself to green technologies, and guess what? They're still making a lot of money…. Cap and trade, to me, is far more capitalistic and free-enterprise oriented [than a carbon tax].
In short, McCain's front-runner position now puts him in sharper contrast with the two Democrats, not with those of his own party who are more skeptical of climate change. In his guest blog on The Nation, David Roberts writes:
"Relative to what's offered by other Senate cap-and-trade bills (and the plans of his Democratic rivals), the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act – even in its 2007 incarnation – is weak. Unlike other such bills, McCain's specifically sets aside massive and unnecessary subsidies for the nuclear industry. Its emissions targets are exceeded even by the lowest-common-denominator bill now heading to the Senate floor, the Lieberman-Warner America's Climate Security Act…. In short, McCain's take on cap-and-trade legislation is now anachronistic, lagging well behind what's current, what's possible, and what's needed.
Still, Republican leaders like former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman see climate change as an issue that could bolster key parts of their base while attracting independent voters. Reuters reports:
"Economic conservatives see the technological solutions to climate change as a way to create more wealth and jobs, and many corporate leaders have pushed for a federal limit on carbon emissions to prevent a patchwork of state laws. Religious conservatives embrace cutting carbon emissions as an aspect of human stewardship of divine creation. National security conservatives argue that reducing dependence on foreign oil would cut off funding for anti-U.S. elements in the Middle East and elsewhere."
There's another political dynamic at work here: With younger voters apparently newly active, climate change becomes a more important issue, particularly among those born well after the first Earth Day in 1970. The Associated Press reports:
"Say hello to Generation Green. They're young, well-researched and mad as heck — inspired by an outpouring of movies, TV shows, books, Web sites and "green classes" at school. They've been learning how to save the planet since toddlerhood, and they're taking on their parents to do more, do better."