Presidential Candidates Not Going Far Enough on Climate?

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The Obama Files

You may have noticed some tension here at DeSmogBlog lately over the Obama affair.

I don’t write to criticize, but because what has happened seems indicative of a broader phenomenon when it comes to global warming and the campaign trail, I’d like to enlarge the issue and provide my own perspective, beyond what I’ve already done.

In Jim Hoggan’s apology, I’m quoted making the following observation:

There remains a hug gap between what is scientifically and climatically necessary on global warming, and what is politically feasible in the US. So no sane candidate is going to be able to completely satisfy environmental interests right now. … I think it’s a mistake to therefore attack the candidates who take the problem seriously as they try to walk this difficult line.”

Allow me to elaborate.

On the one hand, we’ve now got people like Bill McKibben and James Hansen talking as if 350 parts per million of atmospheric CO2 was the actual tipping climatic point. Which means we’ve already passed it, and completely radical changes will be necessary if we’re to save the planet.

But over in the U.S. Congress, right now we can’t even pass Lieberman-Warner, a cap-and-trade bill that would reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide by 70 percent by 2050, but which many environmentalists consider far too weak–certainly much weaker than what scientists like Hansen would prescribe.

Somewhere in between Lieberman-Warner and McKibben-Hansen, meanwhile, we find many of the Democratic candidates who take global warming very seriously, including Barack Obama. In their policy plans, these Democrats have outlined positions that cannot, at least at the present moment, get through Congress, like the following: 80 percent carbon dioxide reductions by 2050, 100 percent auctions of the initial cap-and-trade permits, etcetera.

In other words: There’s a big gap between what science says the climate needs, and what politics can presently deliver. Some Democrats are promising big–far beyond what’s currently possible politically–and yet even they may not be aiming high enough in a scientific sense. And so of course the Democrats, to say nothing of the Republicans, have some weak spots on the issue.

Obama included.

But as someone who worked in Washington, D.C., for a number of years, what all of this says to me is that it’s a terrible strategy to attack the Democratic candidates from the left right now over global warming–in other words, to argue that they’re not going far enough.

True, this approach might push some candidates further to the left in the context of the primaries, when they have to appeal to voters from their own parties. But the best candidate will still have to go into a general election, which means facing mainstream political reality in America. And while we’ve come a long way in the U.S. in terms of what’s politically feasible on global warming–for instance, I’d wager that 2003’s failed McCain-Liberman bill could now pass–we still can’t demand that our politicians move too far too fast.

If we do, we run the risk of damaging the candidate or candidate who could be elected and prove a true climate champion. And that’s just not worth it.

The U.S. is the world’s worst emitter (or second worst), and that has to change. But the reality is that nothing can really happen until we have a new president. So the precise details of the various plans outlined right now on the campaign trail don’t matter all that much, beyond giving environmental insiders something to argue about.

Rather, what really matters is getting a U.S. president elected who takes global warming seriously and who will work to pass a bill–almost certainly a cap and trade bill–that finally sets a price on carbon, so that the economy begins adjusting. The precise details of that bill will have to be worked out in 2009, through the standard legislative jockeying and horse trading. Perhaps, by then, the sphere of the politically possible will have expanded still more.

Perhaps not.

But campaign promises made now may not carry the day then when it comes to making compromises to pass a workable piece of legislation.

The bottom line is that there’s no way we can remake the U.S. economy overnight without a lot of pain–and causing pain inevitably makes politicians vulnerable. Luckily, any bill passed in 2009 can be strengthened later, so it’s critically important to make an immediate start, rather than getting bogged down in the details.

All of which leads up to: Don’t attack candidates like Barack Obama, who take global warming seriously.

Sure, attack those who don’t.

But for the rest, what everyone who cares about the climate ought to be doing right now is anything that helps one of them get elected.

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