Climate Change: Comparing the Candidates


The remaining Presidential hopefuls talk of transforming the economy to save the environment. But who would actually get the job done?

Jason Grumet has a simple criterion for judging how to pick the best Presidential candidate. Grumet is the director of the National Commission on Energy Policy, a bipartisan group that has developed policies to tackle the twin issues of global warming and energy dependence. He wants the next Administration to take hard, major steps, such as imposing mandatory curbs on greenhouse gas emissions, boosting the efficiency of energy use, and offering incentives for renewable sources of energy.

The difficulty is that all three remaining candidates—Senators Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and John McCain (R-Ariz.)—have come out in support of strong action on climate change, energy policy, and transforming the economy to make it far more energy efficient and less polluting. "All three candidates get it," Grumet says.

Seemingly on the Same Page

Indeed, both Clinton and Obama have made climate, energy, and green investments top priorities in their campaigns. Clinton vows to focus on global warming and energy independence in her first months in office, and to create a White House Energy Council. Obama kicked off his campaign for the critical Apr. 22 Pennsylvania Democratic primary by visiting a wind turbine plant north of Philadelphia in early March, and repeating his pledge to spend $150 billion over 10 years to create a vast clean energy industry.

"Both Clinton and Obama have terrific plans on these issues," says Joseph Romm, former top Energy Dept. efficiency and renewable energy official, and a supporter of strong action. And while McCain ranks far lower on the League of Conservation Voters scorecard than either Democrat, he has broken from the Bush Administration and most of his fellow Republicans by backing mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

With fellow Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), McCain introduced a bill five years ago that required modest emissions limits, and laid the groundwork for more ambitious bills now before Congress. "As President, the nation's security will be my top priority," McCain explained in a response to questions from the League of Conservation Voters. "The environmental and economic dangers posed by global warming, and the related issue of America's reliance on foreign oil, constitute a serious threat to national and global security."

There "are not enormous differences" between the candidates, says Todd Stern, partner at the law firm WilmerHale and adviser to the Clinton campaign.

A Massive Shift

The biggest difference is between the trio of candidates and the Bush Administration. If any of the candidates follow through on the campaign pledges, the American economy will be transformed. Capping carbon emissions will make it more expensive to burn coal, drive cars, make plastic, and to do countless other things. There's a fierce debate over whether this would hurt or help. Opponents cite crippling costs and millions of jobs lost. Proponents see a much cleaner, more efficient economy, a safer country, and millions of Americans making clean technology to export to the rest of the world.

A recent McKinsey study (BusinessWeek.com, 12/4/07) concludes that the overall price tag is minimal. But getting there will require massive shifts in everything from energy production (from fossil fuels to renewable) to how Americans live (burning far less gasoline and making houses more efficient).

How far America goes down this path will be one of the major issues at stake in the November election. And it's not what the candidates say that matters, says Grumet, it's how successful they will be in carrying out their ambitious plans. "The question is not who gets it, but who can get it done," he says.

Under McCain's Management

The least likely to take such bold and difficult steps, argue environmentalists, is McCain. Yes, they acknowledge, a Republican President could win more GOP votes in Congress for climate legislation than a Democratic chief executive. But McCain's policies are inadequate, says Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. "To his credit, McCain understands that global warming is serious, but today his plan is outdated and falls far short of what we need to do," says Karpinski.

In particular, enviros fault McCain for relying on a relatively weak mandatory cap on emissions. While such a cap would raise the price of using fossil fuels, it wouldn't provide a large enough incentive to reduce energy use, many economists say. To get major increases in energy efficiency, they say, the government also needs to mandate higher auto fuel mileage and more use of renewable energy, among other incentives.

Environmentalists also worry that McCain would fill any vacant positions on the Supreme Court with conservative judges who would overturn last year's landmark 5-4 ruling—in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency—that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide under existing laws. "We will have a devil of a time getting serious action on global warming if the Supreme Court reverses its position," says Romm.

Of course, many companies would prefer the next Administration not take dramatic steps regarding this issue, which is why McCain has strong business support. But business is split. A number of utilities, such as Entergy (ETR), Exelon (EXC), and Duke Energy (DUK), would prefer to have mandatory curbs on carbon dioxide emissions, in part simply to obtain regulatory certainty so they know what power plants to build in the coming decades.

Others, such as General Electric (GE), see huge business opportunities in wind power, nuclear plants, and other non-carbon-emitting forms of energy that would only grow with additional government mandates and incentives. At a recent conference, GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt said he's not smart enough to know if global warming will be "a horrible catastrophe.… But I don't have to be that smart," he explained. "I'm making money by preparing."

Obama vs. Clinton

From the campaign promises so far, it's clear the Democratic nominees will try to take more dramatic action than McCain will. Both Obama and Clinton talk about nothing less than a transformation of the economy. But which one is more likely to do it?

It's hard to know, says Karpinski. "What we really need is the power of the bully pulpit to get the job done. If you look at how both Obama and Clinton have made this a priority, that is the kind of leadership we need."

But Grumet believes there is a difference. He tells a story to explain his answer. Three years ago, he was making the rounds on Capitol Hill, trying to drum up support for cutting carbon dioxide emissions from cars. But the message fell mostly on deaf ears. Once lawmakers heard that such emissions reductions wouldn't bring real progress on climate for a decade, since it would take years for a sufficient number of high-mileage cars to hit the road, they tuned Grumet out. But the reception from Obama was different. When told that progress would take 10 years, Grumet recalls: "He said, 'Well, then we have got to start now.'"

With Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Obama crafted a tough auto fuel economy bill and fought hard for it for 18 months, until it became the basis for landmark legislation that Congress passed late last year. That commitment and doggedness are crucial, says Grumet. "What Senator Obama brings is not just clever ideas. He has a differential ability to change the debate."


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