Presidential Candidates Not Going Far Enough on Climate?

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.


someoen should be talking about obama not yet going green. veracifier did a good article on it today - they even paid for his carbon footprint from new hampshire to south carolina. pathetic. – it’s on there. thanks for all your hard work!

How many times have we heard things like “wait till we have a new congress”..or president…as if our main job was to sit back and tough it out and hope for the best. No, our job isnt to be passive observers or participants in the political contests. Our job is to tell the candidates what we WANT, what we NEED, and what they SHOULD do, not put on kid gloves because the think the new president and his party will do these things. They wont; they cant. The reasons are very simple. Our whole country, left to right, Repubs to Dems, workers to investors, is predicated on the fundamental tenet of capitalism: economic growth, growth in production, expansion and consumption. No candidate or party , in or out of office, is going to give the slightest appearance of being against growth. And as long as we play this slippery devious game, and as long as we don’t “speak truth to power”, and as long as we don’t articulate our real ideals and goals - ones based on ecological reality rather than on the same values and goals that have produced our present predicament - we are not being responsible or honest public citizens. The one public citizen who has dared to do this with respect to corporations (but not with the environment, unfortunately) was Ralph Nader, and what did he get for his trouble? Personal abuse, slander, vilification, and not just from the power establishment but from “good liberals”! It seems that even liberals - maybe ESPECIALLY liberals - are in denial as much as the rest of the sleeping masses, as if the liberals want the American dream desperately to continue indefinitely without fear of anyone disturbing their sleep. No, our job isn’t to play along with the mass media or the liberal establishment or those who tell us to only ask for what is “doable” or feasible. Why should we willingly be put in the position of meekly accepting what even supposedly honorable decent candidates want to give us? Why should we be forced to keep silent and allow these candidates, whether Obama or anyone else, to shut us up and prevent us from telling them the truth, or most important, telling them what we WANT them to do rather than them telling us what they say they CAN do. Just wait a little longer, Obama will say. Well, that was what some people told American blacks and Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela: be patient. In the meantime blacks were being oppressed and killed. And if WE wait for “our turn” to save the world, this means that the earth as well as the human capacity to survive will be more and more impaired every day. No, we cant settle for less than we want and less than what is needed. Our candidates need to listen to US and follow OUR lead. Politicians never lead anyway; they follow the public and they act only when there exist a loud persistent constituency that they can’t ignore. We have to stay loud and insistent until they listen and heed us. Otherwise we abandon our principles and our consciences and our citizenship.

Lorna Salzman

Lorna, you are absolutely correct. If I may add to what you have said: what better time to speak truth than during a political contest where people are paying attention?

Mr. Mooney’s comments make sense from within the realm of Democrat vs Republican candidates running for US President. But many more citizens are interested in something far more important, where the minute nuances of US political maneuvering are not only irrelevant, but damaging to the fate of our planet. Global warming is real. There is no evidence whatever to suggest otherwise. Thus, when we turn to people who seek the highest office in the Western world, and are told they “can’t” address global warming seriously, I’m sorry. They’ve missed the boat.

Think of the two leaders in Easter Island two hundred years ago. Each refuses to stop cutting down their coconut forests. One wants to cut them down fast, the other slowly. We know the result. When Capt. Cook arrived, the island was clear cut, the people starved into a huddle of misery, and their civilization was at an end. Oops. So even though I support Obama hands down over 99% of the other candidates, the public needs to understand that the political elites in the West are still controlled by the oil and weapons corporate lobbies. That’s the point. And that’s the problem.