THE BLOG
09/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Will Obama's VP Pick Mean for the Environment?

With Senator Barack Obama set to announce his VP nomination by Friday, the speculative field of possible names has been whittled - if only by the press - to a select three: Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, and Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia. Two other possible candidates, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, and Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, now seem less likely.

In weighing the benefits of each nominee, conversation has largely focused on the various roles this candidate will have to fill: The candidate should be a safe choice, they say, able to help Sen. Obama gain an audience in parts of the south, and to lend him credibility on foreign policy - for many, the largest gap in the senator's resume.

Absent from this conversation has been a weighing the various VP candidates' environmental record. Where there ought to be lively discussion, there is - listen closely now - crickets.

This reflects a larger silence on climate change, in which the media trails far behind Americans' climate concerns. According to a poll out last year by Yale University, 71% of Americans believe global warming is happening. And lest you cry the influence of limousine liberals, a Fox News poll has this number even higher, at 82%.

And yet, according to a study by the League of Conservation Voters, out of 190 interviews and debates, as of February the top five political talk show hosts has asked only 8 questions about climate change. As of January, the words "global warming" or "climate change" were uttered a mere three times in the debates.

In an election whose theme, if not rallying cry, is change, an Obama administration would restore environmental issues to where they should be - as serious debates concerning our national health, the vitality of our ecosystems, and the strength of our economy.

Given the Bush Administration's environmental record - which stands, in my estimation, somewhere between criminal and unconscionable - an Obama administration would mean, in nearly all areas, a complete reversal of environmental policy. Obama, for instance, has already indicated an understanding that our political decisions today will effect our nation, and our families, for generations to come.

In his August energy speech, Obama framed climate by embedding it in a tapestry of mainstream American concerns. "When it comes to our economy," he said, "our security, and the very future of our planet, the choices we make in November and over the next few years will shape the next decade, if not the century."

Next year, parties of the UNFCCC will meet at the Climate Conference in Copenhagen to negotiate the international treaty that will succeed the Kyoto Protocol, due to expire in 2012. A strong American commitment at Copenhagen, combined with a national move to regulate carbon, would do much to restore America's geopolitical credibility.

But the question is even simpler than that. Obama asked: "Will we be the generation that leaves our children a planet in decline, or a world that is clean, and safe, and thriving?"

It is a question we should ask of Obama's VP nominee, as soon as he's chosen. While VP's are often offered little more than scrutiny on foreign affairs and economic issues, the scale of climate change will certainly mean VP engagement.

And so, what are the environmental voting records of Obama's top picks? In the absence of direct questions, here's a quick overview of the three candidates' records. (With many thanks to the League of Conservation Voters.)

Sen. Joe Biden, Delaware: According to the League of Conservation Voters, Senator Biden's lifetime voting record is a respectable 84%.

In interviews during his Presidential race, Biden said his top priority was "energy security," which he defined broadly, including climatic changes effecting the world's poor, and national energy policy.

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden passed a resolution directing the Administration to return to international climate negotiations. He has called for raising fuel economy standards to 40 mpg by 2017,

Most recently, Biden cosponsored the Boxer-Sanders Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act, the most rigorous climate bill. He was one of six senators to express support of the Climate Security Act in the absence of their vote.

Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana: Between 1999 and 2006, Bayh's LCV voting score ranged mostly between 73% and 89%, with one low year at 56%.

Recently, Bayh joined with 10 other senators from key manufacturing and energy-producing states in writing Sen. Boxer a letter informing her of their decision not to vote for the Climate Security Act.

Senator Bayh is a longtime supporter of ethanol-based flex-fuels. He has gone so far as to suggest that NASCAR switch over to ethanol, and would like to devote more farm land to the production of ethanol.

Gov. Tim Kaine, Virginia:
The Virginia governor's record is more difficult to easily summarize. While he is on the record as recognizing climate change as "one of the most critical issues of our time," and in lending supporting the Climate Security Act - both good things - there is an article over at Grist regarding the governor's handling of a proposed coal plant raises questions as to the governor's ability to stand up for his environmental convictions.

How do you think the environment should influence Obama's VP selection?

UPDATE: After speaking with a few people today, Kaine has turned out to be the most polarizing. On the one hand, people point to his support for a new coal plant, and his willingness to consider expanded offshore drilling, as a criticism of his environmental creds. But we should note that Kaine's position on offshore drilling is in lockstep with the positions Obama, and Pelosi, have adopted.

More positively, people point to the fact that he created a "Development Cabinet" to help use discretionary capital to reward smart growth policies -- what Kaine calls "balanced growth." The connection between growth, transportation, and climate is a connection most politicians miss entirely. Given his management experience, he might be able to do something about it.

And then there's always Ana Marie Cox who, according to her Twitter feed, is on the short list.