11/05/2007 05:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Nation Called Tomorrow

San Francisco -- Senator Hillary Clinton this morning staked her place out in the debate over a new energy policy and global warming, and did so definitively, referring to "the climate crisis," and offering a policy package that is at least as strong as that of any candidate in the race to date. Senator Clinton explicitly endorsed an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050, with 100 percent auction of all emission permits. She called for 55-mpg fuel-economy standards for cars, trucks, and SUVs by 2030; demanded that we put efficiency first, and that before we build new coal-fired power plants, state PUCs be required to make sure that there are not cost-effective efficiency alternatives; promised to reduce electricity consumption by 20 percent through a series of efficiency measures; and urged the creation of five million new jobs as part of the package, which would reduce imports of oil by two thirds.

If a year ago I had suggested that all the major Democratic Presidential nominees would by this November have embraced the broad thrust of the Sierra Club's key energy planks, I would have widely been viewed as having inhaled far too often. The idea that 100 percent of emission permits should be auctioned, for example, was barely on the political radar screen a year ago.

And a year ago, when I had dinner with the Senator, she was still "agnostic" on the role of nuclear power. Here's what her campaign said this morning:

"Hillary believes that energy efficiency and renewables are better options for addressing global warming and meeting our future power needs, because of significant unresolved concerns about the cost of producing nuclear power, the safety of operating plants, waste disposal, and nuclear proliferation. Hillary opposes new subsidies for nuclear power, but believes that we need to take additional steps to deal with the problems facing nuclear power."

There may be additional, more detailed speeches to come in the next few months. That, at least, was the hint that former President Bill Clinton gave me on Saturday.

Ex-President Clinton had a simple message for thirty Bay Area environmental leaders during a 90-minute meeting this weekend: "The sale has been made. That's what Al Gore's Nobel Prize means. What we need now is knowledge about what to do about global warming." Ex-President Clinton was seeking our ideas for Senator Clinton's Presidential campaign -- major speeches on the topic are in the works, and it's clear that he, at least, really gets the issue in the deepest way. He described global warming solutions as suffering from a lack of organization, capital, and knowledge.

When, while introducing him, I mentioned his challenge to World Bank President Bob Zoellick on how to enable China and India to leapfrog the carbon era, he said simply, "The World Bank's new role should be to green the planet." Clinton wants the 2008 Presidential election to be about the future. He expressed frustration with the media for focusing the Presidential debates on the smallest possible scale. (Ironically, this is something he knows about, since he ran his 1996 Presidential re-election campaign around exactly such "micro-initiatives" as school uniforms.)

He urged us to "make this campaign big, not small," saying that a key political ingredient was to make global warming a voting issue and that the key is to link good new jobs with green energy. (An effort the Sierra Club has been leading -- we will release new clean-energy jobs reports with the United Steelworkers this week.) But he also conceded that he is fighting a battle with Hillary Clinton's own campaign staff on this, and that getting the campaign to showcase leadership was tough. "In 1992, Paul Tsongas and I were the only two candidates who put out detailed policy positions. The media made fun of us. But we got 60 percent of the vote in New Hampshire between us. People respect leadership."

It was a remarkable 90 minutes -- America's brightest policy wonk interacting with 30 environmentalists, mostly policy wonks. He ended by saying it was the most interesting meeting, thus far, of the campaign. Some obvious flattery there, but he clearly enjoyed himself, and he clearly impressed us. At one point the issue was raised: "What should we be doing here in the Bay area?" Clinton responded: "Keep meeting like this, and start thinking of San Francisco and Silicon Valley as if you were a country. Be a nation called Tomorrow. It's a lot easier to get other folks to follow, if someone has led."

Exciting stuff. And San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed's "Green Vision," which was unanimously approved by the city council on October 30, is a good example of what Clinton is talking about.

In the next 15 years, the city has committed itself to
  • 100% power from renewables
  • Reduce per-capita energy use by 50 percent
  • Add 25,000 clean tech jobs
  • No landfills (zero waste)
  • All public fleet vehicles to use alternative fuels
  • 100,000 new trees
  • Recycle/reuse 100% wastewater

As I left Saturday's meeting, I had wondered whether Senator Clinton's campaign would be able to overcome the forces that push politics towards the careful and the trivial. This morning, I've got a smile on my face. We have made the sale. Now we've got to pave the road.