As everyone (with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton) is now aware, Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination for president on Tuesday. One question is now on the mind of every pundit and political player: what will this mean for the fight against climate change?
Except not really, so let me take a stab at it.
The short story goes like this: Obama's victory is the best thing that could have happened to greens, but perhaps not for the reasons you think.
It's not about policy
In part thanks to the early courage of John Edwards, all the major Dem candidates had excellent climate/energy proposals. All called for 80% greenhouse gas reductions by 2050 (with 100% of carbon credits auctioned), multi-billion dollar investments in clean energy and efficiency, and good-faith engagement with international climate negotiations. Their plans differed in some details, but nothing as significant as mandates in health care. On paper, Dem candidates have been in the same laudable place on the issue.
Their are some differences in their records, of course, and instances when their past votes or words have contradicted their current positions. But despite the inflated claims from various partisans, no Dem candidate has been entirely without sin or entirely without virtue on climate.
(It goes without saying that the common Dem ground is way, way out ahead of John McCain's stated positions and his record.)
Picking the best Dem candidate on climate/energy came down to three things:
All all three counts, I think Obama's the guy.
Who makes it the highest priority?
It's clear that climate is not an animating, gut-level issue for ... well, for any national politician. That's not necessarily a condemnation. Climate change is somewhat abstract -- looming in the future, enormous, difficult to grasp on a human scale. Intellectually, plenty of Dem politicians are convinced it's a problem, but it doesn't inflame them like healthcare or education.
That's true for Obama too, but in a way, it's true for Obama across the board. There is a side of him that's professorial and somewhat emotionally distant. He considers things clinically. To him politics is a puzzle: who to talk to, what to say, what levers to pull, to get the policies that will solve America's problems.
This intellectualism can occasionally make him seem remote (or, to Bubbas, "elitist"), but it can play to the advantage of climate/energy, which is itself a huge, fascinating, and very urgent puzzle. When asked last Dec. about the toughest choices he'd face in the White House, he said:
The issue of climate change. I've put forward one of the most aggressive proposals out there, but the science seems to be coming in indicating it's accelerating even more quickly with every passing day. And by the time I take office, I think we're going to have to have a serious conversation about how drastic steps we need to take to address it.
He gets the scope of the problem and he's applying his intellect to properly framing it and finding solutions that can command popular support. Throughout the race, he has subtly strengthened his positions and honed his rhetoric on climate/energy, probing for those places it connects with voters. He's trying to get it into their guts, something he's more capable of than his opponents.
Who can clarify the differences and articulate the case against John McCain?
There's a real danger that climate will become a blurry issue in the general election, since McCain is -- at least according to a gullible press -- a climate champion who supports cap-and-trade just like the Dems. (No.) How deep is McCain's commitment to more sensible energy policy? Shallow enough that he'll propose a summer gas tax holiday, a policy so stupid and counterproductive and panderific that not a single analyst could be unearthed to support it.
That evidence is not dispositive, but it indicates at least some degree of seriousness about sticking to his progressive guns on climate/energy issues. Throughout the campaign, Obama and his aides have made it clear that they will use climate to highlight differences with McCain -- somewhat refreshing from a party that's spent so long attempting to blur differences.
Who can get strong legislation passed when elected?
The answer to this question is both more significant and more speculative.
Ask any green what's missing from the climate fight, and they'll tell you it's genuine public engagement. Acceptance of the basic facts on climate is widespread but it is a priority for only a tiny sliver of voters. Support is wide but shallow. As a consequence, legislative battles are often conducted almost entirely behind the scenes, with only lobbyists in the room, and the passionately opposed minority blocks and stymies the tepidly committed majority. No politician is willing to spend political capital on it because there's no votes to gain from it. (For painful evidence of all this, witness the current debate over the weak Lieberman-Warner climate bill in the Senate.)
The real moonshot of Obama's campaign is the possibility that he will take the skills he learned in community organizing and the bottom-up strategy he used in his campaign and apply it to governance. The climate/energy issue is desperately in need of some old-fashioned bully pulpit leadership. Imagine if Obama could go to the district of a wavering legislator and hold a rally with thousands of volunteers, who then go on to knock on doors, talk to voters, and hold events. Imagine if Obama could shepherd a genuine, public-spirited citizens' movement to push for strong climate solutions.
That kind of thing just doesn't come naturally to old-school, top-down politicians like Clinton and McCain. There's no way of knowing for sure whether Obama will make good on the promise either, but for greens, sick with the knowledge of our rapidly shrinking window of opportunity, it's the brightest hope to emerge from the dismal arena of American national politics in a long time.
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