LOS ANGELES - Hillary Clinton was peppered by anti-war hecklers at a presidential forum on climate change and energy policy, leading to the forceful expulsion of one protester from the audience.
"How can you say you're for the environment when you are always voting for war?" local activist Tyghe Berry shouted out as he stood up from his seat in the audience and interrupted the front-running Democratic candidate as she vowed to make America green if elected President.
"Were you invited to speak here this afternoon?" responded a visibly perturbed Senator Clinton. Berry was then immediately grabbed by security agents and rushed to a waiting police car by a phalanx of LAPD and federal officers. When Senator Clinton was introduced earlier to the forum she was met with both loud cheers and scattered boos from the predominantly Democratic and liberal audience of approximately 1,000.
The momentary disruption was the emotional high point of an otherwise sedate Saturday afternoon forum that lacked any of the drama or vigor that marked the Democratic debate two nights ago in Las Vegas.
Only candidates Clinton, John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich appeared at the forum on Global Warming & America's Energy future organized by Grist magazine and Public Radio International's Living on Earth and endorsed by a coalition of environmental organizations.
All three participating candidates offered similar promises to push green policies, move America away from reliance on foreign oil, and to reduce greenhouse gases. But the format of the debate allowed no interaction or exchanges between the candidates nor any questions from the public. The panel of three selected questioners asked no challenging questions, allowing the candidates a relatively unobstructed opportunity to promote their respective environmental campaigns.
All presidential contenders of both parties were invited to participate in the debate. No Republicans accepted. Clinton, Edwards and Kucinich were the only declared Democratic candidates that participated in the forum, staged at the Wadsworth Theater on the grounds of the Veterans Administration in West Los Angeles.
Before she was interrupted by the heckling, Clinton, referring to the latest U.N. report on the threat of global warming told the crowd that "we can't afford to fiddle as the world warms." She denounced President George W. Bush as having led an administration that has "dodged, denied and dissembled on the most important global issue."
Relying on what has now become standard Democratic campaign boilerplate, Clinton vowed to take away tax subsidies from oil companies, raise fuel efficiency standards, and promised to "put 5 million Americans to work making America green."
Clinton stressed her three major environmental goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80% from 1990 levels by 2050, cutting foreign oil imports by two-thirds by 2030 and by accelerating a shift away from a carbon-based economy. Prior to today's forum, the Clinton campaign released a painstakingly detailed, statistic-laden twelve-page paper outlining her climate change and energy policy.
But a plan is "just words on the page" and requires strong leadership to implement, Clinton said, repeating a theme of her own touted experience she first floated earlier this year during a Democratic debate on health care. "If you're ready for change, I'm ready to lead," she said.
"What's the magic you bring?" debate moderator and public radio host Steve Curwood asked Clinton, referring to earlier and unfilled presidential promises to better the environment, including those of her husband.
Clinton responded by saying the population's heightened interest in the issue will now make fulfilling those promises much easier. Increasing global cooperation, Clinton said, should also raise optimism.
Edwards, who has recently escalated his criticism of Clinton, didn't use his time on stage today to directly confront his opponent but, nevertheless, made several less-than-subtle suggestions that his approach sharply differed from that of hers. Edwards made several references to a lobbyist-ridden and "corrupt" government, echoing earlier campaign themes that Clinton was too complicit with such special interests. He also suggested that Clinton and others in the Democratic field were pandering to sympathetic constituencies by not admitting the real level of sacrifice that a transition to a greener economy would demand.
"The American people are ready for a president who calls them to sacrifice and asks them to be patriotic about something other than war," Edwards. "'The big change we need is not going to be easy... and will take the efforts of a generation to achieve." Edwards also denounced the war in Iraq, vowed to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and said it was embarrassing that America was now debating whether or not torture should be official U.S. policy.
When asked by The Huffington Post after the forum what most distinguishes his environmental policies from those of Senator Clinton, Edwards said "we're more emphatic in the need to reduce the corrupting powers in Washington that keep these things from getting done."
Today's debate couldn't be more timely, coming exactly one day after the U.N.'s Nobel Prize-winning panel on climate change released its fourth and final report on global warming, warning that even the most strenuous efforts at reducing greenhouse gas levels would be coming too late and that the world now has little choice but to prepare for and accept "abrupt and irreversible" climate changes.
"We need the magnitude of the political response to match the magnitude of the problem," said activist Laurie David, one of the organizers of the debate.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who introduced the forum, took the opportunity to denounce the policies of the Bush Administration, which he accused of downplaying the threat of global warming.
"It's about time we had someone in the White House who actually believes in science," he said to a cheering crowd.
Back-of-the-pack candidate Dennis Kucinich led off his onstage remarks linking the environmental issue to his trademark anti-war policy. "The U.S. must lead the way in abolishing all nuclear weapons," Kucinich said. And he called the current Pentagon refitting of B-2 bombers allegedly ready to bomb suspected nuclear facilities in Iran as a "war-crime in motion," said the veteran Ohio congressman.
Kucinich offered few details of an environmental program but instead proposed a "Green Works" administration that would demand that all of its agencies and departments be dedicated to a sustainable environment.
"It's time to make government an engine of sustainability," he said.
Kucinich boasted of his outsider status, asking how it would be to "imagine a President of the United States not tied to any of these interest groups," he said referring to politically powerful energy, utility and extraction lobbies.
The Democratic candidates differ less on environmental issues than on most any other major policy area. But there are some notable exceptions. Among the top tier candidates, only Edwards has ruled out further development and extension of nuclear power while Obama and Clinton have said they would support more nuclear plants but only attached to a series of broader environmental incentives. The pro-environmental Friends of the Earth recently endorsed Edwards because of his anti-nuke position.
Taking place literally next door to the campus of UCLA, the debate attracted very few students as the middle-aged and elderly seemed to dominate the audience.
Among the many organizations con-sponsoring the forum was the League of Conservation voters, whose endorsement is usually considered a prized catch for any presidential campaign.
The Saturday morning debate lacked nearly all of the pyrotechnics that marked the televised confrontation Thursday among the Democratic candidates who converged on Las Vegas for a CNN-sponsored forum. More than 4 million viewers watched a virtual slugfest in which Hillary Clinton responded to criticism from rivals Barack Obama and John Edwards by accusing them of "throwing mud...right out of the Republican playbook."
Today's environmental forum, however, generated little media attention and went mostly un-noticed by the general public. Several reporters covering the presidential race seemed unaware of the event until the last moment and later criticized its organizers for poor outreach and promotion. The debate started almost an hour behind schedule.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Vice President Al Gore are meanwhile trying to organize their own bipartisan presidential debate on energy and climate change for next month in New Hampshire. Reports say they want the event to take place before the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses scheduled for January 3. With two such high-profiles organizing the December debate in a key battleground states, it's likely that, in contrast to today's event, most if not all the major candidates will agree to attend.