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Anticipating the Next Green President

Author: Toni Johnson
March 7, 2008

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With little fanfare, the U.S. Energy Department last month pulled funding for FutureGen, a near zero-emission coal plant project (MarketWatch) that was once touted as a Bush administration centerpiece for addressing climate change. The project’s uncertain future raises alarm among some climate experts who stress the need to introduce clean-coal technology as soon as possible. As a Washington Post editorial notes, with the huge coal reserves of the United States, China, and India the easiest source to meet energy needs, finding ways to prevent the “buildup of greenhouse gases and sharing that technology widely is imperative.” Wired Magazine’s Alexis Madrigal argues that “to bang the clean coal technology drum” and then abruptly cut support shows the administration is not serious about climate change.

The Bush administration says it is leading the way on developing sound climate- change policy. But environmental advocates have long charged that the administration is resistant to climate-change policy and has a cozy relationship with the fossil-fuel industry. Some see the potential for dramatic change in energy and environmental policy in the current slate of presidential hopefuls. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), the Democratic front-runners, are members of the Senate’s environment committee and propose ambitious plans for climate change, energy security, and green economy jobs. And Sen. John McCain, (R-AZ) the presumptive Republican nominee, has been an often lonely GOP voice calling for action on climate change. He supports capping greenhouse gases, and opposes drilling in the nation’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The looming change in Washington leadership has the coal power industry (AP) and the oil industry (Reuters) spending big in support of candidates in both parties to try to shore up influence, especially with the Democratic candidates.

But some analysts have doubts about the candidates’ greenness. McCain, in particular, has come under fire for his green bona fides. David Roberts, a staff writer for the environmental website Grist, argues that McCain hasn’t matched the ambitious targets of his Democratic rivals and thus, his “cap-and-trade legislation is now anachronistic, lagging well behind what’s current, what’s possible, and what’s needed.” And Joseph Romm of Salon.com took note of McCain’s denial in a January debate that cap-and-trade is a mandate, when it “would arguably be the most far-reaching government mandate ever legislated.” Bradford Plumer, assistant editor of the New Republic, suggests that McCain has an uneven environmental record and his climate-change approach “would essentially be a conservative one.” McCain in the past has been endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), an environmental advocacy organization monitoring U.S. candidates, but the group recently gave him a relatively low lifetime score on the environment.

While both Democratic candidates have very high lifetime scores from LCV, they also have their share of critics. Sebastian Mallaby, who directs CFR’s Center for Geoeconomic Studies, argues Obama’s approach to climate change lacks fresh ideas (WashPost). Obama has also come under fire for supporting coal-to-liquid fuel, which environmentalists say is greenhouse-gas intensive. Civics advocate Paul Loeb contends Clinton has not shown an ability “to coalesce participants across the admittedly entrenched political divides.” Both candidates also have been criticized by free trade advocates for pledging to add environmental standards to trade deals, which these advocates view more as a trade barrier than environmental protection.

CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow David Victor notes that when energy prices skyrocket and threats such as climate change loom, experts rally around visions of “a new comprehensive energy strategy, backed by a grand new political coalition.” But he says often such coalitions don’t last long enough to accomplish anything significant. Victor suggests that any expectation that new leadership in Washington will put the country on a more sustainable energy path “may be a vain hope.”

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