Muckraker: Grist on Politics

The League of Conservation Voters announced its endorsement of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on Monday, touting his energy and environment plans as the “most comprehensive” ever from a presidential nominee.

While LCV President Gene Karpinski credits John McCain — whom LCV endorsed in his 2004 Senate race — for taking the challenge of global warming seriously, Karpinski says that the “solutions that he suggests aren’t nearly good enough.”

Grist caught up with Karpinski this week to talk about the endorsement, differences Obama has had with green groups in the past, and the role energy and environmental issues will play in this election.

Grist: So what made LCV decide to endorse Barack Obama?

Karpinski: Our top priorities are the related issues of global warming and a new energy future, and Obama has put forward the most comprehensive, most aggressive, most ambitious plan of any nominee in history. No. 2, you compare [Obama’s and McCain’s] lifetime scores. LCV’s report card is one of the most important barometers of how good somebody is on the environment. McCain’s lifetime score, going back to 1983 with nearly 300 votes that the League has deemed important, is an embarrassing 24 percent. Sen. Obama, in his three years in the Senate, scored 86 percent. So Sen. Obama is much better on meeting the challenges of global warming and a new energy future.

Gene Karpinski. Photo: Chris Kleponis
Gene Karpinski.
Photo: Chris Kleponis

And then when you look at the specific policies, Sen. Obama supports a much more aggressive increase in fuel-economy standards, a mandatory renewable-electricity standard of 25 percent by 2025, cutting global-warming pollution by 80 percent, and making polluters pay for permits. And on each of those issues, Sen. McCain is in a different place. He’s opposed mandatory fuel-economy standards, opposed a renewable-electricity standard, and his global-warming plan falls far short of what the science says we need to do.

Grist: LCV endorsed McCain in his Senate race in 2004.

Karpinski: Clearly John McCain is better than President Bush, but that’s an extremely low bar and not the way you measure someone. When we endorsed him in 2004, it was related to the field, and at the time he had a leading plan to address global warming. But when you compare him to Sen. Obama, there’s no comparison that makes sense. Sen. Obama is head and shoulders above in terms of his plan, in terms of his lifetime score, in terms of his specific policies.

Grist: Doesn’t this seem like a slap in the face for McCain, who has stuck his neck out on an issue that isn’t particularly popular with many in his party?

Karpinski: We recognize that he’s acknowledged that global warming is serious and he’s put forward a plan for it. That’s to his credit. But that alone is not enough. This is the most important challenge we face. It’s a critical moment in our history. We need the president who’s going to be the most aggressive, the most ambitious, the most comprehensive, and the best leader to get the job done. And clearly that’s Sen. Obama.

Grist: Are there any things you would like to see strengthened in Obama’s plan?

Karpinski: I think the biggest challenge for Sen. Obama is two-fold. First, that’s to keep making it a priority during his campaign, which he has done, and we applaud him for that. Secondly, it’s to make sure that when he gets into office, which we want to make sure he does, he exercises the leadership to pull this together.

I think the new president has to do three key things. One is to work with Congress to put a comprehensive plan on the table within the first 100 days. Secondly, it’s to immediately upon taking office use his existing authority to move the levers of government — the EPA, get the Highway Traffic Safety Administration to increase CAFE, to green the government itself. So use the executive authorities he has. Third, he needs to engage the international community. We need to be able to go into Copenhagen [where the next big U.N. climate conference will be held in Dec. 2009] and say we’re leaders, and that’s what we want from the rest of the world.

Grist: In the past, green groups in general, including LCV, have been critical of Obama’s record and rhetoric on coal. On the coal-to-liquids issue, when environmental groups criticized him for it, he was pretty defensive about it.

Karpinski: I think his position has now evolved to the point where he has said we shouldn’t have any other fuel unless it reduces CO2 emissions. And from what we currently know about liquid coal, liquid coal doesn’t meet that standard. So by saying any new standard has to reduce CO2 emissions, that’s the most important thing he’s done.

Grist: Do you have concerns about his overall policies on coal? He’s from a coal state, and he’s shown sympathies for the industry over the years.

Karpinski: When you look at how his position has evolved on the issue of liquid coal, he’s moved in the right direction. And if you look at his position on requiring utilities to move to 25 percent renewables by 2025, that’s the correct, appropriate policy. Coal’s going to be with us for a while. The question is how do you push the alternatives as quickly as possible.

Grist: What does the endorsement from green groups mean this year? It seems like Obama has been actively courting groups like the labor community and women voters. It doesn’t seem like he’s been as aggressive in going after green groups. Is it going to be important for Obama to have this kind of endorsement?

Karpinski: Oh, I think it’s critically important. We met with him, and he answered our questionnaire over a year ago. We’ve had conversations with his staff on a regular basis.

It’s particularly important because this issue is front and center in the debate. Just this week both candidates were doing ads on these issues. Sen. McCain likes to say he’s an environmentalist. We’ll, he likes to say that, but the facts suggest that he’s not nearly good enough. There’s no comparison between the two when you look at their records. So it’s an important part of the conversation in that regard.

Independent voters, like they were in 2006, will be a key part of this election cycle. And this issue of a new energy future was the top voting issue for them in 2006 and we certainly expect it to be a top issue this year. Therefore, our work as third-party evaluators in making it clear that Sen. Obama is far superior to Sen. McCain on these issues is a critical message that needs to be heard.

Grist: How about Obama’s advisers on energy and environment? Are these the people you think represent your issues well?

Karpinski: He’s had a whole host of people, volunteers, outside advisers. I was just with one last night — people like Mark Van Putten, Jason Grumet, Howard Learner, who have been in the environmental field for many years. That’s a good sign right there. The woman who’s taking over I believe this week in terms of the actual campaign staff is Heather Zichal, who’s done this work for Sen. [John] Kerry for many years. So you look at the people who are working with him both as volunteers and on staff, and they’ve been leaders on these issues for many years, so that’s a positive sign as well.

Grist: Are people going to vote the environment this year?

Karpinski: Absolutely. When you ask people what issues concern them, the issue of a new energy future is top of their mind, every day. People are upset about gas prices, they’re concerned about our security, they’re concerned about global warming. A whole host of issues all revolve around the solutions to our energy problem. That’s what makes this election so exciting. It’s a time when these issues frame not just as an environmental issue, but frame more broadly as the challenge of the energy problem we face. It will be front and center for voters, and the candidates talk about it every day. The key, therefore, is to understand the differences between the candidates and make sure voters understand and know why Sen. Obama’s plans and his vision and his leadership is far superior. His plan, if done the right way, will be not just an environmental solution, but it will create new jobs, it will be good for the economy, good for our security, and it will protect the planet from global-warming pollution.

Grist: Both McCain and Republicans in Congress have been pushing for drilling as the solution to energy problems. It seems like rising gas prices will be a big issue in the campaign. Does that make it more challenging to put forward more environmentally sound alternatives?

Karpinski: Clearly the public is upset about gas prices, but leaders have to lead in terms of the right solutions. We can’t go back to the failed solutions of the past brought to us by Big Oil and George Bush and say that’s the way to solve this problem. That’s the kind of approach that got us into the problems we’re in today. We need new vision, new leadership, and new ways of doing things that push toward new alternatives and a new energy future, that’s good for jobs, good for the economy, good for security, and good for the environment. Not the ways of the past, but the ways of the future. Efficiencies and renewables are the way to solve this problem, not the Big Oil solutions of the past.

Grist: Do you think this is a first-100-days issue for both Barack Obama and John McCain? They both talk about it as such, but do you think it would be?

Karpinski: I know for Sen. Obama, when asked how would he measure his first years, he’s talked about three issues. One is the national security issue, the second is health care, and third is the related issues of solving the energy and global warming problems. So it’s absolutely one of his top three issues. That’s why absolutely as the new president we need him to put forth a new legislative issue in the first 100 days, use his executive authority, and exert the kind of international leadership to have the United States finally be a leader again in the solutions, and not just the leader in terms of the problem.

Grist: How about McCain. Do you think it would be a first-100-days issue for him?

Karpinski: It’s hard to say. He certainly talks about it a lot. We’ll see. I think he takes it seriously, there’s no doubt about it. Compared to other issues, I think it’s probably on the shortlist as well. The problem, though, is his solutions that he suggests aren’t nearly good enough. They don’t do what the science says we need to do. And in some ways they’re relying on the failed policies of the past. Do we want to go drill off our coasts in the first 100 days? That’s crazy. That’s the old solutions. We need a new energy future, and that’s where Sen. Obama wants to take us.