Say what you may about last night’s debate, but it was anything but boring for enviros. Even if the candidates largely recycled preexisting talking points on energy and climate, the mere fact that both issues got top billing in a presidential debate was an historic first.
“What strikes me as important is that energy has risen to the top of the list in terms of issues that people are concerned about right now. It’s really energy, the economy, health care, and the war that are dominating the conversation,” said Gillian Caldwell, campaign director for 1Sky. “And energy is of course so connected to the conversation that we’re having about the economy and the war, and it even has substantial health implications when you think about particulate matter and hot spots and the disproportionate impact on low-income communities.”
The most heralded portion of the debate was the question from Ingrid Jackson asking the candidates what they would do in their first two years in office regarding climate change.
“After the millions of questions with zero focus on global warming, we got a really good one,” said Jamie Henn, co-coordinator for 350.org. “I think that what the questions emphasized, and what was exciting about it, was the need for speed. We don’t just want ambitious plans, we want something to get started right away.”
Henn said the candidates didn’t look like they were expecting any questions on climate change last night.
“It seemed like it almost caught them off guard a bit. They got warmed up as they were talking about it, but it’s understandable. They haven’t gotten any questions from the media on global warming lately,” he said.
Henn thought that both candidates handled it well in the end, giving him faith that enviros could work with them on the issues. “I think once they got going, it was way better than what we’ve heard in the last 8 years,” said Henn. “We have an opening to really push them on it, but it’s going to take some pressure to get both of the candidates to where we want them to be.”
Some enviro observers were disappointed that there was not much time for follow-up questions allotted in last night’s debate, and though the candidates repeatedly talked about energy, they left a lot of questions about their policies unanswered. Dan Weiss, director of climate strategy for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, said someone should have asked John McCain about why his cap-and-trade plan doesn’t force polluters to pay for carbon credits.
“That bailout is worth several hundred billion dollars a year, based on EPA studies. And that’s a big difference between the two candidates,” said Weiss. “I’m not sure that is the kind of thing that’s ever going to come up in the debates, because that’s kind of in the weeds, but it is important to note that McCain’s plan would be basically a polluter’s bailout.”
Weiss said he also wanted to hear more about specific, short-term solutions to energy concerns. McCain’s emphasis, instead, was on nuclear power and increased drilling.
“McCain talked about energy independence without making any proposals that would actually, in the short term, move us toward that goal,” said Weiss. “The two things he really talked about were offshore oil drilling and nuclear power … That’s not going to provide any relief at all, even in the medium term.”
Some in the environmental community wanted to see some follow-up with McCain on nuclear power, which he described as “the best way of fixing” climate change. The Arizona senator candidly dismissed concerns about nuclear waste, safety, and storage — “Sen. Obama says that it has to be safe or disposable or something like that” — but this remains one of the biggest concerns with his proposal to increase the role of nuclear in the country’s energy portfolio.
“[McCain] pretty much defaulted to nuclear power every chance he got. He brought it up a number of times, even when that wasn’t the question,” said Sierra Club political director Cathy Duvall, who noted that the waste issue is of particular concern to the people who live near the proposed waste dump at Yucca Mountain. “I wonder how the voters in the swing state of Nevada were feeling when he was saying that.”
Some, though, pointed out that Obama should have driven home the fact that relying on drilling and nuclear energy isn’t going to do anything for the American consumer, considering how much of the debate focused on the economy. While happy that Obama acknowledged that “we can’t simply drill our way out of the problem” of dependence on foreign oil, he should have emphasized the pocketbook argument.
“He didn’t make the point, which we’re all aware of, that continuing to drill is not going to reduce your price at the pump substantially, and not for a good period of time,” said 1Sky’s Caldwell. “In the absence of regulations, in the absence of a cap on carbon, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the price at the pump, and drilling for oil is not going to lighten the load on consumer pocketbooks as much as would raising the fuel economy standards and producing hybrid-electric vehicles.”
Caldwell also criticized both candidates for repeating their praise for “clean coal.”
“‘Clean coal’ does not exist at this stage of the game,” said Caldwell. “It’s hypothetical, it’s at least a decade away, and coal is the biggest contributor to global warming pollution.”
Even if everything out of the candidates’ mouths wasn’t solid gold green last night, the fact that it played so prominently should be heeded as a sign of new times, according to many in the enviro field.
“Both of the candidates, at least at the top of the ticket, recognized that [climate change] is an issue. That’s different than what we’ve seen in the presidential elections before,” said Sierra Club’s Duvall. “If you’d asked me a year ago, in these economic times, would energy have come up as much as it did in the answers they gave, I’m not sure I would have thought that was the case. And when we started talking about green jobs a year ago, I think we felt that this was an important piece of it, but we didn’t realize how much it could become a cornerstone.”