In addition to his Oscar and Nobel Prize, Al Gore may be in line for the title of Prognosticator of the Year. Last January while I was attending his training program in Nashville, Gore predicted that by the time of the 2008 presidential election, climate change would be the hottest issue in the race.
That prediction hasn’t come true yet, but things are moving that way. Climate change is emerging like a tropical storm building to Category 5. It may become the issue that most clearly defines the candidates’ courage, vision, ability to unify the nation, and willingness to be honest with the American people.
“The most remarkable thing about the environmental debates taking place in this year’s presidential campaign is that they’re occurring at all,” Time magazine reported this week. “Once the stuff of a few hug-the-planet bromides in green states like Vermont and Oregon, the environment is one of the hot topics of the 2008 campaign.”
With that introduction, Time dedicated a page to comparing the candidates’ positions on global warming and related energy issues. Its conclusion: with the exception of John McCain, the Republicans aren’t saying much yet. (Don’t expect them to until after the primaries.) But on the Democrat side, virtually all of the candidates have taken substantive positions, some bold. That’s not a surprise from Chris Dodd or Bill Richardson, who don’t have to worry about protecting a lead. But the front-runners are going on record, too. In fact, we may see them competing against one another for the strongest climate platform. Word is circulating in the climate-action community that John Edwards, who came out early with proposals to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, is gathering ideas for a new and improved climate plan that he wants to announce in the next few weeks.
Why is the political climate heating up? The candidates’ polls may be showing that voters have reached the proverbial “tipping point” on the issue. For example, a poll conducted last July by Yale University, Gallup, and the ClearVision Institute registered some startling numbers that haven’t received enough public attention. Among its findings:
- 71 percent of respondents are personally convinced that global warming is happening;
- 69 percent believe global warming is caused at least in part by human activity;
- 48 percent believe that climate change already is having dangerous impacts on people;
- 68 percent of Americans favor an international treaty that requires the U.S. to cut its carbon dioxide emissions 90 percent by 2050;
- 85 percent support a higher CAFE standard, even if it raises the price of a new car by $500; and
- 75 percent of respondents said the presidential candidates’ position on global warming will be a factor in deciding whom to vote for.
The pollsters didn’t ask whether the respondents would cast their votes for climate action or against it, but global warming seems to have become an issue the candidates cannot long avoid.
My crystal ball is opaque compared to Mr. Gore’s, but I would like to venture three predictions of my own, along with some unsolicited advice to the candidates.
- On Dec. 4, a new nonpartisan climate action plan will be announced by a group — the Presidential Climate Action Project — that has been toiling away on the issue for the past 11 months. It will be the most comprehensive blueprint for presidential action presented so far, designed to help the next White House show decisive leadership in the first 100 days after the presidential inauguration. It will contain more than 100 distinct action items in climate and energy policy, national security, jobs and business development, adaptation, public health, natural resource stewardship, buildings, transportation, and carbon neutrality in federal operations.
If the candidates have been kicking the tires on climate action, the December plan will get under the hood to show how the engine and the fuels of national policy must change. On this prediction, I’m cheating because I’m one of the people constructing the plan.
- I predict that concern about global warming will get even more intense next spring. The National Intelligence Council will issue a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that details the security implications of climate change. It will look ahead 30 years to address the safety of people and property in the United States, the possibility of worldwide humanitarian crises that require military response, the impact on the U.S. military at a time it already is stretched thin, the likely impacts of extreme weather and other factors. The NIE will start with the assumption that the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are based on outdated science and that climate problems will be larger and will occur sooner than the IPCC has predicted.
- As global warming becomes a more visible issue in the campaigns, the die-hard defenders of the carbon economy will try to make climate action the wedge issue of the decade. Their lead argument will be that climate action will ruin the economy and raise everyone’s energy bills. They will counter fear of climate disaster with fear of an economic disaster.
See Part II for my suggestions of how 2008 presidential candidates should respond to the defenders of the status quo.