Grist and Outside

This is part of a series of interviews with presidential candidates produced jointly by Grist and Outside.

Update: Chris Dodd dropped out of the presidential race on Jan. 3, 2008.

Chris Dodd

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Chris Dodd.

Chris Dodd hasn’t been out front on environmental issues during his 32 years in Congress, but he’s clearly aiming to out-green his competitors in the 2008 presidential campaign. He has earned props in enviro circles for being the only candidate with the political cojones to call for a corporate carbon tax as a way to fight global warming, and for endorsing a strict fuel-economy standard that would require new cars and trucks to get 50 miles per gallon by 2017. Dodd even ran what was billed as the first presidential-candidate ad focused on global warming.

This senator from Connecticut isn’t gaining a big boost in popularity from his aggressive environmental stances; he’s hovering at 1 to 2 percent in the polls. But will he raise the bar for a strong green agenda in the 2008 presidential race? I called Dodd at his Senate office to find out how much substance there is behind his bold proposals.

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For more info on his platform and record, check out Grist’s Dodd fact sheet.

What makes your platform stronger than the other candidates’?

Everybody’s got the goals right: we’re all for energy independence, for dealing with global warming, for increasing job opportunities in the country. The difficulty breaks down in how do you get there. If you’re going to truly be effective in reaching those goals, you’ve got to be very candid about how you get there.

What we’ve done is laid out a plan that says we’d like to reduce by 80 percent the CO2 pollutants in our environment by 2050. If that’s your goal, then there are two major areas that have to be addressed: transportation and the [electrical] grid.

And how do you move off these polluting technologies, dependency on polluting fuels? We call for a 50-mile-per-gallon standard on automobiles by the year 2017. I’m fully aware of all the questions being raised by people, but I honestly believe this is very doable. We set the standard at 27 mpg in 1984, and we’re having a hard time meeting it. In 1984, there was no such thing as a fax machine, a cell phone, or the internet. Every other technology has modernized in 23 years. I just don’t buy into the notion that the internal-combustion engine can’t be any more sophisticated.

You are the only candidate calling for a carbon tax — a proposal that some consider political suicide, because you can’t make taxes appeal to voters. What are you hearing on the campaign trail about this?

The American people handle the truth very, very well. What they don’t handle well is people in public life promising results without talking about what has to be done to get those results.

We’re talking about a corporate carbon tax that would generate $50 billion a year, with the likely cost passed on to consumers being about 10 cents per gallon of gasoline. My argument is, yeah, this is not inexpensive, but look what’s happening to prices today, under the status quo. Gasoline is about $3 a gallon on average across the country. Many think it’s going to go to $4 or $4.50 a gallon later this summer. So prices are going up a lot more than the 10 cents a gallon we’re talking about.

Even if your prices were not going up that high, we spend about $300 billion a year to purchase fossil fuels offshore. About $100 billion goes to countries who are very hostile to our interests. So the status quo is both dangerous and costly.

Do you have any anecdotes from the campaign trail where you talk to voters about this and they say, “Hey, I get it”?

Yeah, they do. It takes you more than a bumper sticker to say it, so if you’re looking for bumper stickers I don’t have one yet for you. But I’m finding a very strong reaction to it. People are recognizing that this makes sense from a health standpoint, an environmental standpoint, a national-security standpoint, a job-creation standpoint.

How will the revenues of your proposed carbon tax be spent?

They’ll be placed into a Corporate Carbon Tax Trust Fund to fund fast-tracked research, development, and deployment of renewable technologies such as wind, solar, ethanol, and other biofuels. It will also expedite the process for bringing energy-efficient technologies to market and ensure energy-efficient products such as bulbs and household appliances are price competitive, and it will offer tax credits on hybrids and other clean and efficient automobiles to make these cars affordable for all Americans. Being wealthy should not be a prerequisite to living green.

Do you believe nuclear power has a role to play in America’s energy future?

I understand the safety and security concerns with nuclear power and share many of them — I live three miles away from a nuclear power plant. But nuclear power is an option to reduce global warming, which I don’t believe we can afford to take off the menu of options, not when we rely on it for close to one-quarter of our power.

However, the nuclear waste generated is an environmental hazard that I’m deeply concerned about. While the temporary solution of storing waste in dry casks may be safe, we must find a resolution to long-term concerns. We must invest in R&D to develop safe and secure ways for permanent disposal that will protect our environment, our water supply, and our country’s national security. We are not alone in this pursuit and as president I will join forces with our allies around the world facing the same problem.

What about coal, including liquefied coal as a gasoline alternative?

My administration would not invest in coal-to-liquid technologies and programs, and there’s a very simple reason why: Turning coal into liquid fuel does not reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and support the overall goal of turning the clock back on global climate change.

Do you believe we should put a freeze on development of new coal power plants until they can sequester their carbon emissions?

The Dodd plan requires all new coal plants to capture and sequester CO2 without any exceptions, because only then will we begin to combat a major cause of global warming — carbon emissions.

As president, would you oppose subsidizing any technology that increases global warming, even if it reduces our dependence on foreign oil?

I believe that turning back the clock on global warming and reducing our dependence on foreign oil must be dual goals of any commonsense energy plan. Thankfully, there are existing and exciting new technologies that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil while reducing global warming risks. My administration will focus on these technologies.

Do you think the solution to our environmental problems will inevitably require some sacrifice on the part of Americans? Will we have to consume less?

When you consume less, your lifestyle improves. This is not going to be a hair shirt you’ve got to wear. The hair shirt is the one you’re wearing today where you place your children in jeopardy, your climate, your planet. We’re destroying our lifestyle as a result of continued dependency on these polluting technologies and fuels, and what I’m offering is a way for us to escape. We can leave the coming generation the greatest gift — a clear path of clean technology, improving the quality of our environment, a world at peace.

What should a post-Kyoto treaty look like? Some believe we shouldn’t commit to a global target to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions unless China and India come on board.

We need to set the example. It was shameful that the United States took up our chair, left the room, and walked away. As president, I would have us back at that table deeply engaged internationally to be doing everything we could to assist developing countries. Imagine if we’re able to offer the world technologies to allow them to become energy efficient and energy independent. At this point, China actually is going green at a faster pace than we are because they realize it’s going to kill their population if they don’t do it.

Do you think climate and energy will be front-burner issues in the 2008 campaign?

Yes. The public cares about this a lot. After Iraq, between health care and energy, this issue is No. 1 or 2.

After climate and energy, what do you think is the most important environmental issue facing the nation?

Health and air quality. The increasing asthma issues that are related to polluting emissions, to burning coal.

What environmental achievement are you proudest of in your career?

That’s a good question. It’s been a lot of support for things rather than anything I’ve actually initiated. You know, the issue dealing with the Alaskan, you know, the …

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

Yeah, I’ve been a strong supporter of that. I’ve done a lot of work on the oceans. I think we’re going to adopt a Law of the Sea Convention, which will be a breakthrough in terms of having international management of our oceans.

Who is your environmental hero?

Jacques Cousteau. I got to know him very well and always admired his work, particularly on the conservation of oceans and of our water resources. In fact, I have his picture in my office.

If you could spend a week in one park or natural area of the United States, where would it be?

It would probably be in New Hampshire or Iowa. [Laughs.]

You wouldn’t want to stray from the campaign trail! Are you an outdoorsy fellow? When you’re not in the halls of Congress or on the campaign trail, do you like to escape to the natural world?

No. I don’t try to pretend I’m something that I’m not. But I live right on the Connecticut River, I have for 26 years, and the lower Connecticut River Valley is one of the most wonderful environmentally sensitive areas in the world. It’s stunningly beautiful. We do a lot of fishing in that lower valley area. But I don’t pretend to be a great hunter.

Well, that’s OK, we’ll forgive you for not hunting. On a personal level, what are you doing to lighten your environmental footprint?

I’ve had the Ford hybrid, the Escape, for a couple of years. In our home in Connecticut, we have storm windows and we’re moving to the energy-efficient light bulbs. I’ve also pledged to have a carbon-neutral campaign.

If George Bush were a plant or an animal, what kind of plant or animal would he be?

A cactus.