Putting Money Where the Green Is

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ethan Miller / Getty

A mud-covered boat lies in an area that was until recently underwater in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada.

Al Gore wins the Nobel Peace Prize — and an Oscar. Hardly a day goes by without major corporations like Wal-Mart announcing new green initiatives. Priuses are still hot, oil is near $100 a barrel and even Detroit is hyping fuel efficiency. With all that attention, global warming is surely set to become one of the biggest issues of the 2008 Presidential campaign, right?

Yes — and no. Even Republican candidates sound like they accept the reality of climate change, and the major Democratic candidates have all released surprisingly aggressive plans on energy and carbon, including front-runner Hillary Clinton, who called on Nov. 5 for a cap-and-trade system that would cut carbon emissions to 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. She's in line with the rest of the Democrats, and it's fairly remarkable that a position that would have been considered extreme eight years ago — when a certain Nobel laureate was running for President — is now orthodox in the Democratic party. And even though GOP candidates have been less forthcoming, with the occasional exception of John McCain, Republican politicians like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have showed leadership on climate change at the state and local level. (You can hear Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope talk about climate change and the 2008 election on this Greencast, attached to this story)

But despite those changes, it's less clear that climate change will truly emerge as a defining issue in either the primaries or the general election next November. The flash points thus far have been the war in Iraq, terrorism, health care, the sputtering economy and social issues like abortion — not melting polar ice caps. And there's good reason for that. A recent poll by the Kaiser Foundation asked Americans what two issues they most wanted the presidential candidates to talk about. Among Democrats, Republicans and Independents, climate change or the environment failed to crack the top seven choices. (For the record, Iraq and health care were number one and number two across the board.)

Given the ongoing cataclysm in Iraq and an economy poised on the brink of a meltdown — not to mention the tantalizingly tabloid possibility of a Giuliani-Clinton matchup — it's hard to see how climate change will really break into the national political conversation next fall. "I have no confidence whatsoever that this is going to be a key deciding issue in who Americans vote for this election," says Ted Nordhaus, a political consultant and co-author of the new environmental book Breakthrough. "You don't see politicians making their name around climate change in Ohio, or Michigan or the other battleground states that will decide the Presidential election."

Yet other polls indicate that a rising number of Americans do care about climate change, are in favor of stronger federal action on global warming and are even willing to pay a bit more for it. But despite a growing group of committed activists, many of them young, climate change seems to remain a soft issue, like most anything smacking of environmentalism. Most Americans are in favor of it (who doesn't like nature?), but aren't necessarily willing to take to the streets or the ballot box for it. That's perhaps understandable — fear of a warmer world in the future is a lot less palpable than fear of terrorism today — but it's a failing. Climate change is the most important issue facing the world today and tomorrow, not just because of the risks of rising seas or worsening droughts, but because the economic revolution that comes with the inevitable shift to cleaner energy will decide the winners and losers of the 21st century. It's something we should be hearing about more often on the campaign trail.

If a smart candidate makes the case on global warming in the right way, however, it could indeed emerge as one of the defining issues of 2008. And that's by shifting the focus from something Americans care about shallowly (the environment) to something they care about deeply (the economy). There are billions to be made and jobs to be created out of a more efficient, greener economy, and a platform that emphasizes those positive possibilities would resonate with anyone, not just environmentalists.

Schwarzenegger has discovered this in California. When he talks about global warming, it's not about dying polar bears. Instead it's about job creation, about responding positively to the climate challenge, about turning California into a center of green innovation. That rhetoric has helped give Schwarzenegger's climate policies broad bipartisan support — and if a Presidential candidate, Democrat or Republican, is smart enough to sound like him, 2008 could still be the climate election.