Correction Appended: April 17, 2008
Presidential candidates must be salespeople of the first order. They take to the stump peddling their ideas and watch which issues catch voters' eyes and which ones leave them cold. The environment has always been one of those no-sale issues. In 2000, Al Gore couldn't even get heard on the subject--and his advisers told him to stop trying.
This year was supposed to be different. After Hurricane Katrina, melting ice caps and Gore's hit film, An Inconvenient Truth, the 2008 election seemed certain to serve up a real debate about America's role in cleaning up the planet.
So why are we still waiting for that conversation? Senators Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain all support mandatory reductions in carbon emissions--a first in a presidential campaign. But they haven't hashed it out with one another the way they've argued the fine points of, say, health care. In three dozen presidential debates, climate has rarely come up.
This discussion could still take place. The Senate is preparing to debate climate legislation, and the President says he wants Congress to pass a global-warming bill too--but not one with mandatory reductions. It's clearly too late for George W. Bush, who delivered a speech on April 16 calling for incentives to reduce carbon emissions but far too slowly and with little to ensure that the cuts would actually happen.
Climate leadership will come not from this President but from the next. So how will voters be able to tell which candidate is going to take real action? If there's a canary in this coal mine, it's the policy known as cap and trade, an idea Environmental Defense Fund president Fred Krupp calls a "silver bullet." Where do the candidates really stand on cap and trade--and how does it work, anyway?
Carbon for Sale
One way to think about cap and trade is as a carbon diet. When utilities or oil refiners are put on the regimen, their annual carbon emissions are measured, and they receive a stack of pollution allowances giving them the right to emit that much carbon in a year. Then the emissions are reduced, year by year. Like all diets, this one's hard to stick to. It's also expensive, since emitters have to invest in technologies to reduce their pollution. But there are incentives. Constraints on carbon boost prices, which means that alternative sources of power become competitive. What's more, if emitters come in beneath their limits, they can sell their extra allowances to other hungry companies. This means there's not just virtue in going green but money to be made as well.
That's the trade in cap and trade, and it harnesses the power of the marketplace to fight warming, a concept that helped Republicans like McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, fall in love with the idea. What's more, it works. Cap and trade was used in the 1990s to limit sulfur dioxide emissions and help tame acid rain. The most promising piece of green legislation now on Capitol Hill, co-sponsored by independent Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican Senator John Warner of Virginia, is a cap-and-trade proposal. The bill is popular, but that doesn't mean it's going to pass. For some fence sitters, the chief obstacle isn't ideology--it's geology.
Half of the U.S.'s electricity and a third of its CO2 pollution come from coal-fired power plants. Most of those plants are clustered in 25 states, each of which gets half or more of its electricity from coal. Why does that matter? Because creating a system in which electric utilities pay for the right to pollute will drive up electricity rates in those states and could force a shift to natural gas.
The coal industry would prefer not to go out of business, and it is trying to delay big emissions cuts for a decade or two, until it perfects the technology to capture and store the CO2 its power plants emit. Lieberman and Warner won't delay those cuts (Clinton, Obama and McCain don't want to either), but they want coal to survive, so their bill gives the industry $235 billion for R&D over the next 20 years. Even so, politicians who represent what's left of America's coal-fired industrial heartland aren't rushing to support the bill during hard economic times. To bring them around, the bill's supporters must make the case that cap and trade's costs are dwarfed by its benefits--not just averting a climate catastrophe but also jump-starting clean-energy industries and creating millions of new "green collar" jobs.
What's more, trading pollution allowances could raise hundreds of billions of dollars. Clinton and Obama want all the allowances auctioned to the highest bidder, a position McCain would not accept. The fossil-fuel industries want them given away. Lieberman-Warner uses a mix of giveaway and auction, a seemingly fair approach but one that has split enviros--some of whom see the bill as weak. Industry is ambivalent too. The National Association of Manufacturers is dug in against the bill. A large and growing number of corporations know that a cap is inevitable, though few have come out in favor of Lieberman-Warner. And all this leaves unanswered the problem of how to ensure that carbon-constrained U.S. businesses aren't hurt in global trade.
It's in the election that these issues should be getting thrashed out. To encourage that, Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection is spending $300 million over three years on advertising meant to trigger what Gore adviser Kalee Kreider calls a "storm surge" of debate and action. With economic concerns now crowding everything else out, there's a danger that nothing like that will happen. But if the candidates play it right, those same economic concerns could be what gets the environmental conversation going.
The green jobs that cap and trade could help create would be a big employment sector--including production of wind turbines, pollution scrubbers and more. Obama and Clinton talk about spending $150 billion over 10 years to create millions of those jobs, but it's the sale of pollution allowances that would raise that money. No cap and trade, no jobs. That seems simple--but not to the campaigns.
"It's too complicated to talk about on the stump," says a Clinton adviser. But the way Clinton and Obama do talk about it makes green jobs sound too easy, like a federal employment program for Keebler elves. "These are real jobs, but it comes across as happy talk," says United Steelworkers president Leo Girard.