By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
All of the leading Democratic contenders for the presidency are committed to a set of cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that would change the way Americans light their homes, fuel their automobiles and do their jobs, costing billions of dollars in the short term but potentially, the candidates say, saving even more in the decades to follow.
Former senator John Edwards (N.C.), who from the outset has made global warming one of the three pillars of his campaign, explains his ambitious plan to Democratic primary voters in terms of sacrifice.
"I know what presidential candidates are supposed to do; they roll in here every four years and they promise you this, they promise you that. What I'm going to do is tell you the truth," Edwards says at nearly every campaign stop. "It won't be easy, but it is time for a president who asks Americans to be patriotic about something other than war."
The strong medicine Edwards and his fellow candidates are selling -- an 80 percent cut in greenhouse gases from 1990s levels by 2050 -- tracks with a plan espoused by scientists. But it is a plan that will require a wholesale transformation of the nation's economy and society.
In a speech yesterday in Iowa, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) said she plans to address climate change and the nation's energy needs by launching an effort to require U.S. vehicles to average 55 miles per gallon by 2030 and providing $20 billion in "Green Vehicle Bonds" to help the auto industry transform to production of more efficient cars. Clinton estimated that by 2030, her plan would cut foreign oil imports by two-thirds compared with current projections.
"This is the biggest challenge we've faced in a generation -- a challenge to our economy, our security, our health and our planet. It's time for America to meet it," Clinton said. ". . . I believe America is ready to take action, ready to break the bonds of the old energy economy and ready to prove that the climate crisis is also one of the greatest economic opportunities in the history of our country. . . . It will be a new beginning for the 21st century."
According to energy expert Tracy Terry's analysis of a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, under the scenario of an 80 percent reduction in emissions from 1990 levels, by 2015 Americans could be paying 30 percent more for natural gas in their homes and even more for electricity. At the same time, the cost of coal could quadruple and crude oil prices could rise by an additional $24 a barrel.
"I'd be the first to tell you: This is not necessarily the greatest political calculation," Edwards acknowledged in an interview, adding that audiences tend to pause before expressing their support when he lays out his climate plan. "No matter what the politics are, there's such a moral responsibility to address this issue. We've got to do it."
In a Des Moines speech last month, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) predicted that new technology will ultimately bring rising energy costs back down. "But at least on the front end, there's going to be some costs, and we can't pretend like there's a free lunch," he told the crowd.
While Democrats are working to outdo each other on climate change -- New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, for example, supports a 90 percent greenhouse gas reduction by midcentury -- GOP presidential candidates remain more skeptical, to say the least. Former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) stands by his commentary on National Review Online that warming on other planets has led some people "to wonder if Mars and Jupiter, non signatories to the Kyoto Treaty, are actually inhabited by alien SUV-driving industrialists who run their air-conditioning at 60 degrees and refuse to recycle."
Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said in the wake of Gore's Nobel Prize win that when it comes to global warming, "if we try to deal with it at too hysterical a pace, we could create problems."
Among Republicans, only Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) -- who began crusading against climate change after a heckler dressed as a penguin followed him around New Hampshire during his 2000 presidential bid -- backs a specific, 60 percent cut in greenhouse gases by 2050. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee endorsed a mandatory carbon cap last month but has not laid out specifics.
The issue has turned into a Democratic primary litmus test, and many party strategists say it could be a way to win over in the general election suburban Republican women, who tend to place a high priority on environmental issues.
"It's a huge issue. I've been stunned by this," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who found in a May poll that energy independence and global warming were cited as America's most important domestic challenge by 29 percent of respondents, second only to health care. "I think this is a top-tier voting issue that has crossover appeal," Greenberg said.
In contrast to 2000 and 2004, when Gore and John F. Kerry played down their environmental records, these Democratic candidates have already begun advertising on climate change. As of mid-October, energy and global warming issues were second only to Iraq in terms of ad topics. Friends of the Earth, which endorsed Edwards for his aggressive climate change policy, also began running radio ads in New Hampshire on his behalf.
Democrats have promised to ease the pain by taking the money that would come from putting a price on carbon, whether through a tax or auctioning off pollution credits, and investing it in technological research, job training, tax credits for consumers who buy cleaner vehicles and subsidies for those hit hardest by rising electric bills.
Several Democrats have even taken the unusual step of compensating for their campaigns' sizable carbon footprints by contributing to groups that seek to reduce greenhouse gases by planting trees and funding clean-energy projects. Edwards gave $22,000 to NativeEnergy to atone for the emissions of his campaign's travel. Clinton gave just under $11,600 to the same group to cover her campaign's operations in April, May, June and July. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) paid $1,000 to CarbonFund.org for July, August and September, and uses a charter air company that offsets the carbon footprint of its flights.
Democrats' boldness, however, could carry a political price. The eventual GOP presidential nominee is almost certain to attack Democrats over the huge costs associated with limiting emissions. "They will come at this hard," said John Podesta, who heads the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and sees an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases as necessary.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who has just co-written a book on the environment called "A Contract With the Earth," said either party could face serious consequences if they mishandle the question of climate change. A Democrat running on "litigation and regulation" could alienate voters, he said in an interview. "You can just calculate the costs," Gingrich said.
"Then, Republican candidates are on the opposite extreme," he added. "A candidate who's anti-environment and denies global warming gets killed in the suburbs."
Edward Parson, a University of Michigan law professor who worked in the Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Bill Clinton, said that to reach the 80 percent goal by 2050, Americans would have to capture and store carbon emissions from every power plant in the country. "A world that gets to that big a reduction in greenhouse gases is a world where you're paying more for energy," he said.
Dodd, the one Democrat to back a carbon tax, has vowed to use the $50 billion that would be generated each year to fast-track research, development and deployment of renewable and energy-efficient technologies. He said Democrats will counter GOP attacks by making climate policy "part of the economic revival of the country."
"We're borrowing a billion a day to bring fuel from offshore," he said in an interview as he campaigned in Iowa. As for the costs associated with confronting climate change: "People can complain about the price. I don't know how you can think that price is as bad as what we're paying right now."
Staff researcher Karl Evanzz contributed to this report.