The Presidential Climate

Climate-news watchers may have done a double-take if they caught a look at a story in today’s Washington Times. It reported that: “President Bush is poised to change course and announce as early as this week that he wants Congress to pass a bill to combat global warming.”

If the account proves true, it will signal a Georgie-come-lately understanding by our President of the need to act on the disturbing revelations that climate scientists have been sounding about a warming of our planet.

In contrast, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama have all been stumping that climate warming not only is real but presents an imminent threat to economies and ecosystems around the globe—especially America’s. Indeed, just last Friday (Apr. 11), energy and environment advisors to all three front-running presidential candidates addressed journalists at the National Press Club.

I should point out that the event was sponsored by the Society of Environmental Journalists (of which, for truth in advertising, I’m a founding membe). The science and environmental reporters who came were a far cry from the rabid political press corps that can go for the jugular. Indeed, those attending this event lobbed gentle, underhand softball questions—no killer curve balls.

Last Friday’s event served as a sort of surrogate debate on the environment. And although I’m fairly apolitical, on debating grounds I’d argue that the clear winner was McCain’s advisor, R. James Woolsey.

A former CIA director (1993-1995) under Bill Clinton, this articulate attorney now works for Goodwin Procter, a prominent DC law firm. At the SEJ event, Woolsey exhibited a genial manner and spewed facts and anecdotes like an old pol. Having butted heads with Congress at hearings over some very divisive issues, finding slick answers to satisfy a room full of fairly polite journalists was no sweat for Woolsey.

Although there was not a huge difference between the general views offered on behalf of each candidate, I give Woolsey extra points for answers that always seemed a bit more detailed and polished.

As for climate concerns, he said McCain believes “global warming is a serious and urgent economic, environmental, and national-security challenge.” Woolsey argued that addressing the climate threat will require that we “destroy” oil’s monopoly on transportation and invest in technologies that will allow us to “move away from oil, period.”

He said McCain would attack global warming with new technologies (like renewables and hybrid- or flex-fueled vehicles), target pointless and counterproductive energy subsidies for elimination, and focus on carbon-limiting tactics that will save people money in the long run. Woolsey noted that because some people still don’t buy that global warming is a problem, candidates will need to appeal to other concerns—such as the economy and reducing our vulnerability to terrorism.

The other presidential-candidate advisors proposed similar ideas, but Woolsey articulated them more clearly and persuasively. I give Woolsey extra points for hitting the trifecta here: addressing climate, energy and national-security concerns in one fell swoop.
Jason S. Grumet, executive director of the National Commission on Energy Policy, in Washington, D.C., was nearly as persuasive, but used another tactic. He made Obama sound committed to implementing immediate policy changes to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint. He didn’t elaborate on how—at least to the same extent that Woolsey did. However, Grumet’s anecdotal descriptions of Obama lent the candidate a scholarly image and one devoted to action, not just talking a good line.

Clinton’s advisor, Todd Stern, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank that describes itself as being dedicated to “improving the lives of Americans through ideas and action.” He seemed nice enough and said things consistent with Woolsey and Grumet, but just didn’t have the panache to sell Clinton—and her ideas—very persuasively. He always seemed a little short on details. So we heard rather vague, sweeping plans for Clinton. Such as that she planned to put climate and energy issues atop her agenda—making them “a first day [in office] [priority.”

At which point Grumet one-upped Stern. “I kid you not,” he said, Obama is already hard at work dealing with these issues—“as President-elect.”

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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