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The Candidates and Climate: A Persistant Air of Surreality
Alex Steffen, 7 Oct 08

Watching the U.S. presidential debates felt like an exercise in describing the problems of another planet altogether.

Consider this exchange:

QUESTION: Sen. McCain, I want to know, we saw that Congress moved pretty fast in the face of an economic crisis. I want to know what you would do within the first two years to make sure that Congress moves fast as far as environmental issues, like climate change and green jobs?

MCCAIN: Well, thank you. Look, we are in tough economic times; we all know that. And let's keep -- never forget the struggle that Americans are in today.

But when we can -- when we have an issue that we may hand our children and our grandchildren a damaged planet, I have disagreed strongly with the Bush administration on this issue. I traveled all over the world looking at the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, Joe Lieberman and I.

And I introduced the first legislation, and we forced votes on it. That's the good news, my friends. The bad news is we lost. But we kept the debate going, and we kept this issue to -- to posing to Americans the danger that climate change opposes.

Now, how -- what's -- what's the best way of fixing it? Nuclear power. Sen. Obama says that it has to be safe or disposable or something like that.

Look, I -- I was on Navy ships that had nuclear power plants. Nuclear power is safe, and it's clean, and it creates hundreds of thousands of jobs.

And -- and I know that we can reprocess the spent nuclear fuel. The Japanese, the British, the French do it. And we can do it, too. Sen. Obama has opposed that.

We can move forward, and clean up our climate, and develop green technologies, and alternate -- alternative energies for -- for hybrid, for hydrogen, for battery-powered cars, so that we can clean up our environment and at the same time get our economy going by creating millions of jobs.

We can do that, we as Americans, because we're the best innovators, we're the best producers, and 95 percent of the people who are our market live outside of the United States of America.

BROKAW: Sen. Obama?

OBAMA: This is one of the biggest challenges of our times.

And it is absolutely critical that we understand this is not just a challenge, it's an opportunity, because if we create a new energy economy, we can create five million new jobs, easily, here in the United States.

It can be an engine that drives us into the future the same way the computer was the engine for economic growth over the last couple of decades.

And we can do it, but we're going to have to make an investment. The same way the computer was originally invented by a bunch of government scientists who were trying to figure out, for defense purposes, how to communicate, we've got to understand that this is a national security issue, as well.

And that's why we've got to make some investments and I've called for investments in solar, wind, geothermal. Contrary to what Sen. McCain keeps on saying, I favor nuclear power as one component of our overall energy mix.

But this is another example where I think it is important to look at the record. Sen. McCain and I actually agree on something. He said a while back that the big problem with energy is that for 30 years, politicians in Washington haven't done anything.

What Sen. McCain doesn't mention is he's been there 26 of them. And during that time, he voted 23 times against alternative fuels, 23 times.

So it's easy to talk about this stuff during a campaign, but it's important for us to understand that it requires a sustained effort from the next president.

One last point I want to make on energy. Sen. McCain talks a lot about drilling, and that's important, but we have three percent of the world's oil reserves and we use 25 percent of the world's oil.

So what that means is that we can't simply drill our way out of the problem. And we're not going to be able to deal with the climate crisis if our only solution is to use more fossil fuels that create global warming.

We're going to have to come up with alternatives, and that means that the United States government is working with the private sector to fund the kind of innovation that we can then export to countries like China that also need energy and are setting up one coal power plant a week.

We've got to make sure that we're giving them the energy that they need or helping them to create the energy that they need.

Note that neither candidate, both supposedly standard-bearers for straight talk and change, puts the planetary crisis in anything like the proper perspective. Both candidates gave pandering, half-answers: for supposed climate champions, neither gave the kind of answers that will either inspire the American people nor prepare the kind of mandate we'll need to take action of the proper scale.

Now, of course, being an armchair candidate is the easiest thing in the world, but still, I wish one of them had said something more like this:

"Thank you for that question.

We hear a lot about climate change and other environmental problems these days, and that makes sense, because we place a planetary crisis of historic proportions. Humanity's future is at stake.

We know that we must change our economy, if we're going to avoid catastrophe. We need to slash our greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts, and that means we're going to have to change the ways generate energy. We're going to have to change how we get around. We're going to have to change the way we build. We're going to have to change the way we grow food, and manage forests, and run our factories. We're going to have to change everything.

To the people of another country, that might be scary. But we're Americans, and we know that the changes we need to make offer us the best opportunity we have to also change the things about our country that aren't working as well as we'd like. If we commit to building an economy that grows by protecting the environment, we will create whole new industries and millions of jobs, develop technologies and products we can sell overseas, rebuild our cities and infrastructure, and bring prosperity back to our farms and forest-dependent communities.

When I am elected president, one of my first actions will be to hold a top-level "climate crisis summit" to develop a comprehensive plan to move America into the carbon-neutral, bright and green economy of the future, so that we avoid catastrophe and renew our nation."

Because here's the thing: whichever candidate wins, he is going to need to stand up in front of the American people and tell them that we face an emergency, if we are going to have any chance of acting quickly enough on climate and other planetary problems to stave off disaster. It'd be nice to see that leadership now, and not just hope it blooms after 1/20/9.

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I fear that both were calibrating to the thin slice of "uncommitted" voters in their response on the climate question, and many others. So they, and particularly Obama, fell short of the "ringing call" response that the issue requires. They temporized, in order to avoid giving offense. The time for that "summons to history" speech may be post-election -- by a winner with the rhetorical skills to deliver it.

Obama was not on his best game tonight, but over all steadily built his cred as possessing the stature and demeanor we expect of a president.

Posted by: Ted on 7 Oct 08

Thank you for calling it straight. Finally, progressives are calling out Obama for his empty rhetoric on climate change policy. His answer tonight? Clean coal, off-shore drilling and nuclear power. More or less the same as McCain, and certainly not the position of a progressive energy/water (we must never, ever separate the two) champion.

But what are good little taken for granted Democrats to do? Continue to be taken for granted. Continue to hand their votes to a party that will do very, very little to champion real and effective, let alone informed, change. Think Obama has Lester Brown or anyone of his caliber on his massive, massive advisory team? Hell no. It's a joke, really. A sad joke...and watching the 'green' Dems blindly support a man who has given them not a dollop of substance makes me grimly realize that we've not a chance in hell.

Posted by: Tod Brilliant on 7 Oct 08

I'm about as astonished to see a post like this as I was to see that Tom Brokaw actually described what we needed (a Manhattan Project on climate change). Did you truly believe that either candidate would do anything but issue boilerplate statements and pandering slogans? Only someone like Ralph Nader or another progressive third party candidate - who will never be elected ever - would actually eloquently address this. The fact is, whether you vote for Obama or McCain in November, you're voting for baby steps toward environmental protection, if that.

Posted by: Alex M. Thompson on 7 Oct 08

Obama's response was slightly less disastrous than McCain's, but still disastrous. He's been purchased by the coal and nuke industries and barely gives solar and wind a passing mention. The VP "debate" was much worse, in terms of energy. I did hear some talk in tonight's "debate" of conservation and efficiency, but the public has been brainwashed to think those measures won't amount to much and pretty much equates it with sacrifice instead of higher quality of life. The repubs say "drill, baby, drill" and the dems say "drill, baby, drill....but it won't do anything for us"... Then why drill?

Also, no one is even beginning to talk about water.

What is going on here?

Yes Alex, another planet altogether.

Posted by: greensolutions on 7 Oct 08

Maybe presidents follow the plow and discuss the horse and its gas, because what frontier has been made in Washington and when did we think so?

Of course this is rhetorical. But no, it's not a dumb question.

Weak solutions offered in this debate say a great deal. But none of us could screw together a package to please a nation. None should try perhaps. Our fathers walked into localities and regions and made a world here and there with friends and so and so until we gathered up this thing America. Imagine if we first cranked a phone to see what Washington thinks!

We're distracted each four years. If a campaign lasts two years, then we're moving ahead only half the time. Damn these silly days.

Our progress is each other and what we do, not representatives of what we've done. Wot? Did I miss something?

Somewhere not long ago we forgot what government is. And in so doing we neglected to march ahead without it.

Posted by: Brian Hayes on 7 Oct 08

A candidate saying the things you have posted would surely get sound bites taken out of context and distorted by the other candidate to the point of damaging their bid for office. Even though your proposed response may have been better it surely would have hurt either candidate's bid for election with the general public. A statement like this is much easier to say after the race to the White House is over. Let us hope whoever it is that ends up our next president will have the vision and courage to do just that.

Posted by: Trog on 8 Oct 08

"Even though your proposed response may have been better it surely would have hurt either candidate's bid for election with the general public. A statement like this is much easier to say after the race to the White House is over. Let us hope whoever it is that ends up our next president will have the vision and courage to do just that."

Yes! Great comment.

And in the meantime, talking truth to power is essential. And what is the likely good to come of quasi-balanced pot shots at highly-not-equal candidates (did I hear someone say, "drill, baby, drill"? Is someone else resisting that kind of pandering to short-term consumption psychology?) aside from fueling cynicism? Critical thinking, yes please. Cynical generalities, maybe not.

Posted by: Kevin Matthews on 8 Oct 08

I may not have been clear enough, Alex, that I do totally agree with the article that it is surreal, and immensely frustrating, to see these debate statements in these times be so unequal to the vital environmental challenges we're facing. Thanks for expressing that frustration.

I just think it's a whole system, MSM and all, not the candidates per se, that is suppressing direct discussion of climate realities (a whole system supported lock, stock, and barrel by one of the candidates, while the other appears to have sincere intentions of some meaningful reform). I don't think democracy precludes honesty, but democracy, sadly enough at times, does require tactics.

Posted by: Kevin Matthews on 8 Oct 08

In addition to appealing to the uncommitted, or at least not alienating them, Obama is 10 points up with two minutes left to play. Why would he take a risk at this point?

However, while I hope Obama in office will be more progressive than Obama campaigning, there's little evidence that we should hope for that. He's a centrist, not a liberal. "Liberal" in the tremendously righty atmosphere of the U.S. at present, perhaps, but in the long view, he's a centrist.

Still, when the global warming process starts generating memorable events, at least Obama is starting from "pretends that he believes the problem will be all right," instead of McCain's "pretends that he believes there is a problem." Obama might be a little quicker than McCain to adapt his worldview.

Posted by: Ron on 8 Oct 08

I'll continue to say the same things I've said for years. The Republicans, John McCain included, are trying to run us all off a cliff at full speed. George W. Bush, unfortunately, strapped a jetpack on (perhaps he expects to fly off into the great blue yonder with the rapture?). The Democrats on the other hand are walking. Obama too.

So do I vote for walking off the cliff?

Posted by: Hank O. on 8 Oct 08

fortunately, what a candidate says and what a president does can be as closely related as w's intellectual curiosity and a box of marbles. bad example. our promised carbon capturer of 1999 and anti-nation builder flew the coop, right?

i can only believe that process can work in reverse, as well.

we want - and should demand - honesty, integrity, and more than a dash of climate awareness in our leaders. watching obama/biden drift straight into the rock's embrace has been infuriating. just counted five references to "clean" coal technology in the energy plan. solar mentioned once.

i won't even get started on the dangerous shortcomings of mccain's furiously held nukes = climate salvation ideology.

sorry, but our work is far from over.

Posted by: gharman on 8 Oct 08

Even worse than the global financial meltdown we are witnessing is the “fool’s errand” in Iraq………

“The most extravagant idea that can be born in the head of a political thinker is to believe that it suffices for people to enter, weapons in hand, among a foreign people, and expect to have its laws and constitution embraced. It is in the nature of things that the progress of reason is slow and no one loves armed missionaries; the first lesson of nature and prudence is to repulse them as enemies. One can encourage freedom, never create it by an invading force.”
~ Maximilien Robespierre, 1792

Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
established 2001

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony on 9 Oct 08

One thing that concerned me was to hear that both candidates support "clean coal" aince my understanding is that the technology does not currently exist. From your understanding of the issues, are there any differences between the two candidates' positions?

John McCain's website says he will commit $2 Billion annually to research on clean coal technologies. Coal produces the majority of our electricity today. Some believe that marketing viable clean coal technologies could be over 15 years away. John McCain believes that this is too long to wait, and we need to commit significant federal resources to the science, research and development that advance this critical technology."

Obama is less clear about how much he wants the government to invest, because his plan commits much more money to research, but for a whole set of different types of energy development (coal, solar, etc.) Obama's energy plan talks separately about research funds and about public-private partnerships to build 5 commercial-scale coal plants with carbon capture and sequestration.

Is one of these plans better than the other?

Posted by: Sandy on 9 Oct 08

Quote from Ron: "...when the global warming process starts generating memorable events..."

A significant part of the reason for the lack of urgency in the public view is the fact that so many people view the climate crisis as something that is in the future. This summer we had polar bears who had no ice to swim to, and open water all around the arctic ice cap. In recent years we've had devaststing hurricanes, unprecedented floods, and deadly heat waves. Highly visible glaciers have been retreating more and more rapidly for decades. (When I visited the Columbia Icefields when I was 6, the bus was there to drive ON the ice, not TO it.)

Climate change has been producing "memorable events" for years, including catastrophic events that have impacted Americans. So why is the mindset of the average American that it's a problem of the future?

Posted by: George on 10 Oct 08

I am one who strongly believes in the urgency of addressing global climate change. What dismays me is that I still hear statements to the effect that other considerations outweigh a questionable crisis. I don't care to discuss the matter with any who don't daily take steps to live humbly with our life giving planet.
Of course government would be best if it acted as if there were clear, positive, vote getting, work creating,legislation just begging to be legislated and followed to the letter and intent of the law, but some argue there isn't. I and all of us know this is a false premise.What we need, we've got. I'd say the problem will be brilliantly addressed not by new eloquent definition, but with old principles and gladly by natural physical law.
Address not HEAP checks but why your parked car is warmer than your house at 10 am on a sunny December morning. Yes the very roots of our relationship with our homes and our world must be dug up and allowed to root again, and while we do this we must take care. Once and forever we must see that hurry has been very important up until now, and because we thought this HORRY is very important but we need to slow down this time.
We will do well to change drastically but slowly. I haven't seen a Mission Chair thrown out lately but particle board things here in the suburbs are constant reminder to me that we don't value properly the tree.
I am very fond of the familiar western canon and hope we can again feel it speaks to us. The great books must be learned and known. I would hope that despite all we can find worth there, once again. Lets see them anew...the miracle of the loaves and fishes..ends with the scraps being gather in baskets.Today despite our need we don't see scraps gathered we see wealth stolen. For instance: in my fair city a bronze grave marker is fair game and we decry it as we should, yet despite the hoards at the can deposit machines most of the scraps are not gathered.
Turn the other cheek... that is what our world is doing it is speaking eloquently and acting. We should notice.
One thought that makes me wonder.Are we to be concerned about the ice that is melting.Or are we to be petrified. I just wonder what happens when the water is all water. I keep saying go to the national park before its ice is gone.The thing is to do it the old way. like a hippy . When we think about the sixties here we have good and bad ,but some of it was truly precious.

Posted by: Edward Peters on 10 Oct 08

As I have written before, the human brain only turns concern about an issue into action if the issue is 1) presented as the individual human case and 2) of immediate concern (rather than distant future). I.e., STORIES.

So far, "climate" change does not meet this essential criteria -- not the way the candidates talk about it and, just as importantly, not ENOUGH of the way environmental activists are talking about it.

We have work to do on our language, too -- not just the candidates.

Also, keep in mind that the people have been demanding "specifics," and that is one reason why the candidates responded with what they understand the specifics to be - coal, nuclear, renewables -- which, again, is because "climate change" is still seen as an energy issue, and not as the totality of challenges that we at worldchanging see it as.

Alex's proposed speech comes much closer to the kind of language we need by putting the issue in human "we" terms, with concrete examples. But I think we can go one critical step further. I think that the best story we could all be telling - candidates, activists alike -- the best example of individual human case -- is the story of Greensburg, Kansas. After being totally wiped out by a tornado, the town is rebuilding itself green. With the name, Greensburg, it does seem destiny is at work.

I say, let's use it. (Obama especially - Kansas is where his family comes from!)

What we need is a candidate to say is "We're all residents of Greensburg, Kansas, now. We have to follow the example of hope and bold action our fellow Americans of Greensburg have shown us, and rebuild every Main Street into Green Street." The single, simple metaphor of "Green Street" gets 'green' out of paleo-romancing of nature and into the economy, the built world, and the American dream-- which is where we need 'green' to be.

And then talk bout how this will happen through a "partnership" between Washington and the citizenry, with government helping Americans do what we do best: create new worlds.

And then I think a candidate needs to do something along the lines of what Al Gore is saying, that the story we want to tell our children about these times is that we did it, we turned ourselves around when push came to shove and let necessity be the mother of invention. That is a good example of putting each one of us individually INTO 'climate change,' which we also need to be doing.

Such deliberate patriotic rhetoric, with a small-town, Midwest, living American example and language that puts us into the future we aspire to create - something Americans may, still, resonate with -- will do more, I think, to shift the whole dialogue from the overwhelming, paralyzing "the whole planet" framework to the local resiliency, "America at its best" framework.

But my general point is that we need to help the candidates by giving them the kind of language that brain science tells us works.

That's one example of "the change we need."

Posted by: MimiK on 12 Oct 08



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