Obama, McCain, Green Jobs and Climate Solutions

Future Hope column, August 7, 2008

By Ted Glick

At least eight years late, the Democratic and Republican Presidential campaigns are actually debating U.S. energy policy and what to do about global warming. And not just this week but many times during the course of this way-too-long Presidential campaign.

It’s eight years or more late because human society’s fossil fuel addiction—with companies like Exxon, Chevron and Peabody Coal the drug pushers–has made the first decade of the 21st century the decade of escalating climate disruption all over the world.

Al Gore knew about this crisis in 2000, and John Kerry knew about it in 2004, but neither of them, for very problematic tactical reasons, made it an issue in their campaigns. George Bush, of course, is famous for flip-flopping on his verbal commitment during the 2000 campaign to support action to reduce carbon emissions and then, once elected, promptly announcing his withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol process. Ever since, his administration has engaged in what some of us consider to be criminal efforts to frustrate and obstruct action on global warming in the U.S. and internationally.

This year is different. Both Obama and McCain agree that global warming is caused by human action and that human action is necessary to deal with it. More importantly, they have made energy policy a primary issue that they talk about publicly.

$4.00 gas at the pump is a major reason they are doing so, no question about it. All of a sudden, on a massive scale, people are looking for ways to conserve energy to save money. They are supportive of efforts to break the fossil fuel addiction, in part to lessen dependence on Middle Eastern oil, in part to address the global warming crisis and in part for pocketbook reasons.

Obama and McCain are also responding to a growing grassroots movement that erupted onto the U.S. political scene on a massive scale on April 14, 2007. On that day 1400 local Step It Up actions were organized in all 50 states involving 150,000 or more people. Ever since, reinforced by media attention (finally) to this issue, a series of events and actions have kept the momentum building toward the possibility of a major change in U.S. energy policy in the first half of 2009 with a new President and Congress.

McCain’s energy plan is a mixed bag, at best, and is nowhere close to what is needed. He wants to build 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030 and 100 eventually. Like Obama, he supports so-called, non-existent “clean coal.” He supports oil drilling off the U.S. coastline. He supports a weak “cap-and-trade” plan with woefully inadequate targets for carbon reductions. On the other hand, he does support, in general terms, renewable energy, plug-in hybrids and electric cars, better fuel economy standards for cars and energy efficient buildings.

Obama’s program, as publicly released three days ago, is significantly better than McCain’s, but there are number of problems with it. Among its major strengths are:

-the projection of 5 million new jobs “by strategically investing $150 billion over the next ten years;”
-projecting “1 million Plug-In Hybrid cars—cars that can get up to 150 miles per gallon—on the road by 2015;”
-supporting a 100% auction of pollution credits under a cap-and-trade system; and,
-creating “an energy-focused youth jobs program to invest in disconnected and disadvantaged youth;” (although no explicit commitment of funds is made)

But there are a lot of problems with it, also:

-Though comprehensive, it is not strong enough to avert the climate catastrophe we are facing. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says countries like the U.S. must reduce emissions between 35-50% compared to today’s levels (25-40% of the 1990 baseline of the Kyoto Protocol) by 2020. Lester Brown and others believe 80% by 2020 is much more realistic. The best Obama can do is project an 80% by 2050 target, a much too far out goal and not at all fast enough.
-Obama frames the issue as primarily “our dependence on oil.” There is nothing about the need to get off coal or natural gas. He explicitly supports “clean coal” and “invest(ment) in low emissions coal plants,” which do not currently exist and are a waste of money given the renewable energy and conservation/efficiency options.
-He calls for a major commitment to biofuels, “at least 60 billion gallons of advanced biofuels by 2030.” Given the deepening food crisis and the realistic possibility of electric or compressed air-fueled cars/trucks on a massive scale, this is a bad idea.
-He actively promotes increasing the supply of U.S.-produced oil and natural gas.
-He keeps nuclear power open as an option, though with no specific commitments.

The two Presidential candidates to the left of Obama, Cynthia McKinney of the Green Party and independent Ralph Nader, have spoken and written about the need to move to a green economy, for green jobs, for renewable energy, etc., but I have not seen or heard either of them focus on this issue, make it absolutely central to their message. Neither has put forward a comprehensive program in the way that Obama and, to a much lesser extent, McCain has.

This is unfortunate because our seriously threatened ecosystem and all of its life forms are badly in need of a coherent, independent progressive movement which gets the urgency of the climate crisis. We need a broadly-based political force which articulates consistently a program to address it which connect issues and leads us away from our militaristic, unjust and exploitative past toward a truly hopeful, loving, clean energy future.

But Nader and McKinney, and for that matter Obama, are only reflecting the state of the broad progressive movement when it comes to climate issues. Although there has been much growth of the climate movement, qualitatively and quantitatively, over the last few years, the hard truth of things is that not enough of us are prepared to acknowledge that unless the U.S., in particular, reverses course on energy policy quickly, it doesn’t make much difference what other issues we’re working on. Catastrophic climate change would alter human society so completely that it’d be like we were living on another planet, which in many ways we would be.

There is hope, however. I believe that we have enough time if we soon reach the
political tipping point which forces government action going beyond the Obama program to enact the kind of legislation urgently needed.

It is hopeful that Al Gore has called for action of the kind needed with his call for a 10-year plan to have all of our electricity come from renewable energy—wind, solar and geothermal primarily. This is a visionary but realistic goal if we can create the political sea change needed.

It is hopeful that the 1Sky campaign (www.1sky.org), building upon the work of the 2007 Step It Up network, has been steadily developing and strengthening over the course of the year.

It is hopeful that Green For All, the 1Sky campaign and Al Gore’s We Campaign have joined forces with many other groups working towards a national day of action on September 27th for Green Jobs Now (www.greenjobsnow.com). Tens of thousands, if not more, will be taking part on this important day.

A Green Jobs movement can provide hope and concrete support to those excluded from the fossil fuel economy. It can point the way to an economy and a society that does not engage in wars for oil to support a fossil fuel addiction. Green jobs rebuild communities. They address the deepening debt/economic crisis. In short, a Green Jobs movement can make the connections that lead us in the direction we need to go.

One day after the first Presidential debate, let’s rock the country in support of green jobs and climate solutions, demanding strong federal legislation in the first 100 days of 2009!

Ted Glick is the coordinator of the U.S. Climate Emergency Council (www.climateemergency.org). More information on him and his past writings can be found at http://www.tedglick.com.