What Will Obama's VP Pick Mean for the Environment?

With Senator Barack Obama set to announce his VP nomination by Friday, the speculative field of possible names has been whittled – if only by the press – to a select three: Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, and Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia. Two other possible candidates, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, and Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, now seem less likely.

In weighing the benefits of each nominee, conversation has largely focused on the various roles this candidate will have to fill: The candidate should be a safe choice, they say, able to help Sen. Obama gain an audience in parts of the south, and to lend him credibility on foreign policy – for many, the largest gap in the senator’s resume.

Absent from this conversation has been a weighing the various VP candidates’ environmental record. Where there ought to be lively discussion, there is – listen closely now – crickets.

This reflects a larger silence on climate change, in which the media trails far behind Americans’ climate concerns. According to a poll out last year by Yale University, 71% of Americans believe global warming is happening. And lest you cry the influence of limousine liberals, a Fox News poll has this number even higher, at 82%.

And yet, according to a study by the League of Conservation Voters, out of 190 interviews and debates, as of February the top five political talk show hosts has asked only 8 questions about climate change. As of January, the words “global warming” or “climate change” were uttered a mere three times in the debates.

In an election whose theme, if not rallying cry, is change, an Obama administration would restore environmental issues to where they should be – as serious debates concerning our national health, the vitality of our ecosystems, and the strength of our economy.

Given the Bush Administration’s environmental record – which stands, in my estimation, somewhere between criminal and unconscionable – an Obama administration would mean, in nearly all areas, a complete reversal of environmental policy. Obama, for instance, has already indicated an understanding that our political decisions today will effect our nation, and our families, for generations to come.

In his August energy speech, Obama framed climate by embedding it in a tapestry of mainstream American concerns. “When it comes to our economy,” he said, “our security, and the very future of our planet, the choices we make in November and over the next few years will shape the next decade, if not the century.”

Next year, parties of the UNFCCC will meet at the Climate Conference in Copenhagen to negotiate the international treaty that will succeed the Kyoto Protocol, due to expire in 2012. A strong American commitment at Copenhagen, combined with a national move to regulate carbon, would do much to restore America’s geopolitical credibility.

But the question is even simpler than that. Obama asked: “Will we be the generation that leaves our children a planet in decline, or a world that is clean, and safe, and thriving?”

It is a question we should ask of Obama’s VP nominee, as soon as he’s chosen. While VP’s are often offered little more than scrutiny on foreign affairs and economic issues, the scale of climate change will certainly mean VP engagement.

And so, what are the environmental voting records of Obama’s top picks? In the absence of direct questions, here’s a quick overview of the three candidates’ records. (With many thanks to the League of Conservation Voters.)

Sen. Joe Biden, Delaware: According to the League of Conservation Voters, Senator Biden’s lifetime voting record is a respectable 84%.

In interviews during his Presidential race, Biden said his top priority was “energy security,” which he defined broadly, including climatic changes effecting the world’s poor, and national energy policy.

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden passed a resolution directing the Administration to return to international climate negotiations. He has called for raising fuel economy standards to 40 mpg by 2017,

Most recently, Biden cosponsored the Boxer-Sanders Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act, the most rigorous climate bill. He was one of six senators to express support of the Climate Security Act in the absence of their vote.

Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana: Between 1999 and 2006, Bayh’s LCV voting score ranged mostly between 73% and 89%, with one low year at 56%.

Recently, Bayh joined with 10 other senators from key manufacturing and energy-producing states in writing Sen. Boxer a letter informing her of their decision not to vote for the Climate Security Act.

Senator Bayh is a longtime supporter of ethanol-based flex-fuels. He has gone so far as to suggest that NASCAR switch over to ethanol, and would like to devote more farm land to the production of ethanol.

Gov. Tim Kaine, Virginia:
The Virginia governor’s record is more difficult to easily summarize. While he is on the record as recognizing climate change as “one of the most critical issues of our time,” and in lending supporting the Climate Security Act – both good things – there is an article over at Grist regarding the governor’s handling of a proposed coal plant raises questions as to the governor’s ability to stand up for his environmental convictions.

How do you think the environment should influence Obama’s VP selection?

UPDATE: After speaking with a few people today, Kaine has turned out to be the most polarizing. On the one hand, people point to his support for a new coal plant, and his willingness to consider expanded offshore drilling, as a criticism of his environmental creds. But we should note that Kaine’s position on offshore drilling is in lockstep with the positions Obama, and Pelosi, have adopted.

More positively, people point to the fact that he created a “Development Cabinet” to help use discretionary capital to reward smart growth policies — what Kaine calls “balanced growth.” The connection between growth, transportation, and climate is a connection most politicians miss entirely. Given his management experience, he might be able to do something about it.

And then there’s always Ana Marie Cox who, according to her Twitter feed, is on the short list.

Source: Originally published on The Huffington Post, August 19, 2008.

Local Politics, Global Change: Vote Democrat

On November 4th, Americans will cast their vote for our next President. In doing so, they will cast a vote for a candidate not on the ballot — America’s next environment.

In this election, national environmental discussions have focused on energy independence over climate change, and on the risks of ethanol over the economic benefits of a low-carbon economy. This has confused the underlying issues. Americans have not yet witnessed a nuanced debate in which climate, energy and food are discussed for what they are: independent yet interconnected national issues of global consequence that must be met with local action.

Consider that while climate change is global in cause and consequence, international climate agreements such as The Kyoto Protocol have proven difficult to negotiate and nearly impossible to enforce. As such, many international climate agreements remain largely symbolic arrangements. Meanwhile, in the United States, 25 states have committed to mandatory caps on their greenhouse gas emissions, and over 800 mayors have signed a climate protection agreement. In the race to reduce emissions, our states are far ahead of our nation state.

This makes sense. It is our local officials — our mayors, governors, congressmen and senators — who are closest to the localized effects of a changing climate. They can see the erosion to their shores, and they feel the effect of declining fish stocks on their economies. Many of them grew up in these places; they know those who are bearing the burden of climate change.

Moreover, it is these local officials who can do the most about it. Local governments have an advantage over national governments in that they have not only more familiarity with the local constituents, but more flexibility in providing a solution. They are less bureaucratic, and more likely to respond a timely manner with a tailor-made solution.

And so, for those of us who care about environmental politics, November 4th means choosing not only a national environmental leader, but local environmental leaders as well. In some states, the choice may not seem simple.

Take my home state of Maine, for instance. The choice between the incumbent (R) Susan Collins and (D) Tom Allen, a five-term congressmen, appears, at first, to be a difficult one. Both Collins and Allen have served their country with distinction.

Moreover, their environmental records appear to be remarkably similar. In 2007, both Tom Allen and Susan Collins received a 100% record from the League of Conservation Voters. Looking at their lifetime score clarifies the choice a bit. Allen has a lifetime score of 93%. Collins’s lifetime record is significantly lower at 68%.

In this instance, a consideration of the candidate’s party is helpful. And it is here that, for those Mainers who care about the environment, the choice becomes clear.

Over the 20th century, Republicans have based their platform on the promotion of economic growth, often at the expense of national environmental integrity. This has created a Republican legacy that favors production over protection, often regardless of the cost.

The Bush policy of the last four years has been the most extreme translation of this doctrine. The President has gutted environmental law, only regretfully acknowledged the reality of climate change, and mined natural resources with little regard for stewardship. Many agree that President Bush has the worst environmental record of any modern President, bar none.

But what, you say, does this have to with Maine’s election? What to do with Susan Collins?

It’s important to recall that in environmental politics, all politics are global, not local. With air pollution blowing across national boundaries, climate policy is not limited by traditional geographic boundaries. American environmental policy directly impacts the rest of the world with its disproportionate carbon emissions, and influences the rest of the world with its example.

And so, let me offer an analogue. It was the case that in the 2000 election, voting for a moderate Republican was tantamount to enabling a radical religious right. In this election, voting for a moderate Republican will be tantamount to enabling a radical environmental right that misconstrues energy policy and denies the fundamental science of climate change.

Consider that while McCain has worked his crowds into chants of “Drill, Baby, Drill!”, his running mate and so-called energy expert questions the role of human activity in climate change. For those who care, the call for drilling will come at the long-term expense of our shorelines, with no short-term reduction in energy prices. Furthermore, humans are unquestionably contributing to climate change. It’s not about belief; it’s about empirical evidence.

And so, if you care about environmental politics, vote for Tom Allen. His lifetime environmental record far exceeds that of Collins. But the same is true across the country. The Democratic party is the party that promises to match environmental renewable with economic renewable through an investment in green jobs, green tech and green policy. It is a generational challenge, and a great opportunity.

We can’t afford eight more years of Republican failures. We need Democrats locally, as much as we need them nationally. Let us not forget that on November 4th.