Looking for President GoodClimate

Wednesday, CNN devoted its entire primetime schedule to letting voters question ten leading Democratic presidential candidates (the same ten who qualified for the debate this Thursday) about their plans for dealing with climate change. I didn’t spend the full seven hours sitting in front of my TV, but I did read all the transcripts, which you can find here.

I suppose it was naive of me to hope that these townhall Q&A sessions would settle which candidate would be the best president for the climate. You may come away with a different impression, but mine was that none of the candidates eliminated themselves and none stood head-and-shoulders above the others. All agreed that climate change is a serious problem that requires significant action, and that taking that action is going to be difficult. None put forward the fossil-fuel industry talking points that you would hear in a comparable Republican setting: climate change is a hoax, the climate is always changing, nothing can be done to stop the climate from changing, doing anything will be too expensive, or the US should wait for other nations to do something first.

The things they disagreed about were fairly technical: a carbon tax vs. a cap-and-trade system vs. direct government regulation; exactly how much should be budgeted for fighting climate change and where it should come from; whether nuclear power plays any role in our post-fossil-fuel future; how much sacrifice should be expected from the average person; how to mitigate the sacrifices asked of vulnerable populations; and so forth.

In short, any of the ten would contrast strongly with Trump’s positions on the issue. (To the extent that Trump has done anything about climate change, he has opted to make it worse: pulling out of the Paris Accords, trying to roll back Obama’s automobile-gas-mileage standards, rolling back limits on power plants burning coal, rolling back regulations on methane leaks, and so on.) But which of them would be the most effective president for fighting climate change?

Reading the transcripts told me less about the candidates that it did about myself and what I’m looking for. I think that President GoodClimate has to jump several very different hurdles. He or she needs to have:

  • a vision
  • a plan that carries out the vision
  • a message to rally the public behind the vision and the plan
  • the ability to leverage the vision, plan, and public support to push Congress to pass the needed legislation and appropriate the needed money
  • the ability to use the gravity of the crisis, the example of US action, and US soft power to push other nations into action.

Jumping each hurdle requires a different skill-set; we need a president who can jump them all.

The vision and the plan. The example everyone uses for this is President Kennedy setting the goal of landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. Kennedy announced that vision in 1962, and it came to fruition right on schedule in 1969.

The reason this is a good parallel is that Kennedy himself had no idea how to land a man on the Moon, and in fact no one did at the time he set the goal. New techniques and technologies had to be invented for the project to succeed. At the same time, though, he managed to set a goal that was realistic. If he had announced that we would land a man on the Moon by Christmas, it wouldn’t have happened. And when Christmas came and went with no Moon landing, public enthusiasm for the whole project might have waned.

Those advances would not have happened, though, if Kennedy (and President Johnson after him) hadn’t put serious resources into making them happen. Also, the plan involved immediate action as well as speculative research. Project Mercury was already underway, and John Glenn had orbited the Earth earlier that year. When NASA had a serious setback (the cabin fire in 1967 that killed the crew of Apollo 1 during a ground exercise), the country had the tenacity and commitment to continue.

So what I’m looking for in a climate vision and plan aren’t just the most ambitious goals and the highest price tag. The vision and the plan have to ring true in some way that is hard to define. The plan needs to reach beyond what we know how to do right now. (For example: If we’re going to generate much, much more of our electricity from wind and solar, we’ll need better ways to store power on windy and sunny days.) But it can’t reach so far beyond that it loses credibility. And it has to start by ambitiously doing the things that we already know how to do; we can’t twiddle our thumbs and then depend on some magic invention appearing in the nick of time a decade from now.

An aside on cheeseburgers. It’s predictable what’s going to happen when the next president announces his or her X-trillion-dollar climate plan, which also puts limits on the fossil-fuel industry, raises the cost of certain environmentally costly consumer goods, and bans others entirely: Fossil-fuel companies (both in their own voices and by funding unofficial spokesmen behind the scenes) will become advocates for “freedom”, and there will be either a real or astro-turf uprising against this “government overreach”.

You could see this already in the questions in the CNN forum. Several candidates had to answer questions more-or-less like: “Am I still going to be able to eat cheeseburgers?” Plastic straws and incandescent light bulbs also came up. The-government-is-coming-for-your-cheeseburgers has been a very effective pro-carbon argument.

The right answer to this challenge is multi-faceted, and it’s hard to make all the points at once. Part of the answer is to invoke the seriousness of the problem and shame the triviality of the question: Do you really want to condemn your grandchildren to a Mad-Max hellscape so that you can keep eating cheeseburgers, burning inefficient lightbulbs, and using plastic straws? The World War II generation accepted gas-rationing and a number of other artificial hardships to save the world from fascism. Is there nothing you’re willing to give up for future generations?

The second facet is to bring the question back to reality. Yes, the carbon footprint of a cow is much greater than a comparable weight of chickens, or a potato patch. So yes, as a country we need to shift our eating habits so that we consume less beef and dairy. But that doesn’t mean we have to ban cheeseburgers. Maybe a cheeseburger becomes more expensive. Maybe it turns into an occasional treat rather than a staple of your diet. But the government is not coming for your cheeseburgers.

Third, the crimps on your personal lifestyle are going to be a small part of a much bigger change. You’re not going to have to bear the whole sacrifice. This is what Elizabeth Warren was getting at in her answer to the cheeseburger question:

This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about. That’s what they want us to talk about. … They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your lightbulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers. When 70 percent of the pollution of the carbon that we’re throwing into the air comes from three industries.

And finally, we’re going to try to be smart about this, so that changes will be as painless as possible. Lightbulbs are actually a good example in this regard. When the Bush administration decided to change the nation’s lightbulbs, it didn’t just ban incandescent bulbs overnight and make us light candles or sit in the dark. The wasteful bulbs are off the shelves now (at least until Trump finds a way to bring them back), but instead we have better bulbs: longer-lasting, cheaper to operate, and so on.

Beto O’Rourke, for example, expressed his confidence in the ingenuity of American farmers and ranchers to produce the same foods with a smaller carbon footprint. (I don’t doubt that he’s right about that, but I question whether it will be enough.) And yes, today’s paper straws aren’t as good as plastic straws. But is it truly beyond the limits of science to make an equally good straw out of paper or some other biodegradable material?

Or take cars. I drive a 100,000-miler hybrid Honda Accord. My current tank of gas is getting over 45 miles per gallon, and that’s not unusual. If government standards had insisted on 45 mpg decades ago, everyone would have been forced to drive underpowered subcompacts. But I don’t suffer from a lack of room or pep in this car. Similarly, today’s all-electric cars won’t take you as far in a day as most of us would like go on a long driving trip. But someday soon they will. A future of electric cars powered by wind and solar doesn’t mean we’ll have to give up on driving the family to Yellowstone.

Rallying support. So anyway, President GoodClimate is going to face well-funded resistance that will appeal to people’s fears and resentments. Combating that is going to require a lot of political skill, simultaneously shaming people out of their petty self-centeredness and inspiring them to take on the challenge of saving the world.

Who’s up to that? Who can create not just a vision and a plan, but a message that raises public enthusiasm around implementing the plan, even if it requires some sacrifice?

And suppose the public does support the plan. That doesn’t necessarily mean Congress will pass it. We see that now in gun control. Universal background checks (which might have stopped the recent Texas shooting) are ridiculously popular, with 97% support in one recent poll. They’ve been popular for years now, and yet somehow they don’t happen. In Congress, a small, intense, well-funded resistance can overcome broad but lukewarm popular support.

That points to a different kind of political skill, the ability to put together deals that make things happen. We tend to think in either/or terms about this: an inspirational progressive visionary like Sanders or Warren, versus a moderate deal-maker like Biden or Klobuchar. But the next president has to do both.

Tomorrow the world. In a Republican presidential debate in 2015, Marco Rubio said “America is not a planet.” He was making the defeatist point that no one country, not even one as important as the United States, can solve the climate problem by itself. Even if we do everything right, it won’t make any difference if no one else goes along.

This is a common conservative trope: Collective action is impossible and individual action inadequate, so we should just do nothing.

If we buy into that line of thought, though, we condemn the next generation to a world of rising seas, expanding deserts, mass migrations, and war. The tens of thousands of migrants who currently try to cross our borders every month will be nothing compared to the masses we’ll see when much of Bangladesh is underwater and new deserts have appeared in places that now support a booming population. Even within the US, how much hotter can places like Phoenix or Houston get and still be habitable?

Fortunately, the image Rubio evoked — of the US doing everything it can and the rest of the world dragging its feet — is the exact reverse of the truth. In reality, the US is the country holding the world back. Why should India stop burning coal if the US won’t? Europe is way ahead of us in adopting sustainable electric power. Today, the biggest challenge facing environmental activists around the world is how to make change happen without the United States.

So it would be a huge improvement if the next president just went along with what other nations are doing. (If only we could invest in mass transit like China and in solar and wind power like Germany.) But the world needs more than that. The US combination of economic, scientific, and military power makes us uniquely positioned to lead. Until Trump started tearing them up, we had meaningful alliances with most of the other major powers. It would make a huge difference if we could be the world’s good example rather than its bad example.

So even as the next president turns American climate-change policy around, he or she has to be working with the world to raise standards, and to establish trade policies that promote climate-positive action around the world, rather than allowing carbon-pollution to shift to the country with the lowest standards.

The next president can be a rallying figure internationally, as Kennedy was we he said “Ich bin ein Berliner”, or Wilson was when he enunciated his 14 points for ending World War I. Who can do that? The next president also needs to be a negotiator like FDR and an alliance-builder like Truman or Eisenhower. Who can do that?

I don’t know, or at least I don’t know yet. The climate forums have just given me more questions . The answers I’m looking for are only partly contained in the programs the candidates outline on their web sites. They also require evaluating character and talents.

These are harder questions than I had thought, so it’s going to take a bit longer to make up my mind.

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  • Melissa  On September 9, 2019 at 11:20 am

    Once again you hit the salient points. Now, would you please run for President?

  • Jacqueline (Bonin) Gargiulo  On September 9, 2019 at 1:25 pm

    I’ve got my eye on Pete Buttigieg. He’s all about rallying the country to a concerted effort. I’ve heard him in interviews and what may not come out on a debate stage, I witness there. He’s also showing promise for rallying T country inhabitants. He sees their main and had a more thoughtful and engaging plan that seems to be resonating.

    My .02.
    ~ Jacqueline

  • EFCL  On September 9, 2019 at 2:12 pm

    You ask (rhetorically?) “Is there nothing you’re willing to give up for future generations?”

    Here, perhaps, is a place to bring in the Founders, not by referencing the Constitution but by referencing what you called “a polemic for revolution” two weeks ago. Faced with the prospect of sacrificing for future generations or living their own comfortable landed gentry lives, our Founders told us what they were willing to pledge: “…our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” That’s way more than giving up cheeseburgers. The self-styled Patriots on the right are always jawing about how they love America more than the rest of us, but somehow they never get around to invoking this quote, which would involve some self-sacrifice. In our case, the “lives” we would be pledging would, in fact, be “our current habits of consumption”, the “fortunes” would be increased prices and or taxes. “Sacred honor?” Sorry, I just don’t want to comment about that in the current political climate. If someone would demonstrate some, they might be the person you’re looking for in this essay.

  • The Serapion Brotherhood  On September 9, 2019 at 7:35 pm

    You’re too kind to the democratic candidates. You say there is little to choose between and that may be so in part of their rhetoric, but they have other louder ways of talking. Biden talks Green, but the next day he went to a fundraiser of fossil fuel executives and childishly tired to lie about during the town hall. Harris says she is green when she talks to reporters but tells her donors something else. Sanders, for example, does not do this and so must be given higher consideration (though his stance on nuclear is disastrous–we need to go forward with nuclear, but not run by corrupt private industry).

    • jh  On September 11, 2019 at 11:12 am

      hah… and what does any rational person think while these industries have significant money and sway over our political system? Look at how long Big Tobacco managed to pull their con over nicotine. The reality is that the political candidate who doesn’t make big oil and other negative industries feel like they are going to be destroyed is the candidate who has the better chance of pushing incremental changes. A bigger plus is if the candidate is tricky enough to get the industry’s to “think up” the idea on “their own”.

      Biden sounds rather “off” to me. Sure, he has a charming personality. But he’s blah to me. I’ll vote for him at the end if he’s the Democrat candidate but he doesn’t really inspire me or move me. He, like all the other candidates, is blah. Not that I care about their detailed plan. It’s bs. Reality is what governs how effective they can be. If they have to deal with a republican senate and congress, they’re screwed. That’s the reality. And with the recession coming, they’re going to be blamed because conservatives love blaming people and they are rather stupid and subhuman so they never remember the warnings that liberals gave them.

      And last but not least, we need age limits for people in positions of authority. No more geezers in power. I’d rather have 35 year olds who will have to suffer the consequences of their votes than boomers who get to vote for Big Oil or some other short sighted profit grab and then, leave the check to be paid by the younger generations. No.. no more old people having legislative or judicial or executive power. They don’t have enough skin in the game. I mean, they hate their children. The Boomers are the most worthless and spoiled generation in the history of humanity. If I were a god, I’d end all of them. Good riddance to bad rubbish. (For every one good boomer, there are 10 bad boomers. At some point, we need to acknowledge that their brains have turned to shit and we don’t need stupid. They can be advisers but they need frequent mental assessment tests that are publicized so they will be humiliated and be quiet. Let’s face it, most of the old people are dumb dumb dumb. They aren’t familiar with technology, the changing society, what the younger generations are going through. It’s sad when an AOC is planning out for a 50 year future with her Green New Deal while the moron generation can’t even plan for 2 years down the road without whining. Oh.. and I practice what I preach. You see, I’m not a baby boomer. That means I’m not selfish and I understand when I need to stop screwing over the younger generations… except for conservative ones. Some people just need to be abused and conservatives love being abused.)

      • Anonymous  On September 11, 2019 at 8:49 pm

        “and what does any rational person think while these industries have significant money and sway over our political system?”

        I think: “work to get rid of that sway”
        Elect candidates who don’t take corporate cash.
        Pass anti-corruption bills (https://anticorruptionact.org/)

    • weeklysift  On September 12, 2019 at 8:49 am

      And I think you’re too critical here. You say “fund raiser of fossil fuel executives”, when I have only heard one name mentioned, not an entire room of them. I googled the person in question, Andrew Goldman, and the investment group he represents, Hildred Capital. He/they invest in a lot of things, one of which was the LNG export facility that drew protesters’ attention. He doesn’t jump out at me as an energy guy.

      The money that started Hildred came from a pharmaceutical fortune. I’d be more worried about that.


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