TOPICS > Politics

Candidates Strive to Address Voters’ Climate Concerns

November 6, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Now, the presidential candidates and climate change. Ray Suarez begins with some background.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Hillary Clinton is the latest Democratic candidate to unveil a plan for combating climate change. In a speech in Iowa yesterday, Clinton said she wants to require all U.S. vehicles to average 55 miles per gallon by 2030.

It’s a move that puts her on a similar track with other Democratic candidates’ plans for more efficient cars. Virtually all the Democratic contenders support a reduction by at least 80 percent from 1990 levels in carbon emissions by 2050 and research and development on alternative fuel sources.

But there are differences on how to reduce energy consumption and regulation. Former Senator John Edwards, for example, supports a ban on new coal-burning plants unless they capture and store new emissions.

ADVERTISING NARRATOR: All the Earth’s creatures are threatened by global warming. One candidate for president is doing something to stop it: Chris Dodd. He’s the only one with an energy plan that has a courageous corporate carbon tax.

RAY SUAREZ: Some candidates have started advertising on the issue. Senator Christopher Dodd released this ad about his proposal for a carbon tax on corporations that emit greenhouse gases.

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), Connecticut: Because stopping global warming is in our hands.

RAY SUAREZ: And Governor Bill Richardson wants the nation to generate 50 percent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2040.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), New Mexico: The planet is getting hotter. This is a fact, not a forecast.

RAY SUAREZ: Among the Republican candidates who broach the topic less often, there are fewer specifics across the board. Most want to develop alternative energy sources. Here’s former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

RUDY GIULIANI (R), Former Mayor of New York: I think we have to accept the view that scientists have that there is global warming and that human operation, human condition contributes to that.

We should be supporting all the alternatives. We need a project similar to putting a man on the moon.

GOP views on global warming

RAY SUAREZ: Giuliani, along with Representatives Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo, and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, have yet to indicate whether they support any kind of government action to address global warming. Former Governors Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney say they're willing to consider a cap on carbon gas emissions.

Nearly all the GOP hopefuls have opposed mandatory increases in auto fuel efficiency.

In contrast, Senator John McCain has been the most specific. He's the lead author of a Senate proposal to reduce carbon emissions by 65 percent by 2050. He's called for higher fuel economy standards, and he's promised to have the United States join an international treaty on climate change on the condition that India and China join, too.

All the Republican candidates have voiced support for expanding nuclear power.

To some analysis of the differences between the parties on climate change policy and politics. Gene Karpinski is the president of the League of Conservation Voters. The league is trying to raise awareness of global warming and make it a top issue in the primaries.

And Ken Green studies public policy on climate change and the environment for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank. He's tracking the candidates' position on this issue.

And, Ken Green, if I were to head out to the hustings and watch the stump speeches, attend some of the candidates' forums in the GOP, would I hear global climate change come up much?

KEN GREEN, American Enterprise Institute: I think you'd hear it come up. I don't know that you'd hear it come up with the same kind of uniformity that you're hearing from the Democratic candidates.

I think, generally speaking, the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats on this is four things: specificity, uniformity of position, the aggressiveness of the position, and the nature of the response, the approach they want to take to the issue.

The Democrats are generally united on this. The Republicans have a broad spectrum of opinion on it, some having not expressed an opinion much at all.

Democratic solidarity

RAY SUAREZ: Gene Karpinski, if I were to head out to Democrats' candidates' forum or listen to the stump speeches, how often does global warming come up? Are they making a big issue out of it?

GENE KARPINSKI, President, League of Conservation Voters: Well, there's a lot of good news there, Ray. In fact, all the major Democratic Party candidates make global warming and the related issue of clean energy a top priority in their campaign. If you ask any of them "What are your top priorities domestically?" they'll say health care and this issue of clean energy and global warming.

If you listen to their stump speech, if you're a voter in Iowa or New Hampshire, and listen to a daily stump speech, this issue will come all the time. It's clearly a top priority. And that's good news.

In fact, on the Republican side, Mr. McCain has made clear it's also a top priority. So if you listen to his stump speech in those early voting states, you'll hear him talk about the issue of global warming, clean energy all the time, as well.

So it is a bipartisan issue, but clearly all the Democrats -- and that's a change compared to the previous election cycles, in terms of the conversation that's happening everyday with this issue being a top priority.

RAY SUAREZ: Are the situations that you both just described a reflection of who votes in both parties' primaries? If we ask Republican voters what their top issues are, what global warming come up on the list?

KEN GREEN: Well, it would probably come up on the list, but I'm not sure it would come up on the list in the top four or five. In fact, environmental issues generally poll in the lower part of the concern spectrum. People are more concerned about local issues, crime and education, and so forth. So I'm not sure it would rank as highly.

But certainly the Republican voters are as concerned about this as Democratic voters, I think. It's the approach where they're likely to vary. And I think everyone has the same sort of -- in the states where they're growing corn, you're not going to hear a lot of talk against ethanol, and I think everybody is going to support it, no matter what party they're in, no matter what party they're voting for.

So I think the Republican people are concerned about the issue. Whether or not they're as concerned as Democrats, hard to say.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, top four or five, Ken Green says not on the GOP side. What about among Democrats?

GENE KARPINSKI: Well, absolutely. If you ask the question "Are you concerned about the related issues of clean energy and global warming?" it becomes a top tier issue for Democrats, also for independents.

If you ask about support for the policies that will make a difference to address the global warming problem, to bring us to a clean energy future, across the board, Democrats, Republicans, independents, very, very strong support for things like making our cars go further on a gallon of gas, cleaning up our power plants, and relying more on renewables and efficiency, putting a cap on emissions, global warming pollution emissions, to really cut global warming emissions in that way, as well.

So the policy support is across the board. It's probably a higher priority issue among Democrats and independents when you talk about the policies that are needed to fix this problem, support across the board.

States' priorities on climate

RAY SUAREZ: But as Ken Green just noted, like ethanol in Iowa, this is a big, complicated country with a lot of different priorities. Are the Democratic candidates as likely to talk about this in Michigan as they are in California?

GENE KARPINSKI: Absolutely. In fact, take an example. Senator Obama went to Michigan, addressed auto executives, and talked about why we needed to raise fuel economy standards. I think that's one of the key differences between this election cycle on the Democratic side and the past cycles.

Vice President Gore, he understood this issue, but kind of was advised not to talk about it, and didn't really talk about it that much. Senator Kerry totally understood these issues, but it was not -- he would say he talked about it every day, but the voters didn't hear it.

This cycle is very different. All the major Democratic candidates are talking about it every day. The voters are hearing it, and they're hearing that it's a top priority, because that's key. We want to make sure that the next president who comes into the White House doesn't just have a good policy on their Web site but, in fact, has an issue that they've talked about, engaged voters in, and therefore comes into the White House with a mandate for real change.

RAY SUAREZ: Ken Green, two states where global climate change awareness seems to be high are Florida and California, with Republican governors and a field of candidates that aren't bringing up the issue all that much. And some, like Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter, are out and out doubting whether the syndrome is actually gripping the Earth or not. Can those governors in key electoral states, as well, pull the party somewhere?

KEN GREEN: Well, I mean it remains to be seen. Certainly, Governor Schwarzenegger has really thrown his weight behind greenhouse gas emission reductions. And it's going to be an interesting challenge to see how he reconciles that when Republicans come into California who have a less stringent position, if they're going to be able to pull the Republican base toward the Republicans, who are not likely to just walk up and match the governor's prescription.

Both of those states, of course, while they have Republican governors, those governors are not on the hard Republican end of the spectrum. They have positions that are more akin to the Democrats, Governor Schwarzenegger's environmental position being one of them. Clearly, they're splitting their positions. They're not single-ticket voters. They're looking for single-ticket voters.

RAY SUAREZ: But at the moment, can you run in the GOP primary race without a well-crafted global climate change policy?

KEN GREEN: I think you can for the moment, but I think that's going to change. If the Democrats do continue to make this a daily issue, I think the Republicans are going to be driven to respond. They're going to have to reach down for a concrete counterproposal that embodies more conservative approaches to the issue.

But they're going to have to move toward acknowledging the severity of the issue or the importance of the issue to the voters and the primacy of picking and enacting a set of policies that will reduce gas emissions. I think that will happen.

Front-runners on climate programs

RAY SUAREZ: What about on the Democratic side? Are there campaigns that have made more of a priority than others, who have sort of pulled the other candidates in their party along?

GENE KARPINSKI: You know, Ray, good news is, again, all the major party candidates today have made it a priority and have strong, comprehensive, aggressive plans. At the beginning of this year, that wasn't true. What we've seen over the past nine months is a competition among the candidates to make it a priority and to put a strong plan forward together.

The first out of the box, quite frankly, was John Edwards. He had the first comprehensive plan. We applauded him for that. Right now, if you look at the targets, as your set-up piece showed, all of them now support mandatory emissions and raising fuel economy standards for cars.

Governor Richardson, to his credit, has the most aggressive targets for 2050. He supports 90 percent reductions, rather than 80 percent, and has the most aggressive targets for raising fuel economy for cars.

So there are some differences, but overall, most importantly, all of them are making it a priority. All of them are talking about it every day with voters. And I think each of them is wanting to make sure that voters hear that message so that's part of what they vote on as they're choosing the next candidate.

RAY SUAREZ: Are the Democratic candidates more ready to use the power of government and the authority of the president to do some of these things, Ken Green?

KEN GREEN: I really don't think so. I suspect what you're going to have is a race toward the most aggressive targets in the campaign. And you're seeing a race toward levels of reductions that are really unrealistic, in terms of any possibility of achievement.

And then, when they get into office, much as with the Clinton administration, even though they have talked a good fight about climate change, they're going to suddenly be confronted with the economic realities, and the costs of imposing their policies, and the give-and-take of Capitol Hill politics.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me get a quick response from Gene. Are some of these targets as hard to reach as Ken Green would indicate, in your view?

GENE KARPINSKI: No, not at all. In fact, what we need to do is really rely on good, old American ingenuity and know-how. If you do this right, it's good for jobs, it's good for the economy, it's good for national security, it's good for consumers, and, yes, it's also good to save the planet.

This is a win-win-win-win-win, if we do it right. And if we don't do it now, if we don't start now, it's going to cost much more later. So it's smart policy and smart politics to be on the right side of this issue.

RAY SUAREZ: Gene Karpinski, Ken Green, gentlemen, thank you both.

KEN GREEN: Thank you.