The Common Good

Presidential Contenders: None Standing Tall on Climate Change

Whoever is our next president -- whether President Obama in a second term or the eventual Republican nominee -- will be the most consequential president ever for overcoming global warming. Years from now the next president's legacy will be judged first and foremost upon whether he or she puts us on a path to overcoming climate change. By the end of the next president's term, by the end of 2016, if we have not taken serious, dramatic, society-altering steps to overcome global warming, then we may not be able to avoid tipping points that produce consequences far beyond the significant impacts I outline in my book, Global Warming and the Risen LORD.

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Here's the skinny on where things stand: If President Obama is reelected, based upon his performance thus far, I don't know if he will get it done. But if any of the current Republican contenders are elected, all -- except possibly one -- won't even try, given their current pronouncements. In our current political climate on climate, none are standing tall on overcoming global warming. As we approach presidential campaign season, here's what standing tall would look like.

If President Obama is re-elected, he has to start demonstrating courageous political leadership on climate change. He can't bob and weave like he has done in the past; he can't just talk about clean energy with only vague allusions to overcoming global warming, such as "protect the planet," or wimpy, almost apologetic mentions of climate change. Creating a clean energy future that puts us on the path of overcoming global warming must be the top priority in the first two years of his final term. Therefore, he has to run on overcoming global warming -- meaning he must talk about it as a top priority for his next term -- so that when he comes to Congress with a policy that puts a price on carbon, he can legitimately claim to have politically put his back side on the line like he'll be asking members of Congress to do.

As for the Republicans, if a presidential contender can't even say that anthropogenic or human-induced climate change is real and must seriously be dealt with, then he or she is not a real leader and therefore is not someone we want in the White House. But if any of the current Republican contenders are elected, all -- except possibly one -- won't even try, given their current pronouncements. Indeed, because they are afraid of the right-wing climate deniers, all except one have actually flip-flopped on climate change.

When it comes to leadership on climate change, the only Republican who hasn't flip-flopped is Newt Gingrich. Here's how a recent Climate Wire story by Evan Lehmann reports the situation:

Former House Speaker Gingrich (R-Ga.), who launched his campaign Wednesday, has so far resisted calls to apologize for expressing belief in climate change, and urging the government to address it. But that might become more difficult if video clips showing him on a couch with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was House speaker at the time they were recorded, explode through conservative circles. The online ad captures Gingrich and Pelosi having a cooperative moment. They alternate lines after Pelosi acknowledges they haven't always agreed on policies. Gingrich adds, "We do agree our country must take action to address climate change." Pelosi resumes, "We need cleaner forms of energy, and we need them fast." Back to Gingrich: "If enough of us demand action from our leaders, we can spark the innovation we need."

So, agreeing with your political adversary that action must be taken and then encouraging people to demand action from our leaders -- sounds like leadership to me. We'll have to wait and see if Mr. Gingrich resists the outrageous calls for him to apologize for good leadership. But standing tall on climate change will require more than just resisting such nonsense. Like it does with President Obama, it also requires Mr. Gingrich to campaign on doing something substantial to overcome global warming -- like putting a price on carbon either via a cap-and-trade approach (still the best in my view) or a carbon tax.

A report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released on Thursday May 12 pretty much lines up with what I'm saying:

1. We Don't Want to Reach Tipping Points

"Some climate change impacts, once manifested, will persist for hundreds or even thousands of years, and will be difficult or impossible to 'undo.'"

2. We Must Have Leadership from the President and Congress

"Current efforts of local, state, and private sector actors are important, but not likely to yield progress comparable to what could be achieved with the addition of strong federal policies that establish coherent national goals and incentives, and that promote strong U.S. engagement in international-level response efforts."

3. We Must Put a Price on Carbon

"The most effective way to amplify and accelerate current state, local, and private sector efforts, and to minimize overall costs of meeting a national emissions reduction target, is with a comprehensive, nationally-uniform price on CO2 emissions, with a price trajectory sufficient to drive major investments in energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies."

This last point pretty much describes a cap-and-trade program, which utilizes market-based mechanisms to efficiently drive investments in the right direction. Properly structured, like the Waxman-Markey bill that passed the House in 2009, such an approach can: (1) function as a tax cut for those who reduce their pollution; (2) have the poor even come out ahead financially; (3) invest in clean energy R&D; (4) help pay down our debt; and (5) unleash pent-up capital just waiting to invest in clean energy once the right federal policies are finally put in place.

Just because right-wing politicians overly tied to the fossil fuel industry and the right-wing media spread misinformation about such policies is no reason for us to abandon a policy that makes so much sense. We can't be intimidated by such attacks. If someone has a better approach, I'm all ears. But it can't be some wimpy program that doesn't get us moving in the right direction quickly. And as the NAS report concludes as well, that means putting a price on carbon.

So where are we? Here's where we are: We are in desperate need of Christians who will stand up and let all the presidential candidates (which includes our current president) know that failure to seriously address climate change is not an option; it's a deal-breaker. Too much is at stake for us not to have a real leader on climate change in the White House in the next term, the most consequential presidential term there will ever be for overcoming global warming. As Christians we must do our part and communicate with the presidential candidates that overcoming global warming must be their top priority.

The Rev. Jim Ball, Ph.D., is Executive Vice President for Policy and Climate Change at the Evangelical Environmental Network and author of Global Warming and the Risen LORD. To learn more about protecting the EPA's authority to overcome global warming, visit creationcare.org.

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