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Will the Campaign Rhetoric over Climate Change Heat Up?

As the next round of global change talks starts up this month in Paris, the presidential candidates will either take aim at or underscore their importance. Either way, the United States is all-in under President Obama, promising to reduce its level of heat-trapping emissions by 32 percent by 2030.

While the Democratic field generally supports the White House’s stance, the Republicans’ positions vary – everything from denial that global warming is a threat to it is a threat but that it can be fixed without a heavy government hand.

As for the Republican field, New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie, South Carolina’s Senator Lindsey Graham and the former Governor of New York George Pataki have all said that rising temperatures are at least partially a manmade phenomenon attributed to the burning of fossil fuels. The Democratic contenders, meanwhile, are all saying that immediate action is required: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.

“Well, first off, what we don’t do is is what Hillary Clinton and John Kerry and Barrack Obama want us to do,” says Governor Christie, at the last Republican debate in Boulder, Colorado. “There is no evidence that they can fix anything in Washington, D.C. What we should do is to be investing in all types of energy.”

Governor Pataki agrees with his neighbor and says that the changes in weather patterns are partly the result of industrial production. He believes that incentives provided to the private sector are the best way to usher in cleaner fuels.
As for Senator Graham, he represents a state with a nuclear energy presence and one that is presently building two of the four reactors going up in this country. That is, Scana Corp. is erecting two 1,117-megawatt units – fuels sources that are billed in large part as being carbon free. So, he contends that climate change can be addressed without doing economic damage: his own state is creating jobs and furthering economic output through nuclear development.

According to many climate scientists, a change in temperatures greater than 1.5 degrees Celsius in pre-industrial times will create an adverse economic impact of $20 trillion. At 2.5 degrees, it would be $44 trillion. Higher temperature increases would correlate to greater economic damages.

That’s why the Democrats are embracing this issue. Mrs. Clinton is taking the most prudent approach, saying during the debate, “We must get verifiable commitments from every country." She made specific inferences to China that is the world’s biggest carbon emitter, along with the United States. China, though, has put forth a plan.

Senator Sanders has said at the debate that he would put a price on carbon, calling climate change one of the greatest threats to national security. “The future of the planet is at stake.”

O’Malley is also progressive, noting that if elected president, he would pledge to ensure that the nation runs entirely on renewable energy by 2050. “We can get there as a nation, but it’s going to require presidential leadership.”

Under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, states can pick and choose among options as to how to reduce their carbon footprints. Already, the country is halfway to cutting its carbon levels by switching out its coal plants for those that run on natural gas. States could also establish carbon trading programs like they have done in the Northeast and in California.

And it’s not just the democratic socialist Sanders who thinks a carbon tax may be even more efficient than a cap-and-trade program. It’s also Ronald Reagan’s former Secretary of State George Shultz.

Meantime, A joint report issued by the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute says that pricing carbon is the best way of reducing carbon dioxide releases that are tied to global warming. A $16 tax per ton would raise $1.1 trillion in the first 10 years.

“The largest source of greenhouse gas emissions is carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels, so many economists particularly advocate an excise tax on the carbon content of those fuels, or a ‘carbon tax,’” write Adele Morris and Aparna Mathur, economists with Brookings and AEI, respectively, which represent just left and just right of center on the political spectrum.

As for Schultz, he says that the producers don’t bear the environmental price; rather, it is the broader society. And a carbon tax would even the playing field. British Columbia has such a carbon tax, he adds. In that case, the government there gradually increased the tax and then redistributed it to individuals, making it popular.

Schultz says that the Republicans have historically been known as the party that issued policies to protect the environment, noting that it was under President Nixon that the 1970 Clean Air Act passed – the law that has encompassed carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

Today, though, the parties have become increasingly entrenched with the conservatives siding strongly with oil, coal and natural gas interests – fuels that are proven and that supply the preponderance of both power generation and transportation. The liberals, meanwhile, are staunchly supporting the sustainable fuel sector, saying that it is the foundation for the New Energy Economy, although Red States like Kansas and Arizona are embracing wind and solar, respectively.

Industry will be talking about these issues. The electorate will wait and see whether they take center stage among the presidential contenders.

Ken Silverstein is Editor-in-Chief of Public Utilities Fortnightly. Contact him at

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