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Confronted with the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, rising gas prices and the "inconvenient truth" of global warming, Americans are looking for leadership on energy independence and the threat posed by catastrophic climate change. Even George Bush, Big Oil's pocketed president, now pays lip service to the need to end our "addiction to oil." But with his policies making us more, not less, dependent on foreign oil, energy will be at the center of the 2008 campaign. The question is whether the presidential candidates have caught up with the voters.
Energy independence now rivals health care as the top domestic concern. In an April Center for American Progress poll, 60 percent of Americans supported bold action on global warming. A staggering 79 percent believe shifting to alternative energy sources will help the economy and create, not cost, jobs. Voters think the United States is falling behind other countries, and they want government to lead.
This consensus has yet to penetrate Republican presidential campaigns. While the GOP candidates nod rhetorically to the importance of energy independence, they offer little policy vision and few proposals. Frontrunner Rudy Giuliani doesn't mention energy, climate change or the environment in the issue section of his website -- a bizarre omission for someone pitching a campaign on his ability to wage a smart "war on terror." Mitt Romney echoes Dick Cheney, pitting the economy against clean energy, warning that "Republicans should never abandon pro-growth conservative principles in an effort to embrace the ideas of Al Gore."
Only Senator John McCain stands apart from the lemmings, calling for action on climate change and co-sponsoring a cap on carbon emissions. McCain couples this with strong support of nuclear power, dismissing continuing concerns about cost, waste storage, safety and proliferation.
In stark contrast, all the Democratic candidates offer bolder initiatives. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Bill Richardson and Dennis Kucinich have embraced the need for an Apollo-like program -- a multilayered drive for energy independence. And Barack Obama eloquently depicts a generational challenge: "At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the country that faced down the tyranny of fascism and communism is now called to challenge the tyranny of oil."
Each major Democratic candidate offers a signature proposal. League of Conservation Voters head Gene Karpinski praises Edwards for having the "most comprehensive" plan. Edwards argues generally that dealing with global warming is more important than closing budget deficits or sustaining the Bush tax cuts.
He would generate $13 billion a year from a carbon dioxide cap and a rollback of oil subsidies and use that to finance renewable energy technologies. He calls for reducing oil consumption by increasing the percentage of biofuels in the fuel supply and by giving subsidies to auto manufacturers to produce more efficient vehicles. He would mandate that 25 percent of our electricity come from renewable resources by 2025 and require that all new demand through the next decade be met through improved energy efficiency. He'd give consumers tax breaks for purchasing efficient cars and appliances and increase spending on clean-energy research and development. Edwards says this will help generate jobs and growth, estimating that 1 million jobs would be created.
Senator Chris Dodd is nearly as comprehensive, and more courageous. He scorns as ineffective the "cap and trade" program the other candidates support and bites the bullet for a carbon tax he estimates could generate $50 billion a year to be spent deploying clean energy and energy-efficient technologies. Dodd also calls for a job-training program to help workers gain experience and upward mobility in emerging clean-energy markets.
Senator Clinton makes jobs central to her argument. She alone of the leading candidates attended the January Apollo Alliance summit, where she argued that "the clean energy agenda is a jobs agenda." Her signature initiative is a Strategic Energy Fund of $50 billion over ten years, to be raised by taxing the "excess profits" and rolling back the subsidies of Big Oil. The fund would subsidize existing technologies and seed research and development. Of the candidates, Clinton is the most forceful in taking on the oil companies and challenging Bush Administration failures.
Robert L. Borosage is co-director of Campaign for America's Future. Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of The Nation.