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Monday, Aug 25, 2008, 1:15 pm

Climate Change on the campaign trail

By Jacob Wheeler
Reporting from The Big Tent in Denver, where progressive bloggers and visionaries from Van Jones to Arianna Huffington are gathering this week to discuss what ails us ... in a non-scripted format (quite unlike the speeches we're about to hear coming out of the Pepsi Center, just a few blocks away, in a matter of minutes) .

I just heard a great panel discussion titled "Climate Problems and Solutions; Local to Global" where Bill Becker (Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project), Robert Kennedy Jr. (you know him! Chief Prosecuting Attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper and President of Waterkeeper Alliance) and Michelle Wyman (Executive Director for the US Office of Local Governments for Sustainability) boasted that this is the first presidential election in which the issue of climate change truly is getting attention in the press. Part of that has to do with both Sens. Obama and McCain paying lip service to environmental issues, but also local state governments, and grassroots organizations, having taken the lead of late in pushing this issue, which, Kennedy argues, is not just a matter of morals, but of national and financial security.


Kennedy recalls that when he was a kid, the United States owned half the wealth in the world, but our addiction to oil and our dependence on dictators for our energy needs has ruined our global prestige.

Kennedy said that the United States has the best resources in the world to harness alternative energy -- wind, solar, geothermal, tides -- and that Washington D.C. ought to view the Midwest as its next Saudi Arabia, in terms of its potential as a wind energy supplier. We need to forget about oil, and clean coal doesn't exist, Kennedy continued. What's needed is a portfolio of solutions. The environmental leader argues for a free market approach to energy independence, in which multiple players are allowed to sell cheap forms of energy, and any private citizen with solar panels on their home can store, and sell, excess energy. But to do that, he says, the United States needs to move beyond its archaic energy transmission system (i.e. excess energy cannot be effectively transferred from Texas to New York). Placing our trust in coal and oil companies, Kennedy says, is equivalent to giving the crack addict more crack.

But I'm sensing from several environmental leaders that Obama has lost ground to McCain on the issue of energy by failing to effectively counter the Republican's push for offshore oil drilling. Is Obama too passive? Does he lack the guts to stand up to big energy companies, which Kennedy argues is absolutely necessary to loosen the noose around our necks? Does he have an energy vision at all, or is that still being worked out within the muddled Democratic Party power structure?

Jacob Wheeler is a contributing editor at In These Times.

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