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Car Culture Not Mentioned as Dems Talk Greenhouse Gases

9:57 PM PST on November 17, 2007

I just got back from the Presidential Forum on Global Warming & America's Energy Future and wanted to post a quick report. I'm sure Grist will have a more in-depth one shortly and a transcript. But, for those of you looking for some transportation news out of the debate, I'm here to tell you there wasn't any.

All of the major candidates from each party were invited to the forum, and three took the time to attend. They were Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator John Edwards, and Congressman Dennis Kucinich. No Obama, which is ironic since I gave him the highest marks for recognizing the connection between the number of cars and the amount of Greenhouse Gas, and no Republicans.

I'll specifically be looking at two related issues when analyzing the speeches. The first is do they talk about transportation at all besides more efficient cars and do they recognize that Americans need to change the way we live our own lives.

The format of the forum was that each candidate gave a ten minute speech, than there was a 20 minute Q and A with a panel that consisted of three environmentalists.

First up, was Kucinich. The Congressman was clearly in his element as his talk was interrupted several times by spontaneous applause. Kucinich stressed that he walks the walk on climate change driving a fuel-efficient Ford Focus, living in a reasonably sized house and eating vegan foods. He also stressed that he's recognized worldwide as a leader on greenhouse gas issues and relentlessly attacked the Bush Administration and Special Interests.

Kucinich the populist argued that we needed a new American purpose to be more green. Committing to being green would "give Americans something to be patriotic about besides war."

Disappointingly, he didn't spend a lot of time on transportation. By my count, he spent about 10 times as many sentences about why we shouldn't bomb Iran as he did why we should expand transit. Kucinich did promise to redirect spending to make transit the top transportation priority and to provide every American with a transit option.

Next up was Senator Clinton, who received the largest applause but also the most boos. To be fair, the cheers far, far, outnumbered the few people booing. Once interrupted by an anti-war heckler, Clinton managed to stick to the script even if it was easily the least inspiring of the three. Like Kucinich, she also got stopped for applause several times, but received a near-unanimous standing ovation at the end.

Clinton spent more time focused on the need to reduce our dependency on foreign oil than she did on transportation as an independent issue. Her transportation promises were limited to raising fuel economy standards to 40 mpg by 2020 and 55mph by 2035.

During the Q and A she earned some credit for promising that America would produce less greenhouse gas emissions as the end of her term than the beginning. However, she bobbed and weaved when asked if she would vote for Lieberman-Warner, the compromise Greenhouse Gas bill before the Senate Environment Committee.

She also lost some points with the crowd by stating (probably truthfully based on my personal conversations with red-staters) that most of middle-America isn't excited by Global Warming and by calling for incrementalism to solve the Climate Change Crisis gradually. She claimed that she learned from her efforts to reform the healthcare system that, "Everyone is for change in general, but when it becomes personal they start peeling off." Truer words probably couldn't be spoken to a crowd that is all for reducing emissions but all (full disclosure, including me) drove to the forum. (Organizers claim that the event was carbon neutral, including everyone's driving but did provide transit.)

Last up was John Edwards, who probably had the hardest time sticking to the script, but also gave what I thought was the best of the three speeches. Unlike the other two candidates, Edwards spent as much time on encouraging Americans to sacrifice to save the planet as he did on what government could do. Like Clinton, he pledged to increase mpg standards for all cars, and like Kucinich he promised to end all subsidies to oil companies.

Without naming names, Edwards sought to contrast his own "Bold, Big Ideas" with Clinton's "incrementalism." Perhaps unintentionally, he also contrasted his view of Americans energy habits with Clinton's. While Clinton praised Californians for holding the line on total emissions for thirty years, Edwards chastised America's leadership on Climate Change as "an example for the bad."

Edwards earned most of his points with me for calling for a shared sacrifice to change the way we use energy. Again and again he repeated that all Americans are going to have to sacrifice. He also conceded that his policies would lead to higher fuel and energy costs, which was surprisingly honest. One panelist noted its easy to talk the talk in a room where just mentioning Al Gore's name garnered applause, but Edwards promised that Climate Change would be a central part of his campaign. We'll keep an eye on that.

While disappointed that candidates didn't talk at all about alternative transportation. No mention of bikes, AMTRAK, VMT, or car-depency (foreign oil dependency was a big issue), all three of the candidates deserve some credit for standing out front on this issue and giving up prime fund-raising time to talk greenhouse gases.

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