Reporters Roundtable

E&E's Fialka, Samuelsohn discuss absence of climate issue in primaries, talk domestic climate policy action

Throughout primary season, many environmental groups have taken aim at the candidates and the mainstream media for not placing more of an emphasis on climate issues. Will this change as the general election nears and the nominees are announced? How do the presidential candidates differ in their positions on climate? During today's OnPoint, John Fialka, editor of E&E's new publication ClimateWire, and Darren Samuelsohn, senior reporter for E&E Daily and Greenwire, give their take on the 2008 presidential primaries and expectations for the general election. Fialka and Samuelsohn also preview the upcoming debate on the Lieberman-Warner climate bill.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today for a reporters roundtable are E&E's Darren Samuelsohn and John Fialka. John is a new member of the E&E team. He'll be heading up E&E's upcoming climate publication and everyone should look out for that at the beginning of next month. John, welcome to the team.

John Fialka: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And both of you, thanks for coming on the show today.

Darren Samuelsohn: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: John, there's a big focus recently on the lack of attention that's being paid to the climate change issue in the primaries. Are you at all surprised that there hasn't been more of an emphasis placed on these issues? And are you anticipating a shift as we head towards the general election?

John Fialka: Well, Monica, this is a difficult issue to make sound bites on the campaign trail out of. It's clear from the polls that climate change is now of greater interest than it was. I guess we have to recall that the father of knowledge about climate change, Al Gore, when he was running for president fled from the issue, didn't even mention it. He later blamed reporters and said, "Well, when I started talking about climate change you guys stopped writing." And the reporters always felt that he just didn't see the issue in the polls and so he felt he couldn't get votes for it. But this is something we want to explore, the intensity of the public on this issue, what it means to them, what are the differences between the way the politicians describe it and the reality of this huge, sprawling issue.

Monica Trauzzi: Yeah, because a lot has happened since Al Gore ran. You know, the science has changed and public feeling about the issue has changed, so you'd expect a shift in the amount of attention.

John Fialka: Well, you would and there are a lot of people and environmental groups in particular, who are saying there is a big shift. Well, we don't hear it on the campaign trail, you're right. One of the reasons there is it may not weigh in well yet. With really intense issues like the economy, the war in Iraq, a rise in inflation, when you compare it to that, if you weigh it on this scale, where does climate change go? That's the kind of question I think we need to ask.

Monica Trauzzi: And Darren, you recently interviewed Senator McCain and he criticized the Democrats for their stance on climate. On the flip side, Senator Obama had some things to say about McCain's views on climate. So, is there a real distinction between their approaches to climate? I mean what are the key differences between the two of them?

Darren Samuelsohn: It was really interesting to hear John McCain go after the Democrats on their, quote, unquote, leadership on the climate issue. McCain has been a cosponsor of a bill with Joe Lieberman since 2001. So, he has been out in front pressuring the Senate Republican leadership to hold votes on this issue. He knew that it was going to be a long slog to get this enacted. When he took this issue up in 2001 he was trying to contrast himself with President Bush and he also was coming off of his success on campaign finance with Russ Feingold. So he also tried to caveat it back then as this is going to be a long-term fight. So he has this legislation and Senators Clinton and Obama are cosponsors of the latest version of it. Clinton and Obama both voted for the McCain-Lieberman bill in 2005. In 2003 Clinton also voted for it. Obama wasn't yet in the Senate. And, in their campaigns, they are pushing for stronger emission limits than Senator McCain. I guess if there is a big difference it's in the overall emissions target. Clinton and Obama are saying 80 percent by 2050. They're also calling for a 100 percent auction of the emission allowances, which the prospects of that happening now, compared with a couple of years ago, has certainly changed. Versus McCain who hasn't articulated on the campaign stump where he is, specifically on the target. I mean he has his bill, which I think is 60 percent by 2050. So those are some of the things. I guess nuclear issues are also - there's difference between them.

Monica Trauzzi: And there's been a lot of talk about McCain not being conservative enough. Does this issue have a lot to do with that? And does he need to maybe change his views a bit on this issue in order to get more of the conservatives on his side?

John Fialka: Well, interestingly enough there are two big powerful blocks of conservatives that he will find, I think, aligning with him, whether he moves to them or they move to him, I think you'll see that. One of them is evangelical groups who see this as a stewardship issue right out of the Bible and that we have to worry about wildlife and land-use in this regard. And that's a big block and it's a powerful block. The second one is composed of people who worry about defense issues, the hawks, and there you have worry, real concern about energy independence and how we get there and how soon we get there. And I think he has these two groups at his disposal and he can form a pretty solid voting mass using them, people who will come out for him.

Darren Samuelsohn: Also the hook and bullet crowd I would say as well. The sportsmen have been up on the Hill lobbying, so that constitutes another group. But then there's the other part of the Republican Party, the skeptics on the science, people who are endorsing John McCain. Senator Tom Coburn was one of them from Oklahoma who said he completely disagrees with the science on climate change and thinks that the science will eventually sway John McCain the other way. And then you have Republicans who think that the pressure of the White House, once John McCain reaches there, he'll have so many other interests at play that this will maybe fall down on the list of things that he'll end up doing. The Democratic Congress, if it is a Democratic Congress, and President McCain, you would imagine that there would be some fighting there and maybe a bill being put to Senator McCain, or President McCain I guess, offering a bill back to Congress.

Monica Trauzzi: And New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently weighed in on this issue and he said that the candidates are telling the voters what they want to hear rather than facing the hard truth. He himself may be entering the race. There are a lot of murmurs about that right now. But, the point remains, is there a watering down of this issue when it comes to approaching the mainstream and talking to the mainstream?

John Fialka: Monica, that's one of the issues we want to get at and look at very carefully, because so far in the dialogue here in Washington this has been presented as a feel-good issue. This is a good thing. Paint yourself green. And when Congress waives its magic wand and decides what to do with it, the problem will be over and we'll go on to something else. Well, it's simply not true. This is a sprawling issue. It's going to require sacrifice on nearly everyone's part. It's going to be difficult to deal with. And, so far, the political rhetoric has sugarcoated it. And environmentalists, who are the kind of leading this parade, really don't go into what is this going to cost? What are you going to have to do? I think the American people really need to know that.

Darren Samuelsohn: I would throw a couple of things on top of that as well. I mean think about the way Barack Obama has been talking about this in his commercials. He ran a commercial during the Super Bowl where saving the planet, he had mentioned the word's global warming, but he said saving the planet was one of the two issues, along with the war, that he was going to try and focus on. And then I guess the other point that I wanted to make was that Senator McCain has been kind of dancing around what is cap-and-trade legislation in his answers to questions. He did it in a debate with Tim Russert. And when I asked him about this the other day he took pains to make sure to point out don't use the word mandatory or mandate in asking the question. He wants to be clear that a cap-and-trade program is, I guess, a market-based, declining cap. But using the word mandate doesn't go well with the Republican base of voters and he's getting flak from the left on this one. You're seeing this from Joe Romm, among others, who's a former energy Department Assistant Secretary under the Clinton administration, who's saying that John McCain is not on the straight talk express. He's not telling it like it is to the American people by kind of not implying that this is a mandate. It's a complicated subject, as John just said, and getting that across to Americans is going to be a challenge for the cap-and-trade bill. But then Obama's people talk about this is a 20, 30, 40, 50 year problem. Other people are talking about that as well, that there's going to be multiple climate change bills, just the one that gets signed in the next two or three years is not the only one.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, so on to the Lieberman-Warner bill. It went through the EPW Committee at the end of last year. What's Senator Boxer's plan for bringing this to the Senate early this year and what are the chances? Give me your Vegas odds for this.

Darren Samuelsohn: The timing is such that we're expecting, I guess, April, May, probably before the Memorial Day recess. That is if they can muster the 60 votes, how much time does Senator Reid want to give to this bill? If he doesn't have the 60 votes, and our counts were around 50 probably yeses, but then they need to resolve four or so big issues, cost containment, what to do about jobs, international competition, what to do about nuclear issues. And then I guess there's a couple of others that are sort of down on the list, but equally important to corralling 60 people to vote yes. So, my odds, I guess, are they're going to give it a real hard try, but you've got to watch and see who comes out and tries to actually make this - who's pushing for this? Is industry going to start pushing for this? Is there going to be a coordinated media campaign from Senator Reid and Senator Boxer to try and make this happen now? How do they calibrate the McCain rise in the presidency? And if McCain and Obama are fighting back and forth, or McCain and Clinton fighting about climate positions, that changes the dynamics here. And it's changed a lot from four, five, six months ago.

Monica Trauzzi: Lots of unknowns. Willing to go on the record with a bet on how likely this is?

John Fialka: You know, Monica, I don't think we have to, because this is like a fire drill and imagine escaping from a building that's got a lot of strange corridors in it. What Congress learns this year, if they try to vote, will be very important next year if they try it again, because a lot of the moves, a lot of the details are very complex. And once they sort of get a sense of that, they'll do it again. And a lot of the players here, the lobbyists on both sides, regard getting the details down this year and getting a vote as a big hurdle to get over because it will dictate the shape of things to come. So, this is one of the issues we really want to get at in our new publication to kind of dispel the notion that this is a hurdle and once we get over it everything ends. No. A vote this year could dictate what happens next year.

Monica Trauzzi: That's an interesting point. Friends of the Earth recently launched an ad campaign urging Congress to get this climate issue right and to either fix the Lieberman-Warner bill or ditch it entirely. What's behind this ad campaign and what's the reaction been? I mean, is there support for this fix it or leave it type of thought?

Darren Samuelsohn: It's Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, I guess, has now rallied behind Friends of the Earth, so it's the far left. They don't want this bill to move forward without a 100 percent auction of the credits. They would like to see the emission targets much higher. They do not want to see Barbara Boxer start negotiating and compromising on all of the issues that I just mentioned. They don't want to see a safety valve get stuck into this bill or, you know, a cost containment measure. They don't want to see any additional incentives for nuclear power in this bill. So Boxer called Friends of the Earth, I don't remember the term that she used, but she certainly dismissed them and their efforts. She said she wants to work with them, but as John just said, it is important they get a test votes out there so that Boxer can know. And Boxer wants to campaign, anybody who votes no on this on the Senate floor would become a target, I would imagine, from the Democrats or from anybody who's trying to be proactive about climate legislation. And, certainly, whatever gets done this year, just to add on what John just said a moment ago, probably becomes a vehicle for the president, whoever that might be, to sort of send a bill to Congress in 2009.

Monica Trauzzi: And, finally, on the international front, there are several meetings happening this year, continuations of the Bali talks and also the president's major economies meetings. And many people I've been speaking to have said that this is sort of a way to lay the groundwork so that next year, when a new U.S. President comes into office, things can really get moving. Is that the sense you're getting?

John Fialka: Well, the centerpiece of all of this is the United States and what it does. We can't just be talking. To convince China and other developing nations that we're serious about bargaining we have to bring a fait accompli to the table. And once we get serious about that, then you'll see other pieces of this really vast chess game begin to move and I think that will be exciting and it will be fun to cover it in our publication.

Darren Samuelsohn: He said it all, yeah.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. So, we'll end it right there and I look forward to the new publication.

John Fialka: Thank you.

Darren Samuelsohn: Thanks.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]



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