It’s December 2008 and the US’s first ‘billion-dollar’ election is over. In Poznan, Poland, Republican climate negotiators Harlan Watson and Paula Dobriansky are spending their final few weeks in office at the Kyoto talks, sticking to form and sabotaging the prospect of an international climate agreement. As the Conference of Parties reaches its climax, however, the tall shadow of President-elect Barack Obama falls over the US delegation. Fresh from a landslide victory, the Illinois Senator has done what his team had hinted at during the primary season – he’s turned up in Poland and is calling for mandatory cuts in emissions.
I know what you’re thinking: ‘Oh, what a beautiful thing that would be’ – but would it really happen? How green is Obama?
In May 1998, at the urging of the state’s coal industry, the Illinois legislature passed a bill condemning the Kyoto global warming treaty and forbidding state efforts to regulate greenhouse gases. Barack Obama voted ‘aye’. In fact, just four years ago he was running for office flanked by mine workers to proclaim ‘there’s always going to be a role for coal’ in Illinois. Bizarrely, and in contrast, at around the same time Senator John McCain was joining Hillary Clinton on a trip to see melting glaciers in the Arctic, asking: ‘How much damage will be done before we start taking concrete action?’.
These past few years, McCain has styled himself as a moderate attacking Bush on the climate and has been running ads under the slogan: ‘Record gas prices, climate in crisis. John McCain says solve it now’.
But oh, how things have changed. In the past few months, as the candidates’ poll ratings crossed and Obama established a lead, so their divergent climate policies have crossed: the Democrat adopting a more progressive stance; the Republican playing to his base. Obama now says climate change is one of his top three priorities, and calls to make industry pay for all 100 per cent of its carbon pollution permits. McCain has tacked to the right, throwing his support behind reversing a ban on oil-drilling offshore, offering pemits to pollute for free. That said, at the time of writing Obama is busy softening his position on oil-drilling, so the proof of that pudding will have to wait.
Oil and gas industry executives and employees donated $1.1 million to John McCain; a big chunk of that came in after his June 16 speech calling for an end to the ban on offshore oil-drilling. Some restaurants you pay when you order, others when you leave – or perhaps he just changed his mind after a chat with one of his 22 senior campaign staff who used to work in Big Oil.
You can only conclude that much of McCain’s environmental rhetoric of the past few years was about distancing himself from the contaminated Republican brand and burnishing his record as a maverick. He voted against support for renewables at every turn, and against measures to protect national parks. Obama has supported moves to make the US’s car fleet more efficient, and legislation to promote renewables and efficiency in buildings, while pledging $150 billion over 10 years towards clean energy projects. Maybe that’s change we can believe in. Maybe he will go to Poland. But first he has to win.
Joss Garman is an environmental campaigner and journalist
This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2008