Paint the House Green

Three ways a presidential candidate can use dollars and cents to win the climate issue.

You hear chatter about climate change everywhere from corporate boardrooms to fashion runways these days. But in presidential-campaign coverage, nothing. What gives? I recently helped moderate the first candidate forum on climate and energy, in which John Edwards and Hillary Clinton offered similar explanations for the silence: Voters just aren't there yet. They aren't demanding answers from candidates, and until they do, the issue won't penetrate the Beltway press bubble.

If a business like GE can stoke mass interest in sustainability (i.e., ecomagination), then why can't a presidential contender? The candidate that connects will be the one that skips the icebergs, polar bears, and far-off dangers in favor of pragmatically making business a partner, not an enemy. Here's how.

Bribe them. When candidates talk about fighting climate change, voters clutch their wallets. There are complicated, sophisticated ways of changing this, but sometimes it's better to use a blunt instrument. Someone should build voter support for good climate policy by, well, offering cash. Crass? You bet. But it works. Remember when George W. Bush promised to send taxpayers a $300 tax-refund check to stimulate the economy? You laugh, but he got elected. Alaska distributes revenue from its state oil fund equally to every resident every year. Good luck finding any local opposition to Alaskan oil interests.

Where would the money come from? That's easy: Make companies pay to pollute the atmosphere. The smartest way to do that is what's called a "carbon cap-and-auction program." (All the Democratic front-runners have proposed something along these lines.) The Feds would set a cap on the total amount of CO2 emissions allowed (the cap declines each year, so it's ultimately reducing pollution). Emissions under the cap are divvied up as tradable pollution permits and auctioned off to the highest bidder. Having established the fair market value of permits, businesses would then buy or sell them as needed, allowing companies that make the earliest and most aggressive pollution reductions to rake it in. A Congressional Budget Office analysis estimates that auctioning permits could generate between $50 billion and $300 billion a year.

Create a green Apollo mission. We can't just restrict pollution; voters need something exciting to rally behind. Candidates should headline their pitch with plans for a new Apollo program that would put substantial government support behind American ingenuity. Clean tech badly needs greater public investment, both in basic R&D and in pulling viable technologies across the dread valley of death between R&D and the market. As a political matter, direct investment in clean tech polls through the roof. People love it. The candidate who captures the public imagination with a bold vision, such as an electric car in every driveway by 2020, could be the next JFK.

Cultivate a green lobby. There are already dozens of businesses and business sectors that would benefit from strong climate policy, everyone from Procter & Gamble to solar-panel developers, but they are diffuse and disorganized. If a candidate can be creative about channeling these firms' collective might, a powerful constituency could be in the offing. There's too much money and shady lobbying in politics, but rather than wait for the forces of good government to beat 'em, the clean-tech sector had better join 'em. The green-business lobby won't rival the fossil-fuel fat cats anytime soon. But it won't take all that much to provide a "green president" with cover to do what needs to be done.

David Roberts also covers green for Grist, an online environmental magazine

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