Future American presidents committed to taking strong action on climate change, beginning with whoever takes office next January, will face some tough choices.

Many scientists and climate policy experts say unprecedented and historic action is needed.

“If you’re going to do something meaningful about this problem, then tinkering around the fringes is a waste of time,” said Richard Somerville, a climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a coordinating lead author for the Fourth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“You have to see your way clear to massive reductions in CO2 emissions in a very short time, a few decades at most, and it has to start soon.”

Discussions of the climate issue in the presidential primary campaigns have been limited. Democrats Barack Obama (see Obama’s website) and Hillary Clinton (see Clinton’s website) have issued multi-pronged plans to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, who has sponsored key legislation on Capitol Hill with Senator Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), also has raised the issue in several campaign speeches and, fleetingly, in debates. And McCain has detailed some plans, without a lot of detail, on his campaign website (see April 2007 speech).

In the 2008 general campaign for President, the climate issue likely will get a limited airing as the two parties square off on the myriad issues the nation faces.

By demanding details, journalists all the same can try to help voters sort out where leading candidates stand and how serious they are about the climate issue.

“Keep it on the front burner,” said Stephen H. Schneider, a climate researcher from Stanford University and an outspoken proponent for action. Journalists “ask them over and over again about their policy on Iraq and the economy. Why not ask them over and over and over again on their policy on climate change?”

As the campaigning proceeds, debates on various issues likely will become more focused, and differences between the Democratic and Republican nominees will sharpen. But of course a lot will depend on the national media and “celebrity” journalists covering the race. Given that Obama, Clinton, and McCain have each expressed substantial concerns over climate change, those journalists may not be inclined to see the differences on this issue as being particularly significant.

The questions that follow may help journalists covering the campaign press the candidates for more insights on what is often described as the leading environmental issue of the 21st century, and an issue with significant impacts also on economic policy, energy policy and national security, public financing, and lots more.

The questions are drawn from interviews with more than a dozen climate scientists, climate policy experts, and political scientists. They are inspired also by a review of scores of news stories, climate policy reports, and appeals from the business community, environmental groups, and others for action.

Most of what the next President does is unlikely to “pay off” for decades. Many people alive today will never see the results that come in.

“As a country we haven’t been good about really dealing with that,” said D. James Baker, a NOAA administrator under former President Clinton and an adviser to the Presidential Climate Action Project at the University of Colorado.

“We haven’t really respected Presidents who said we have to worry about the future.”

So far, Americans don’t even have enough information to make that judgment. The media covering the campaign can help them get it.

The science and the urgency

Saying that climate change is a problem and must be addressed is hardly sufficient, scientists and climate policy experts say.

“It’s easy to reply in platitudes, that ‘Oh, sure, climate change is important and we should give this our full attention and it’s a high priority,’” said Somerville.

The candidates should be pressed also on their understanding of the basic outlines of the science, specifically on whether they recognize the main findings of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment and would use it as a guide for formulating policy.

Journalists who ask about these issues have to do their homework. “Know the science and be prepared,” said Evan Cornog, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. “If somebody … gives a factually incorrect statement at a town hall meeting, make a point of it. Deal with the facts, and have the confidence to come to your own conclusions.”

A few questions that cover the state of the science, and the seriousness of the problem, may include:

  • Are you familiar with the key findings of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment? What parts of climate change science do you think are well-established? What parts do you think are still uncertain and being debated?
  • Do you think it important for your administration, if you are elected, to take immediate and meaningful steps, both domestically and internationally, to help reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases? What steps would you initially take?
  • IPCC scientists have estimated the consequences of allowing carbon dioxide concentrations to rise to specific levels. For example, they have warned that to avoid the worst effects of continued global warming – rising sea levels, more and worse storms and droughts, for example – CO2 concentrations in the global atmosphere should not be allowed to rise above 450 parts per million. Scientists say that level would correspond to a rise in average global temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Do you think these calculations should guide federal government policies related to climate change? If not, what research would guide your policies?

The role of government

Across the globe, more and more businesses, often for various reasons, are urging world leaders to take action on the climate issue. Many say an international framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is needed to create a predictable and stable international marketplace in which to do business. Global businesses do not want to navigate an uneven landscape of carbon markets and domestic regulations, said Robert Corell, Global Change Director of The H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment and a long-time expert on climate and policy issues.

While businesses expect some level of regulation, “they argue very strenuously there needs to be a uniform playing field, first in the United States and then internationally,” Corell said. Their views were encapsulated in the “Bali Communique“, which was presented at the Bali climate negotiations in December 2007.

Questions on this front:

  • What role would your administration play in ensuring a level playing field for business, domestically and internationally?
  • Some industries and economic sectors may “win” from climate change policies (like renewable energy), while others (like coal) may “lose.” How will your administration address the legitimate concerns of the “losers”?

Some individual states have been unwilling to wait for the federal government to set nationwide standards for CO2 emissions, and they’ve acted independently to cut greenhouse gases within their borders. California’s move to regulate emissions from cars and trucks, vigorously opposed by the automobile industry and the Bush Administration, is perhaps the highest profile example. A few questions in this area might include:

  • Do you believe that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted by cars, trucks, power plants, and other human energy use should be regulated as pollutants under the Clean Air Act?
  • Do you support individual state and local government initiatives to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, such as California’s move to cut CO2 emissions from cars and trucks?
  • What would your administration do to make sure that federal and state government programs work effectively together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? What should the role of the federal government be, and what should the role of states be?

Pressing the issue and demanding specifics

Each of the frontrunners, as of mid-February, has offered some specifics about how their administration would lower greenhouse gas emissions. Clinton, Obama, and McCain all talk about a cap and trade system. But journalists can press the candidates further on these proposals, and also question them about some larger issues. Questions might include:

  • Do you plan to step out early in your presidency and make a statement or proposal about tackling the climate change issue? If so, what would you say or propose? If not, why not?
  • The Presidential Climate Action Project at the University of Colorado has recommended several changes to the federal bureaucracy so the U.S. can move toward a low-carbon economy. What are your views on those recommendations? How do you think the federal government should be reorganized to pursue your goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions?
  • President Bush has talked about lowering the energy intensity of economic growth in the U.S. – that is, the amount of greenhouse gases emitted for every percentage point of Gross Domestic Product. But as the economy grows, reducing energy intensity would not necessarily result in cutting overall emissions. Do you believe that our goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions should focus on energy intensity, or on specific emission reduction targets?
  • What features of a cap and trade system would you insist on to make it fair and effective in the U.S. and internationally? What would your administration do to ensure that a domestic cap and trade system would work most effectively with an international cap and trade system?
  • Why have you in your campaign supported a cap and trade system rather than a carbon tax? Do you think both can be used as tools to reduce emissions? Why or why not?
  • What specific proposals do you have to help the automobile industry, the coal and oil industries, and other major employers and their employees transition to a new low-carbon economy? What are your thoughts, for instance, on job re-training programs?
  • What plans or incentives do you have to help low-income people in the country transition to cleaner energy use?
  • With the nation’s clouded economic outlook, do you see opportunities to move forward on transitioning to a low-carbon economy while also addressing growing economic concerns? If you do, what are they?
  • What role would energy conservation play in your administration in cutting greenhouse gas emissions? What specifically would you propose in this area? Would you ask the American people to make sacrifices, and what specifically would you tell them during a time when the economy is struggling?
  • In the wake of 9/11, Americans have been asked to accept major changes in its relationship with the federal government, including delays and inconveniences at the nation’s airports, provisions of the Patriot Act that some find excessive, war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars in the name of national security. Do you envision asking Americans to accept comparable changes, in scope and urgency, to lower greenhouse gases and prepare for inevitable environmental changes? If so, how would you convince the American people that risks posed by the climate challenge are worth the effort?
  • Internationally, which countries do you see as critical partners in the drive to cut global greenhouse gas emissions? Do you see the U.S. becoming the international leader in that effort? Which countries do you see as obstacles to progress, and how would your administration engage them in the effort?
  • Many experts say the world cannot cut global emissions sufficiently unless China and India “leap frog” the carbon-intensive technologies that the West used to build its wealth, developing their economies with alternative sources of energy. What would you specifically propose the U.S. do to help China, India and the rest of the developing world grow their economies with clean energy, rather than coal and oil?
  • Would your administration take specific steps to help stop deforestation internationally? Why or why not, and what would those steps be?
  • At the Bali climate negotiations in December 2007 the U.S. was widely viewed as an obstacle to progress. As President, how would your administration approach the next round of international negotiations on climate change?
  • Addressing the climate challenge will not be easy. How can you assure the American public that you won’t back away from your campaign promises to lower greenhouse gas emissions when you come under intense pressure from industry lobbyists and opponents in Congress?

Sequestering carbon emissions

The Bush administration recently scaled back FutureGen, a federal government project to promote carbon sequestration at coal-fired power plants (see recent New York Times article).

  • How would your administration promote or mandate carbon sequestration by power plants and other major greenhouse gas emitters? How would you fund those efforts? Can you detail your specific proposals for carbon sequestration?

Adapting to a warming climate and preparing for the future

  • Many effects of a warming climate are inevitable, scientists say. What plans do you have for protecting Gulf Coast residents from more intense storms? For helping people in the western U.S. cope with a worsening drought, more destructive wildfires and water shortages? Or for Native Americans dealing with the impacts of a melting Arctic?
  • How will you help the nation cope with projected rises in sea levels, an increase in insect-borne diseases, more intense summer heat waves, and more flooding during warmer winters?
  • Many changes expected from a warming global climate will not materialize for many years. How can you convince the American public that people living today must lay the groundwork, and make sacrifices, for a future many of them will never see?

Quick access to leading candidates’ issue briefs on climate change, the environment and energy:

Hillary Clinton

John McCain

Barack Obama

Detailed answers to these questions clearly could fill a book, and some answers won’t become clear until long after the next President is inaugurated. Probing questions like these can nonetheless shed important light on differences among the candidates.

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...