Manchester, NH -
The Clean Air Cool Planet Conference met this weekend at the Manchester Radisson. In addition to providing a forum for discussions on environmental policy, renewable energy options, and the effects of climate on wildlife, the CACPC gave the current slate of presidential candidates an opportunity to speak to the 550 registered guests whose work is at the forefront of today’s environmental frontier. The motto of the group the put on the conference is, “Clean Air-Cool Planet creates partnerships in the Northeast to implement solutions to climate change and build constituencies for effective climate policies and actions.” In other words, these were a mixture of leading academics, sustainable entrepreneurs, environmental non-profit workers and concerned citizens.
Furthermore, the list of non-candidate speakers was impressive. It included author Bill McKibben, former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, and Stonyfield Yogurt CEO Gary Hirshberg. Not only that, but invitations to speak were sent to all seventeen of the Democratic and Republican Presidential candidates. The organizers were certainly looking to make the $550 price tag of the conference worth the money, if nothing else. Yet of the seventeen invited, only four accepted. They were Democrats Bill Richardson and Dennis Kucinich, and Republicans John McCain and Mike Huckabee.
Richardson spoke Friday afternoon to a packed house, immediately following a rollicking session on the direction of state and federal environmental policy. If the conference estimated attendance at 550, I can tell you they were all there in the heart of the Friday program. I had to cherry-pick a seat during the brief recess before Richardson came on, when everyone got up to use the bathroom, grab a cookie and sneak one more peak at the vendors set up along the wall.
So down I sat, at a table near the back, making sure to spread my pointy elbows, flaunt my makeshift press pass, and glance around in a manner both menacing and harried. This was Bill Richardson speaking, and I needed a wide berth. Finally comfortable enough to half relax after a minute or two, I peered around the room, which was elegantly decorated with white holiday lights dangling from the girders of an old brick armory building, which doubles as a conference center here at the Radisson.
As Richardson was being introduced, I couldn’t help but notice that the acoustics are terrible. I actually felt like Bill Richardson at the debates, struggling to hear the moderator. Only in my case I was supposed to have a multi-speaker sound system blaring the words from six different angles with thousands of carbon-emitting watts powering the noise. Instead, I concentrated hard and hoped that the applause would be light.
No sooner than I had braced myself for a quiet riot, I was jolted out of my stupor when Richardson came up to the podium with Buster Poindexter’s “Hot Hot Hot” blaring from the speakers.
“Pretty wild, huh?” Richardson said with a laugh. The song seemed to legitimately catch him by surprise. He then went into his classic starter joke as the crowd applauded his arrival, with some taking to their feet to do so.
“Thank you for standing,” Richardson quipped with his unique, full-faced smile. “I thought you were leaving.”
He began his remarks by saying that conferences like this were the ones he enjoyed most, because “these are where real solutions are coming from.” Richardson went on to talk about the do-nothing culture of congress, most notably in the field of energy.
Referring to the bill Congress proposed this spring requiring a CAFE standard of 35mpg, Richardson said, “you know what that is? That’s pathetic. It should be 50. Minimum.”
Richardson then used platform to cite his performance as a governor, which has been a hallmark of his campaign strategy so far. He said that he was the first governor to call for his state to follow Kyoto standards, even if Bush wouldn’t. He evoked bipartisan cooperation with Arnold Schwarzenegger as he joked that “The Governor of California and I like to compete as to who is the energy state. But in person I always tell him that he is because he’s bigger than me.”
From there he launched into the bigger picture, saying that America has had an energy problem for thirty-five years, and a change would have to come from the American people, and not just from incremental bills in the Congress. He touted the various regional energy strengths of our nation, with biomass and coal in the Midwest, wind and solar in the Southwest, and wave energy on the coasts. Richardson also touched on the major principles of his energy policies.
He is big into points. There is a four-point philosophy for his energy policy which must:
1) Fight global warming (at this point he toasted Al Gore with his water glass, and joked that he hoped he didn‘t enter the race)
2) Wean us off of oil
3) Support and help people, industry and small businesses who are hurt by high prices today
4) Set clear regulatory standards and let market react
Then there was the Five Point Plan to break oil addiction, strengthen security and create jobs.
1) By 2020 reduce oil consumption to 10 million barrels per day with plug-in cars, efficient utilities, renewable energy and commuter rail.
2) Create new efficiencies in electric energy sector by mandating utilities to use renewables
3) Reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20% by 2020, and 80% by 2040
4) Improve math, science and engineering in our education policy
5) Become the leader of new the energy future
Yet Richardson’s politics aren’t all caught up in bullet points. He also takes the stand of what might best be called the pragmatic progressive. By that I mean that he both acknowledged that our foreign policy is dominated by the Exxons and Halliburtons of the world, and yet was still willing to say, “I want to invite oil companies to become energy companies.”
Richardson, for better or worse, seems to be one of the few candidates willing to ride the line of condemning the status quo while inviting it along for a better ride into the future. Regarding our energy policy he said, “we need to change fast or sink slowly.”
But perhaps my favorite part of the entire speech was when Richardson rhetorically asked, “What is more important to the country and the world than quality of life?”
Because quality of life, in a nutshell, is the political arm of the environmental movement, if not contemporary politics in general. Better yet, I had never head a Presidential candidate address that issue before. Scientists may implore that we save species for their own sake, but voters across America do it because they like to be able to see salamanders, badgers, red foxes and ospreys when they hike and hunt and drive. Voters in New Hampshire like to know that they will still be able to have maple syrup from the farm down the road in another ten years, and skiing in the winter.
Bill Richardson speaks to these things. He makes it clear that he proposes what some say is the strongest energy policy, while at the same time acknowledging a respect for market forces and the boon of tax incentives. He talks of economic growth and ecological sustainability. But most importantly, as I said, he brought up quality of life. After all, no matter how much money we make or how much energy we save, what is it all worth if we can’t enjoy the natural world around us? For all the time he spent on the former, it is really the latter that made the most difference in his speech.
More to come...