Raising the Stakes

Hillary Clinton has been criticized lately for playing it safe. Yesterday, though, she showed unaccustomed boldness, setting out an ambitious environmental plan that got rave reviews from greens - and guarantees that global warming will be a key election issue in 2008.

In a detailed 16-page plan, Clinton promised to reduce America’s carbon emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, using a carbon auction to establish a cap-and-trade emissions market. That puts her on the same page as Barack Obama, who won plaudits after floating a similar scheme last month. The plan also puts pressure on Senators Lieberman and Warner, whose inferior cap-and-trade proposal is currently winding its way through Congress.


Greens liked Clinton’s new emphasis on energy efficiency, especially a pledge to force Detroit’s auto makers to increase fuel-efficiency to 55 mpg by 2050. They also welcomed the news that Hillary’s hot for hybrids: she proposes to plow $2 billion into the sector, offering big tax breaks to consumers and adding 100,000 plug-in cars to the federal government’s fleet.

There were concerns too, of course: Clinton will continue to shore up America’s biofuel sector with wasteful subsidies, and like her rivals would throw money at Big Coal in a bid to develop “clean coal” technology. On the whole, though, Clinton’s camp deserves kudos for a brave attempt to move the ball forward. Crucially, Clinton’s announcement brings the New York senator in line with the other Democratic hopefuls: All the party’s potential presidential candidates have now committed to significant and specific emissions cuts.

That moves climate change firmly into the political mainstream, and puts Republicans in an awkward position: They can’t ignore the issue, but neither can they out-green the Democrats. The only option left to them is to come out swinging in defense of the status quo. In the coming months, we’ll likely see mounting criticism of the Democratic proposals on economic grounds.

But while the argument that change is too risky and too costly will resonate with the party’s conservative base, it’s unlikely to win over moderate voters. Almost a third of voters now rank the environment and energy independence as their top domestic concerns; even within the Republican ranks, many suburban voters put a high priority on environmental issues. If the Democrats can maintain their newfound united front in the face of hardening GOP opposition, they may find that fighting the good fight is also a sound electoral strategy.