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Horse race update: a personal encounter with John Edwards

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I was part of a group of environmental and business leaders invited to meet with presidential candidate John Edwards and his wife Elizabeth in the San Francisco Bay Area last Saturday. The gathering was a chance to give Edwards advice on environmental policy, especially about addressing global warming. (Please note: I was not representing TerraPass at the meeting, nor am I affiliated in any formal way with the Edwards campaign.)

In person, Edwards is relaxed and approachable. The meeting was low-key — Edwards himself showed up in jeans and a sport jacket. After a round of handshakes and introductions, we quickly got into substance.

Edwards displayed an impressive knowledge about global warming. Not at the Al Gore level, but comfortably fluent in cap and trade, atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases, and the likely impacts of melting polar ice caps and sea level rises. He briefly shared his New Energy Economy plan and highlighted opportunities to spur “green collar” job growth in the United States.

Then he asked us questions on the potential for plug-in hybrids, the current limits of battery technology, how to give companies credit for voluntary greenhouse gas reductions, and whether recent evidence of climate impacts made the goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050 not ambitious enough. Our answers led to a real back-and-forth that I don’t think happens very often in modern political campaigns. Elizabeth Edwards revealed her own command of carbon-speak, as well.

Among Edwards’ positions:

  • Corn-based ethanol is not the answer to our liquid fuel needs, although it may provide a bridge of practical experience on the path towards more energy-efficient biofuels (Edwards said he tells this same truth to corn farmers in Iowa).
  • Firm opposition to a new generation of nuclear plants because of operational safety concerns and the unresolved problem of nuclear waste.
  • A ban on new coal-fired power plants until carbon-capture technology is proven and commercialized.

Edwards also said that America needed to regain its leadership in global negotiations on a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol and that we would only be successful if we led by example with an aggressive commitment to reduce carbon emissions. He thinks we can bring China and India into a new climate deal by sharing our green technologies. Finally, Edwards articulated a new kind of American patriotism, one that links national security with energy conservation and calls on Americans to make personal sacrifices in the interests of reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

Other presidential candidates have strong climate change proposals, too. (For the Democrats, see Clinton, Obama, and Richardson; for the Republicans, see McCain and the latest GOP climate convert, Huckabee.) But beyond the policy specifics, Edwards really seems to understand the complexity of climate change and the massive economic and energy transformation required to deal with the problem. He showed humility in wanting to learn from experts. And he left me with the sense he might be the guy who could lead the U.S. and the family of nations to a more secure, low-carbon world.

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