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Candidates deserve credit for carbon proposals

Thomas Friedman is one of the most important national writers on green issues – maybe the most important. Which is why this quote from a recent column is so confusing:

[N]one of the leading presidential candidates has offered an energy policy that would include a tax on oil or carbon that could trigger a truly transformational shift in America away from fossil fuels.

The column is framed as a mock assessment of America’s security program from the point of view of an Iranian intelligence agency. It’s a clever enough conceit, and in the middle of it Friedman drops in the line about carbon taxes to underscore the point that America isn’t serious about energy independence.

It’s a shame that Friedman focuses only on the lack of proposals for carbon tax, and doesn’t mention candidate proposals for cap and trade. Of the three leading Democratic candidates, 100% have offered strong plans for taxing carbon emissions in the form of cap-and-trade programs. On the Republican side, it’s a bit hard to figure out who’s leading these days, but two candidates (McCain and Huckabee) have at least endorsed the idea of a cap-and-trade system. This is pretty thin gruel, but it’s not nothing. McCain has actually pushed for passage of such legislation in the Senate.

There are surely differences between a straight carbon tax and a cap and trade system, but the distinctions aren’t really strong enough to support the column’s contention. And it’s true that the line is just a small piece of an article that covers a lot of ground, but I think this sort of thing matters.

Here’s why. It’s good to hold politicians’ feet to the fire, particularly during a campaign season. But there’s a flip side to this: when politicians actually take bold positions, it would be nice to see them rewarded for their courage. Otherwise, why should they stick their necks out? Several leading candidates have great — even transformational — energy plans. They should reap the political benefits.

Which raises a secondary, related problem with the column: the careful evenhandedness. A lot of candidates don’t have great, transformational energy plans. And that so-called “green gap” is a perfect place for a columnist with Friedman’s megaphone to focus his attention.

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