Late in the afternoon of June 5, the Senate was debating the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, which is to say the Senate chamber was almost empty, and the strongest global-warming bill ever to move in Congress was almost dead. Both sides were trying to whip the vote for a make-or-break procedural motion while the bill's leading opponent, James "Global Warming Is a Hoax" Inhofe, was rasping out a floor speech full of arguments for inaction. Across the aisle, the bill's floor manager, Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., shuffled papers at her desk, doing her best to ignore Inhofe.
That's when Boxer's chief of staff hurried over and whispered in her ear. Boxer ducked into the cloakroom, picked up a phone, and had a quick talk with Sen. Barack Obama. When Boxer returned to the floor, she announced that Obama would enter a statement saying that "if he were able to be present," he would be voting in support of the bill.
For those who have been waiting anxiously for Washington to take action on the climate crisis, this is what passes for presidential leadership these days: a candidate phoning it in on the most important global-warming vote of the year. (The sitting president, of course, was doing everything he could to kill the climate bill, issuing a veto threat that helped galvanize Republican opposition.) A similar proto-presidential moment came the next day, just before the big vote, when Joe Lieberman, the lapsed Democrat from Connecticut, announced that Sen. John McCain wouldn't be showing up, either, but that he, too, would have voted to move the bill forward.
Lieberman-Warner is dead now—defeated by a wide margin in the vote Obama and McCain missed—but its approach to controlling global-warming pollution, known as "cap and trade," lives on. Both candidates support cap and trade, which would set mandatory carbon reductions and create a market for carbon permits, making companies pay for the right to pollute. McCain sponsored two important early cap-and-trade bills, in 2003 and 2005; Obama joined him as a co-sponsor of the latter. Both have reason to campaign on the issue because it matters to the independent voters whose support they need to get elected. And for McCain, climate change is especially good politics: Bucking his party on the issue appeals to his sense of personal drama and offers his best evidence that he's not Just Like Bush. "I will not shirk the mantle of leadership," he vowed in a climate speech last month in Oregon. "I will not permit eight long years to pass without serious action."
So, how come neither he nor Obama showed up for the big debate?
McCain was under massive pressure from party leaders not to appear. The Republicans were using delay tactics to obstruct Lieberman-Warner, calling it the "Boxer Climate Tax Bill" and claiming it would wreck the economy; the last thing Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted to see was McCain riding in on a white horse to step on their story line. For McCain, that meant passing up an opportunity to burnish his maverick brand with climate-sensitive swing voters. But since large swaths of the GOP base are climate skeptics and this bill wasn't getting a serious debate anyway, being a no-show was the low-risk option. So, brave Sir John left his gallant steed in the stable and went to some fundraisers instead.
Obama had other reasons to duck the debate. After pleasing the environmental left in the primaries with his strong, detailed climate policy, he is showing signs of regarding the issue as a liability for the general election. As America's economic troubles mount, the stump time he devotes to climate change dwindles. Maybe that's because cap and trade will boost energy prices over the short term, at a time when voters are in deep economic distress and apoplectic about the price of gasoline.
But for Obama, cap and trade is the best way to reduce dependence on foreign oil and lower energy prices over the long term. (By putting a price on carbon, cap and trade offers built-in incentives to all clean energy sources.) It would impose a relatively modest upfront cost to get that done—2 cents per gallon of gas per year between now and 2030, according to the EPA—and that's a deal worth taking. Will Obama have the guts to make the argument? He has stood up to political posturing over energy prices before. In April, when McCain announced his gas-tax holiday and Clinton rushed to embrace it, Obama called it what it was: an empty pander that would do nothing to solve the problem.
Cap and trade isn't just the key to Obama's climate and energy policy; it's a crucial plank in his economic policy as well. When he talks about investing "in the research and innovation necessary to create the jobs and industries of the future right here in America," as he did in his economic address this week in Raleigh, N.C., cap and trade is his unspoken vehicle—the unmarked armored car that delivers the cash. It is by auctioning pollution credits that Obama would raise most of the $150 billion he proposes to invest in alternative energy over the next 10 years, a policy that he said would "end our addiction on foreign oil, provide real long-term relief from high fuel costs, and build a green economy that could create up to five million well-paying jobs that can't be outsourced." But in the Raleigh speech, these worthy and crowd-pleasing goals were divorced from cap and trade, which was never mentioned, and from the climate crisis, which merited only a brief nod.
Obama will get another crack at the subject June 16, when he delivers a speech on his long-term economic agenda. He'll have a chance to frame the debate on his terms, linking high energy costs and dependence on foreign oil to the climate crisis and its cap-and-trade solution. If he leaves climate and cap and trade out of the equation again, it will be a signal that his campaign has decided the issue hurts him more than it helps. If that happens, it may mean that economic distress has driven climate off the agenda entirely. And that would be terrible news—because if Obama or McCain intend to take quick action upon entering the White House, they need to lay the groundwork now.