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Getting Warmer?

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In the Oct. 7 presidential debate, a young woman named Ingrid Jackson asked the candidates what they'd do "within the first two years to make sure that Congress moves fast [on] environmental issues, like climate change and green jobs."

Sen. John McCain acknowledged "the danger that climate change [poses]"; Sen. Barack Obama said, "This is one of the biggest challenges of our times." Both men outlined their energy plans, but Jackson left unsatisfied.

"I don't think either one dealt with the urgency issue," Jackson, of Nashville, told environmental Web site grist.org.

Pittsburgh-area activists and academics seem to agree: While it's great that both major-party candidates finally acknowledge climate change, they say, both should do much more to raise awareness and propose real solutions to environmental challenges.

Full disclosure: I'm an Obama volunteer. But I've been disappointed by how minimally environmental issues like climate change -- "one of the biggest challenges of our times" -- figure in campaign handouts. And they barely echo at all among voters on whose doors I've knocked.

"Nobody's pushing [an environmental agenda]," says Jeanne Clarke, of advocacy group PennFuture.

Obviously, endless war, economic stagnation and a global financial crackup tend to distract us from long-term problems like rising carbon emissions. But scientists, who seem almost monthly to report that arctic ice is melting much faster than predicted, counsel considerable urgency. Their to-do list also includes other serious problems -- dwindling water supplies in the American West, toxic runoff, global deforestation -- that the campaigns haven't even touched on. If we don't face such challenges quickly, scientists say, our wars will be over fresh water, and we'll face endemic drought, flood, disease and famine.

Most presidential debate on the environment has revolved around energy, which is a fair enough start: Burning fossil fuels is the main way Americans make heat-trapping greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide. Obama's call to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2050, for instance, matches what many scientists say is needed to prevent the worst effects of global warming. (McCain seeks a 66 percent reduction.)

However, in the big picture, says Carnegie Mellon University economics professor Lester Lave, "There really is not a huge amount of difference" between the candidates. Both would limit carbon emissions with a "cap-and-trade" system that let big polluters buy and sell permits for how much they emitted; total pollution would shrink gradually.

But "[n]one of the legislation that we've seen proposed begins to get at programs that would really solve the problem," says Lave. Missing from the debate, he says, is the solution most economists favor: a straight-up "carbon tax" reflecting the true toll that fossil-fuel consumption takes on the planet. The $40-a-ton tax on carbon emissions Lave proposes would double the price of coal. (He also argues for a $4-a-gallon gasoline tax.) But unlike cap-and-trade, he says, it would send a clear, immediate signal to seek alternative fuels.

Meanwhile, too many environmental topics that are on the table are dominated by buzzwords: "clean coal," for instance, which both candidates embrace. The nicely alliterative term "sounds like that win-win thing everyone's looking for," says Myron Arnowit, Pittsburgh-based director of Clean Water Action's Pennsylvania branch. The problem is that capturing, liquefying and storing carbon emissions would require technology we haven't perfected, and money we may not have. Nor does "clean coal" begin to address the environmental damage done by mining coal.

What will our leaders ultimately ask us to sacrifice? How much will corporate interests let things change? Perhaps a bigger problem still: While the U.S. may be the world's biggest per-capita polluter, says Aaron M. Swoboda, a University of Pittsburgh assistant professor of environment policy, "We've got to find a way to have everybody reduce [their own] emissions," especially rapidly industrializing China and India.

Then again, maybe campaigns aren't the venue for proposing hard choices. On things like clean coal, says Arnowit, "I think there will be lots of discussion about it after the election."

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