Story Transcript

Democrats on Global Warming
Matt Palevsky talks with Cass Sunstein

MATTHEW PALEVSKY, TRNN: I’m standing here after a New Republic panel with Professor Sunstein, Cass Sunstein. You’re an informal adviser to Obama, of course, and you recently wrote a book called The Worst Case Scenario, talking about how so many Americans are focused on the next terrorist attack but we don’t focus on the threat of global warming. Can you tell us about that?

CASS SUNSTEIN, PROFESSOR OF LAW, HARVARD LAW SCHOOL: Yes. The basic problem is after 9/11 the worst-case scenario for terrorism was just in our minds. It helped produce the Iraq War, where President Bush would say, “Imagine if Saddam Hussein did this and we’d have a terrible attack. It’d be so horrible.” And the worst case really helped support the war from the public’s perspective. For climate change, the worst-case scenario just isn’t motivating our behavior. It isn’t salient in our minds. For all the efforts of those who [are] concerned about it, many Americans think that for climate change the really catastrophic scenarios are too distant in the future, too likely to threaten people in Africa or India, not the United States. So the very different reactions we’ve had to terrorism, which are in some ways, I believe, not effective responses, and for climate change, where we’ve basically done extremely little, the reason is the worst-case scenario for one is in our ads, and for the other it just isn’t yet.

PALEVSKY: And you’re often described as on Obama’s shortlist for the Supreme Court. You know him well—you’ve worked on the campaign since the beginning. Many people criticize him for his environmental policy, for which you’re an outspoken advocate of an aggressive environmental policy. People say he isn’t out there in front enough and Al Gore has tried to push it further. But there’s a real dialog here on an issue that Democrats have controlled that’s really kind of leveled out recently. Where are we at? And what is necessary? What’s the game plan for the next few weeks?

SUNSTEIN: Well, Senator Obama has, with respect to the environment, the most sophisticated and aggressive and elaborate set of proposals of any public official, at least sitting in office, I think, in our lifetime. For climate change he has an auction proposal, where if you’re going to be emitting greenhouse gases, you’ve got to buy the right to do that through an auction, which for the first time would mean people who are doing this would have to pay. And then he [has] a cap and trade program, which is a market-oriented program, which would reduce greenhouse gas emissions very significantly in the next decades. This is a much more aggressive plan than Senator McCain’s. It’s a much more kind of state-of-the-art plan that takes advantage of the best work in economics as well as in science. So I think on the environmental side it’s true that Senator McCain isn’t exactly an enemy of the environment—he really does care about it. But we have a very stark difference with respect to climate change, both the ambition and the sophistication of the proposals.

PALEVSKY: And could you just end by painting that difference in a way that maybe we haven’t seen yet and how they will both approach this differently? And what I heard you say during the panel was you don’t just elect a person, you elect a party, and that maybe Obama could lead more effectively. Is that part of it?

SUNSTEIN: Yes. I think there are three differences that are major. One is that Senator Obama calls for much more aggressive cuts with respect to greenhouse gas emissions than Senator McCain. Senator McCain’s proposal is more tentative and cautious. Second, Senator Obama would require an auction system, so people who are emitting greenhouse gases would have to pay for that right, which would be doubly good: it would create an incentive not to emit, and it would also give the government resources by which it could cushion the economic burden on those who would be at some economic risk because of the new program. So that’s a difference. And the third difference is the one that you point to, which is for Senator McCain, I think this is a good-faith belief of his, but we wouldn’t say exactly that it’s a very high priority for him; whereas for Senator Obama, one of his very top concerns is the close relationship among national security, environmental protection, and energy independence for economic reasons. So for him this would be a top issue, and his leadership would be very much focused on the environmental question, whereas for Senator McCain, it would be a big surprise if this is a high priority for him. His deepest convictions, in the sense of his top-five list, are most unlikely to include climate change and the environment.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Cass R. Sunstein

Cass R. Sunstein (born 1954) is an American preeminent legal scholar, particularly in the fields of constitutional law, administrative law, environmental law, and law and behavioral economics. Sunstein taught at the University of Chicago Law School for 27 years, where he continues to teach as the Harry Kalven Visiting Professor. Sunstein is currently the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.