(Senator Joe Biden. Courtesy of the Democratic National Convention)
Joe the Plumber's been getting the attention lately, but what about Joe the Senator? What sort of environmental record would Senator Biden bring to the vice president's office? Living on Earth's Jeff Young takes a close look.
GELLERMAN: “It’s not worth a bucket of warm spit.” That’s the way FDR’s vice president once described his job - at least that’s the fit for broadcast version of the quote. But recent experience shows the vice president can play an influential role in crafting policy, especially on matters of energy and the environment.
Think Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force…or Al Gore’s actions on climate change. Since the next vice president is likely to play an equally critical role, we’ve been investigating the candidates’ green records.
This week: Senator Joe Biden, the Democrat from Delaware. Here’s Living on Earth’s Jeff Young.
YOUNG: The U.S. Congress has been nearly paralyzed by partisan fights, especially on issues as tough as global warming. But the Senate’s foreign relations committee has been the rare exception. That’s because the top Republican, Indiana’s Richard Lugar, found common ground on climate change with the top Democrat, Joe Biden.
BIDEN: Today I will join Sen. Lugar in introducing a new resolution on climate change. It says we should return to international negotiations under the UN framework convention, for time, to state the obvious, is not on our side.
YOUNG: That was Biden three years ago announcing a resolution he and Lugar have now moved through their committee three times. It’s a repeated rebuke to the Bush administration’s withdrawal from climate negotiations. Biden and Lugar also told their senior aides to monitor international talks. That means a lot of frequent flier miles for Mark Helmke, Lugar’s senior advisor. Helmke works for a Republican, but that doesn’t dampen his praise for the Democratic candidate’s grasp of the issue.
HELMKE: He has said over and over again that he’s very much aware of it, given the state he represents and the long and fragile coastline that it has. He also knows this is an issue very important to all our allies in the world, and we need to have good relations with our good allies and we need to talk to them about issues very important to them also.
YOUNG: The Lugar-Biden resolution never passed the full senate. But Elliot Diringer at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change says it still sent an important message, because it came from such important players.
DIRINGER: Yeah, this is the committee that would have first consideration of any treaty that comes out of the negotiations and is submitted to the senate and yes, that message was heard by other governments and they took great encouragement from that. And I think that’s why some of them would be eager to see Senator Biden as part of a new administration.
YOUNG: So Biden clearly has a good head for foreign policy - a strength he’d apply to addressing climate change. His mouth however, is sometimes a weakness. Biden has a gift for the verbal gaffe, as he showed at a campaign event in Ohio last month. An environmental activist asked him about spending on so-called clean coal - the technology that aims to capture carbon dioxide from coal-burning power plants.
BIDEN: We’re not supporting clean coal. Guess what, China’s building…
YOUNG: Not supporting clean coal? Biden was in dangerous territory here. Senator Obama has made clean coal a key part of his pitch to coal-mining states like Ohio. But as Biden explained it, coal - clean or otherwise - should not be used in the US, but rather in China.
BIDEN: China’s gonna burn 300 years of bad coal unless we figure out how to clean their coal up because it’s gonna ruin your lungs and there’s nothing we can do about it. No coal plants here in America. Build ’em - if they’re gonna build ’em over there, make ’em clean because they’re killing us.
YOUNG: There’s a definition of the word “gaffe” in Washington: It’s a moment when a politician accidentally speaks the truth. Indeed, Biden’s Ohio comment was consistent with statements he made last year as a presidential candidate, when he said he did not see much role for clean coal in the U.S. Coal groups issued furious statements questioning Obama’s commitment to clean coal. And Obama energy advisor Jason Grumet had to do some damage control.
YOUNG: As vice president, Biden might need to mend some fences with lawmakers from coal-producing states. He might also bring to the administration a healthy skepticism toward coal industry claims about cleaning up its act. Biden has a very solid record on environmental issues. He sponsored bills to aggressively cut greenhouse gas emissions, and to promote fuel-efficient autos and battery research. And he voted against Bush administration efforts to weaken landmark laws like the Clean Air Act. The League of Conservation Voters scores him 83 percent pro-environment over his three-decade career. But some activists in his home state want him to pay more attention to Delaware’s environment. Alan Muller is with the grassroots group Green Delaware.
MULLER: I would rate Senator Biden highly for his votes on national environmental legislation, but a lot less highly for what he has done for Delaware.
YOUNG: Muller points to Delaware’s large chemical industry. The small state has a disproportionate number of highly toxic Superfund cleanup sites. Biden voted to reinstate a program that the Bush administration let expire that makes polluters pay for cleanup. But Muller says it takes more than votes to really get the job done.
MULLER: Biden has supported the reauthorization of the Superfund tax. And I think that’s to his credit. That was a national issue. But as far as supporting a thorough cleanup of many, many contaminated sites we have in Delaware, we just haven’t heard from him on those specific issues. And that’s where Biden has let us down.
YOUNG: Muller hints that Biden turns a blind eye to the environmental villains in his own backyard. But even that criticism comes with a nod to the senator’s strong record. A Vice President Biden would bring deep commitment and understanding to the biggest environmental problems. His peculiar way of communicating that, however, could be the biggest thing in his way.
For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.
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