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Last Updated: Monday, 23 October 2006, 06:41 GMT 07:41 UK
Small climate of concern as US polls loom
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Aftermath of Baghdad bomb. Image: AP
The occupation of Iraq is top of voters' concerns in the US
It should be the best of times to put climate change on the US political map.

Hurricane Katrina remains an open wound. The Bush administration's attitude to UN climate negotiations shows the same dismissive view of the global community as did his determination to invade Iraq - and that decision is being questioned now as never before.

There is a clear link between Middle East policy, oil consumption and climate warming. Fuel prices should imply fuel economy.

California, the richest state, has a film-star governor whose initiatives on setting targets for emissions and suing car companies has made bright headlines.

The mayors of 200-odd US cities have pledged to bring emissions down, and in case you missed it Al Gore has a movie out.

The problem, in a word, is Iraq.

Americans are seeing sons and daughters lost in Iraq, so it's an issue with tremendous urgency
Nancy Colleton
"Right now the war is overshadowing everything," says Nancy Colleton, president of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, an environmental education and information organisation based in Washington DC.

"In the news Americans are regularly seeing sons and daughters lost in Iraq, so it's an issue with tremendous urgency."

Ms Colleton's analysis is borne out by the polls.

A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics survey in September asked voters to name their single most pressing issue.

Iraq rated at 23%, the environment just 1%.

A Pew Center survey in early October asked voters to name any important issue.

Iraq rated at 15%, the environment nowhere, although concern over energy policy rose to 15%.

Few politicians are going to campaign or develop new policies on the basis of such numbers.

Taxing proposition

That said, the mid-term elections, which encompass a vast range of different types of vote for various bodies and measures across the country, are seeing some environmental input at state and local level.

Model Jodie Kidd and ice sculpture of biodiesel car. Image: BBC
Biofuels could prove attractive to voters in some states
California, inevitably, has an eye-catching motion: Proposition 87.

If enacted, it would place a new tax on oil companies in the state, with the target of raising $4bn for research and implementation of low-carbon technologies.

An estimated $80m has been raised for campaigning by proponents and opponents, an indication of how important it is perceived to be by the key players.

The race to be governor in Illinois sees initiatives designed to reduce emissions while making use of the state's unusually rich mix of old and new fuels.

"Illinois is uniquely gifted with corn and soybeans - we're surrounded by them," says Professor Michael Schlesinger, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"So biofuels are being taken very seriously. But we also have huge amounts of coal; in fact there is more energy buried in Illinois coal than all the [oil and gas] energy in the Middle East.

"But the coal has sulphur in it; and that is a no-no."

Initiatives from the incumbent governor Rod Blagojevich and his rivals seek to utilise the copious, sulphurous coal in an environmentally-friendly manner.

Coal mine lift mechanism. Image: PA

Gasification before burning, removal of noxious gases afterwards and burial of carbon dioxide make an attractive policy cocktail here; while biofuel initiatives at state and federal level could have energy dollars flowing towards Illinois rather than Iraq and Iran.

But essentially these are local issues for local elections - important, certainly, but it is the federal administration which determines how the US plays on the international stage, where the really big climate decisions are made.

Inconvenient chads

Professor Schlesinger, one of the leading US climate scientists, has consistently taken his findings into the public and political arenas.

And citizens, he says, are listening - there is a grassroots desire for change on climate policy, however obscured by concerns on Iraq, terrorism and the economy.

"I've been giving talks on this for 30 or 35 years, and I never dreamed in those days that the way this would all start would be from the bottom up, from the grassroots," he says.

Graphic of chads. Image: BBC
The chads which decided the 2000 presidential election
"I thought it would come from the top down, and if one vote in the Supreme Court had gone the other way, on the [2000 presidential election issue of] hanging chads, then it would have come from the top down."

Which brings us to the man who in his own words "used to be the next president of the United States".

In newsletters to supporters, Mr Gore is preaching the climate change gospel not in isolation, but as a key component of changing the whole tenor of US politics.

"In the last six years," he writes in the most recent edition, "we've seen an energy bill written by oil companies, a prescription drug bill written by pharmaceutical lobbyists, and a global warming policy run by the biggest polluters.

"Only in the out-of-touch world of this Republican Congress could public service mean raising their own pay nine times without raising the minimum wage once."

Several bills on climate change currently lie before Congress. Democrats say that if they take control, some of the bills will be promoted and passed, whereas if the Republicans retain their majority, they will die.

The Democrats may get their chance in Congress - their chances look good at the moment.

But if they do find themselves in power after 7 November, it is likely to be because of anger over Iraq rather than policies on the environment.

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