When it comes to U.S. politicians, the amount of "green" (i.e., cash) they can raise on the campaign trail is about the closest any of them want to get to an in-depth discussion of their environmental policies. And yet, energy and sustainability issues are becoming increasingly important to a large sector of the voting populace, namely college students. Johnson Controls, a manufacturer of environmental control systems as well as automotive interiors and batteries, sponsored a $10,000 scholarship for the college or university whose students crafted the best "open letter" to the 2008 Presidential candidates.
"This is a great opportunity for the future chief executive of the United States to hear from future business and academic leaders who will be directly impacted by policy decisions made on energy and sustainability in this country and around the world," explains C. David Myers, president of the Johnson Controls Building Efficiency business. Students at more than 200 schools were invited to participate, and I was invited along with editors from several other publications to grade the entries that made the final cut.
The winning letter ended up coming from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh (read more in the press release here). I don't know what the rest of the judges' comments were, but I was impressed at the CMU team's ability to go beyond the mainstream "we're using up too many resources and we've gotta start conserving more" comments to focus on an entirely different reality: "Creating an integrated carbon mitigation and sustainable energy policy would ensure the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Currently two billion people in the world have little or no access to electricity. Access to energy would improve public health and better the standard of living among the world's poorest citizens."
All the letters I read showed an impressive knowledge of global environmental politics, I particularly liked the directness of the Duke University team who addressed the Presidential candidates with these words: "Climate policy inaction cheats our country out of the opportunity to develop new technologies and to power the earth in a clean and more efficient way. How will you create incentives for businesses to invest in cleaner, fledgling technologies? How will you educate the American public about our energy systems and the benefits of energy efficiency? Will you create patchwork policies, or devise a comprehensive policy to build the foundation for a sustainable energy future?"
I'm not holding my breath waiting for the current crop of candidates to answer any of the Duke students' questions, but I suspect that while there will be an opportunity for the 2008 candidates to skirt past the "green" issue, that window is going to be slammed shut in the very near future. While right now it's not easy to find a clearly worded environmental policy from any of the candidates, in the near future it'll become a whole lot easier to vote green.