Presidential candidates on climate change

by Antonio Pasolini on April 28, 2008

As the American presidential election approaches, we decided to have a look at the candidates’ stance on climate change. Is there any hope in sight? Well, it can’t get any worse that Bush’s (non)policies, so, yes, I guess there is some hope as long as we don’t get the Republican John McCain, as he supports nuclear power. But since he’s not very likely to be taking the helm at the White House, then I guess we can have our untroubled sleep tonight. McCain also supports coal. Who is advising him? Not anyone too concerned about climate change. No doubt, those of us concerned with global warming should give McCain a miss without even thinking twice.

OK, that leaves us with Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama. Both candidates have a similar political platform on the topic. For instance, both support a mandatory cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. If elected Hilary says she would require industries to pay for allowances to emit greenhouse gases; these allowances would be sold through auctions; have the United States lead international efforts to address the problem of climate change; invest in clean energy technologies; increase fuel efficiency. It all sounds very good, but how she will do that – ‘increase fuel efficiency’ – is not very clearly spelt out (politicians love generic promises). Check out Clinton’s page on the issue.

In his turn Obama says that if elected he would require all transportation fuels in the United States to contain five percent less carbon by 2015 and 10 percent less carbon by 2020; he would establish targets for annual fuel economy increases while giving industry the flexibility to meet those targets; would give automakers health care assistance in exchange for their investing 50 percent of the savings into technology to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles. Slightly more precise than Hilary but I think automakers don’t have to be given perks to clean up their act – it’s their job to do so.

Both Clinton and Obama support ‘clean coal’, or coal-to-liquid fuels if they emit 20% less carbon over their lifecycle than conventional fuels. As to nuclear power, Clinton does not want to emphasize it as a power source unless waste-storage and other problems are solved. Conversely, Obama says we should ‘explore nuclear power as part of the energy mix’, but has also said nuclear is not a great option because of problems with safety and storage and because it usually requires big government subsidies.

So it seems like all in all Clinton and Obama’s plans are similar but I prefer Clinton’s stance on nuclear power, which basically rejects it, while Obama would still allow for more nuclear power stations. I dislike their openness to ‘clean coal’ – critics says you can’t put those two words together. Obama is even more supportive of coal than Clinton seems to be, which is quite alarming.

What is clear though is that, what science says and politicians do or promise, differ greatly, with the latter taking a much more relaxed attitude on climate change than they should. Also, they only focus on energy. But shouldn’t we be talking about the way people live, their habits (including food), transportation networks and the way products are designed as well? We need a more holistic approach to the problem and a rethink of a system that turns us all into voluntary and involuntary ‘wasters’. We’re trapped in a global-warming-friendly system and politicians should help us get out of it by changing the system itself. But is it in their interest? That is the question we should ask ourselves when voting.

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