McCain and Obama Take on Environmental Concerns

The presidential candidates propose plans to reduce global warming, find alternative energies.

Obama would spend $150 billion over 10 years exploring alternative energy sources.

Obama would spend $150 billion over 10 years exploring alternative energy sources.

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The carbon addiction. To a large extent, hypothetical numbers—80 percent of this, 60 percent of that—are meaningless in the absence of concrete plans for alternative, cleaner technologies. Here the candidates disagree broadly on how to fund them. Obama, hailing from a farming state, is a strong backer of incentives and tax breaks for wind and solar power, as well as for biofuels, including corn-based ethanol. In a recent speech, he proposed spending $150 billion to develop alternative energies. McCain, by contrast, tends to favor a more market-based approach. "In our quest for alternative energy," McCain said recently, "our government has thrown around enough money subsidizing special interests and excusing failure." On the stump, he speaks favorably of wind and solar power. But in the past two years, he has missed votes that would have spurred research within these industries.

McCain, though he tends to oppose incentives for alternative energy, does not discount them altogether. He is a strong proponent of nuclear energy, which receives about $4 billion a year in federal support. He recently called for the construction of 45 nuclear reactors by 2030, perhaps as many as 100. "Clearly, Senator McCain sees nuclear power as one of the most critical parts of his energy policy, given that it produces 20 percent of electricity in the U.S. and doesn't produce greenhouse gases," says Scott Peterson of the Nuclear Energy Institute. Obama says nuclear energy deserves "a place at the table," but he has embraced it more hesitantly, citing unresolved concerns about waste disposal.

One problem confronting almost all renewable energy technologies is that none will replace fossil fuels in the near future. This fact, of course, doesn't jibe well with a fundamental political premise: Voters want relief now. As a result, both campaigns have been accused of pandering for votes. McCain's recent call for offshore drilling has raised questions of political expediency, as has his proposal of a gas tax "holiday" this summer. In 2003, McCain voted against allowing new oil exploration off the coasts of California and Florida and along the eastern seaboard. But in May, he reversed tack, saying that states should be given the right to approve drilling off their coastlines, though he still opposes drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, which he calls "a pristine place." His advisers say the shift comes in response to mounting economic challenges. With gas above $4 a gallon, the United States, they say, cannot afford to leave potential domestic supplies of oil unexplored. They also predict short-term benefits. Allowing drilling, McCain has said, will provide "psychological" relief to markets and will help lower prices. But critics counter that such proposals are misguided or even disingenuous. As evidence, they point to a 2007 energy report showing that offshore drilling won't yield "noticeable amounts of oil" until 2030, and that even then its impact on prices would be "insignificant."

Scientists, for their part, say the best immediate remedy for the country's energy and environment troubles is conservation. "Conservation is something we can do instantaneously," says Ronald Mitchell, a professor of political science at the University of Oregon. "In the 1970s, we decided to switch the national speed limit from 65 to 55 in response to the OPEC crisis. We could do that again." Neither candidate has made much ado about speed limits, but they do speak about fuel efficiency. These plans, too, would take time to implement. McCain recently announced a $300 million prize—to be funded, he says, by cutting a few "pork barrel projects"—for an electric car battery that will make plug-in vehicles commercially viable; Obama has called the proposal a "gimmick." In the Senate, Obama has supported increasing fuel-efficiency standards above 40 mpg as a way to reduce demand for oil; McCain has voted against them but says he supports tougher enforcement of existing standards.