At a debate in North Carolina in October 2000, Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George Bush were asked about their positions on global warming. Would they be willing to pass new regulations and laws to protect the environment? "Sure, absolutely," Bush replied, "so long as they're based on science and they're reasonable." But taking immediate action on climate change, however, he felt would be premature. "I don't think we've got all the facts," he said.
Eight years later, the facts on climate change are well known. Over the past 35 years, demand for energy has more than doubled. Fossil fuels—coal and oil, mainly—have powered the explosive growth, but their use has raised carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere by more than 35 percent from preindustrial levels. As a result, the sun's rays no longer escape as easily from the atmosphere; some of their heat is radiated back, returning to the ground and the ocean, fueling global warming. In the next 40 years, average global temperatures are expected to rise by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit, causing profound disruptions in rainfall patterns, agriculture, wildlife, and human activity.
Now that there is consensus that global climate change is happening, the real debate is how the next president will address it. Several recent developments, including record oil prices, rapidly rising energy demand, and a growing awareness of the impact of fossil fuel use on the Earth, have provided ample evidence that energy and environment challenges are intimately connected and require a coordinated response. Voters, meanwhile, are growing more concerned. In June, a Gallup Poll found that 9 out of 10 voters say that high energy costs will influence their vote in November.
Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain have heeded the mounting concerns with a flurry of ambitious proposals and promises in recent weeks. McCain frequently argues that energy security is closely intertwined with "national security," if not a prerequisite for it. His campaign has dubbed Obama "Dr. No," a nickname his advisers say captures Obama's resistance to a host of potentially beneficial energy ideas, including nuclear energy. Obama has responded by comparing the presumptive Republican nominee to President Bush, citing their now shared support for offshore drilling.
Ambitious plans. Behind the rhetoric, genuine distinctions emerge, although on the question of cutting greenhouse gas emissions—widely considered the most pressing environmental challenge of the moment—the candidates' views are broadly similar. Both support mandatory federal emissions limits. They agree in principle that reductions should be pursued through cap-and-trade systems, under which the government would set a limit on the total amount of greenhouse gases businesses could emit, and bigger polluters would have to buy emissions allowances from cleaner companies. Obama's proposal goes further than McCain's, requiring that the United States cut carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent from the 1990 levels by 2050; McCain would require only a 60 percent reduction, and distribute some of the allowances to polluters for free. Both plans, nevertheless, are more ambitious than what world leaders have so far embraced. At last week's G-8 summit in Japan, officials reached a "historic" agreement for a 50 percent emissions cut by 2050.
Neither candidate's plan would pass Congress without a fight. Until recently, the Bush administration vigorously opposed even the idea of government-mandated emissions reductions, and leaders in the Republican Party continue to warn that stringent emissions caps could drain the economy of trillions of dollars. "They're both too much," Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst David Kreutzer says of the candidates' proposals. "In the Democratic primaries, it seems like there was a game of who can trump the other person. When you get to the environment, it's, 'Who is going to propose the greatest cut?'"
Many researchers and environmentalists, however, say that McCain, after years of leading on climate change issues, has failed to keep pace with new data and that only Obama's plan offers an adequate response. "McCain is still proposing the same levels [of emissions reductions] he was proposing in 2003, even though the science has advanced a lot," says Tony Massaro, political director of the League of Conservation Voters. "We now need more significant reductions because we've already seen things that weren't anticipated in 2003, such as massive ice sheet melting in Greenland." In the group's eyes, McCain's voting record has also lagged. In 2007, he missed every major vote on environmental legislation. McCain's lifetime score for voting "correctly" on environmental issues, according to the league's tally, is 24 percent; Obama's score, over a much shorter time period, is 86 percent.
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.
Both candidates seem to think that crafting carefully targeted energy proposals will translate into votes. At the moment, Obama appears to have the advantage. In a recent poll, voters gave Obama a 47-to-28 nod over McCain when asked which candidate they thought had better ideas on energy and environment. Environmental groups favor Obama as well. Both the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters are backing him. Preferences aside, the groups are encouraged by the attention energy issues are garnering after years of neglect. And with 70 percent of Americans saying the country's energy policy is off track, no doubt the attention is warranted.