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Comparing the candidates on climate change

chinadialogue has recently published speeches on climate change by Barack Obama and John McCain, the two leading candidates for president in the November 2008 US elections. Here, Martin Bunzl comments on the plans.
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If you are going to eat a sausage, people say, you don’t want to see how it is made. (Although that is not something that directly affects me, as a vegetarian.) The same can be said of the process of making political policies. And that is especially true when it comes to policy in the United States.

US presidents have much less power than people think. They can propose policy to Congress, but so can any member of Congress. They can veto bills passed by the Congress, but those vetoes can be overridden by a two-thirds vote by Congress. So, when a president comes out with a proposed policy, it is not the end of the story. It may not even be the beginning of the story.

Nonetheless, if you read the speeches on climate change by the two leading candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, which were recently published on chinadialogue, you will find that something very important has happened. Not because of the details on which the candidates differ, but because of how much they agree on.

As is the case in most political systems, the two major parties in the US – the Republicans and the Democrats – compete for supporters by looking for differences that they can highlight. One party is for gun control, the other is not. One is for abortion, the other is not. And so on. Because the political parties are fairly evenly matched in the degree of support they have, this makes for a stalemate situation. There are not enough Republicans or Democrats in the Congress to push through legislation on their own. Legislation only moves when there is consensus. And major legislation only moves on an issue when both sides have decided not to use that issue to highlight differences between the two parties.

One of the reasons that there has been so little progress on climate legislation in the US is because it has been an issue the parties use to highlight difference. The degree of overlap between McCain and Obama’s positions is significant because it shows that this is no longer the case. Climate change has been taken off the table as an issue over which the parties are going to compete for votes. That makes the prospects very good for serious climate legislation under the next president.  

There are, however, some important differences between Obama and McCain’s positions. The most significant is that McCain calls for a 60% reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions below 1990 levels by 2050, while Obama call for an 80% reduction. (The scientific consensus is that 80% is the minimum necessary target to avoid the serious consequences of warming.) McCain sets specific intermediate greenhouse-gas emission goals, while Obama sets explicit intermediate efficiency and renewable energy goals. McCain sees a much larger role for nuclear energy than Obama. Both call for a cap-and-trade system in which permits are auctioned, with the proceeds going to public use. McCain’s plan calls for a “transition over time” to such an auction system, and also allows for the purchase of offsets outside the system. Obama’s plan is silent on this issue. The devil is in the details with these plans, and silence could be a good or a bad sign, depending on how cynical you are.

But sticking with the cynicism for a moment, it is a mistake to think that these plans are just about climate change. In both speeches, the re-assertion of American leadership in the world is a central theme, as is the development of business opportunities for US corporations. This is not just electioneering: for better or worse, these are two of the major traditional drivers of US foreign policy. How much they matter remains to be seen. In some ways, the details of any US legislation on climate change do not matter, as long as they are serious enough to establish American bona fides on the international stage. The more they are seen as an attempt to re-assert US political and corporate power, the harder that goal may be to achieve.


Martin Bunzl directs the Initiative on Climate change and Social Policy at Rutgers University


You can read more details about the plans on John McCain and Barack Obama’s websites.

Homepage photo by Serene Silence via Flickr

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

'气候变化‘是一个玩笑

多数美国人认识到政客们获得比现在更多的控制和税金只是另一个可怕的方法。人类活动仅仅占温室气体排放的0.28%,这很清楚无论我们怎么做都不会停止气候变化。想一下火山,火山提供50%的和水蒸发无关的温室气体排放。那是不是我们要管理火山并告诉它们多大的排放量是可以的?祝好运吧...事实上’气候变化‘不只是天气的一般循环这一点是值得质疑的。

该评论由高广海翻译

"Climate change" is a joke.

Most Americans realize that it is just another scare method for the politicians to gain more control and taxes then they already have. When all of humanity only contributes 0.28% of greenhouse gases on earth, it is very clear that anything we do is not going to stop climate change. Consider volcanoes: they contribute to nearly 50% of greenhouse gases that are not water vapor related. So does that mean we need to regulate volcanoes and tell them how much they can produce? Good luck... In fact it is questionable whether this "climate change" isn't just normal cycles of weather.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

真正的”大多数”吗?

我不知道“大多数美国人”是指哪些人,但是这大部分美国人应认为人类活动造成的气候变化是美国如今面对的最重要的一个问题。美国科学协会也持有同样观点。美国科学发展协会最近的一项发现表明,”科学的证据是显而易见的,人类活动造成的全球气候变化…对社会是一个逐渐增长的威胁.” 在此我代表我国人民, 为”大多数美国人” 拒绝相信这个事实和他们的继续我行我素而道歉. 要改变这个事实或许会给他们的生活造成不便, 但是确实能分担这个全球危机. 本.F

该评论由 Stacy. Xu 翻译

"Most Americans" are not informed

I don't know who these "most Americans" are, but this American thinks that anthropogenic climate change is the single most important issue facing the US today. So does the U.S. scientific community. A recent statement from the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science states; "The scientific evidence is clear. Global climate change caused by human activities...is a growing threat to society." On behalf of my countrymen, I offer my apology that "most Americans" refuse to believe this inconvenient truth and continue contributing far more than their share to this global crisis.
Ben F.