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.

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