It's Not Easy Being Green
Thursday, April 3, 2008; 12:00 AM
Environmentalists would have us believe global warming is as important as nuclear war, terrorism, infectious disease or global economic collapse, but the 2008 presidential campaign has been virtually devoid of discussions on the topic. While this was often a source of high dudgeon from activists, it has also been logical. A cursory review of their websites would have shown that the Democratic positions were so tightly aligned as to make for little internecine debate, while most Republican candidate positions were so diffuse that there was little to actually debate. And, as opinion polls show, environmental issues rank fairly low on peoples' priority lists when compared to issues of health care, crime, drug use, immigration and energy affordability.
But as the field has narrowed, and the candidates are beginning to attack across party lines as much as within, we can expect to see more discussion of environmental issues as a way of differentiating the Democrats from the Republicans. And we can see the shape of that debate even before the Democratic field narrows. First, this is going to be a fight about global climate and energy policy, which, to the chagrin of environmentalists with more local concerns, have eclipsed all other environmental issues. Second, rather than debating whether or not we are going to address climate change, this year's debate is going to be about stringency and method.
Let's begin with the question of stringency: How much do the candidates want to reduce greenhouse gases? On this question, the Clinton and Obama platforms are virtually identical, calling for measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050. McCain, by contrast, favors a less stringent goal of reducing greenhouse gases 30 percent below the level of 2004 by the year 2050. All three candidates are wedded to achieving this through an emission-trading scheme colloquially called cap-and-trade, in which total greenhouse gas emission levels are capped by governmental fiat, permits are distributed to emitters, and some trading regime is put in place to, at least in theory, allow emitters to find the least expensive way to achieve emission reductions. On the question of vehicle fuel economy, the Clinton/Obama campaign calls for an increase to 40 mpg by 2020 (Clinton would ratchet that up to 50 mpg by 2030), while McCain has previously voted to raise standards to 36 mpg by 2016. These differences in stringency are significant, and the democrats are likely to attack McCain's positions as environmentally weak, while McCain will likely argue that the Democratic position is not economically sound. The eternal tension of environment vs. economy has been largely pooh-poohed by environmentalists in recent years of high-flying economic performance, but it will not be as easily waved away with the U.S. standing at the threshold of a recession and with the U.S. automotive sector in serious competitive trouble.
The second area where the candidates are likely to differ involves the means employed in protecting the environment. Here too, there is a detectable set of differences: McCain is clearly less enamored of governmental mandates and spending. On the question of renewable energy, for example, the Clinton/Obama campaign calls for the U.S. to generate 25 percent of electricity with "renewables" by the year 2025, and they do not consider fossil fuels to be renewable. They would also throw money at the ever-hungry renewable research complex: Though apportioned differently, both pledge $150 billion in renewable-related initiatives over the next 10 years. McCain, by contrast, supports the idea of renewables, but has not set specific targets for how much must be produced, nor has he bid for the support of the renewables lobby with a concrete pledge of cash.
On the question of biofuels, there is a similar dichotomy: the Clinton/Obama campaign calls for 60 billion gallons of biofuels to be produced in the U.S. by 2030, with free-flowing subsidies, while McCain supports biofuels more generically, without subsidies. There is, however, a flip-flop in this area on McCain's part that could open him to a charge of environmental pandering: Whereas McCain used to oppose the use of ethanol on economic, efficiency and environmental grounds, he seems to have had a change of heart when he reached Iowa. This was McCain in 2003: "Ethanol does nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve air quality." Here is McCain in 2008: "I support ethanol and I think it is a vital, a vital alternative energy source not only because of our dependency on foreign oil but its greenhouse gas reduction effects."
Lastly, while all three candidates are accepting of nuclear power, the support of Clinton and Obama could best be described as tepid, while McCain is clearly a nuclear booster: his climate bill would have sent serious lucre to the nukers.
If environment manages to break out into the presidential debate in coming months, it will be a debate of stringency and means. The Clinton/Obama camp calls for very tough targets, while McCain calls for more modest greenhouse gas reductions. The Democrats want mandates, R&D spending and subsidies for renewable energy, while McCain is mostly lukewarm on the topics. Without the distraction of the historically dominant "you're a denier!" debate, this year's campaign might actually generate some food for thought: We all want to protect the environment, but how much, how fast, how expensive and how we do it have not been center-stage questions before. It's about time.
Kenneth P. Green is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute