Political Climate

Debatable tactics

Fresh from saving the American financial system by, erm, suspending his presidential campaign, John McCain parachuted into Mississippi last night just in time for the first presidential debate. Inevitably, both candidates were asked, first and foremost, to explain their plans for dealing with the banking crisis; less predictably, some of the economic band-aids they offered up could have far-reaching ramifications for the next administration’s environmental and energy policies.

Barack Obama pledged that no matter what, he’d plough ahead with his plans for American energy independence, investing billions in new clean and renewable technologies. Conservatives jumped on that as testament to the Democrat's tax-and-spend liberalism; in fact, though, it's likely that Obama would be able to pay for his clean-energy R&D by auctioning off carbon credits, probably enabling him to balance his budget even in the face of an expensive bailout.

McCain doesn’t have that luxury, since his cap-and-trade plan calls for carbon credits to be given away rather than sold off. He talked himself further into a corner last night, promising to veto every spending bill that crossed his desk and suggesting that he’d freeze government spending on anything other than defense, entitlements and aid for veterans.

Those tactics would make it hard for McCain to solve America's energy crisis. Still, it's unclear how seriously McCain intended his no-new-spending vow to be taken: he also promised to put the economy back on track by building 45 new nuclear plants, which would likely cost upwards of $300 billion and require the government to provide hefty subsidies for the nuclear industry. (It would also provide far fewer than the 700,000 new jobs McCain claimed last night; the pro-nuclear Clean and Safe Energy Coalition estimates that building McCain’s 45 plants would create 225,000 jobs, of which only 35,000 would be permanent.)

Nukes or no nukes, though, it was clear from last night’s debate that McCain intends to fund the banking bailout, and his proposed $300 billion in tax cuts for the rich, by “scrubbing” every government department for savings. That’s bad news for greens: it will always be less politically costly to cut back on environmental programs than on education, social security or defense. To make matters worse, most of the government’s environmental programs - parks, endangered species protection, the EPA, even consumer safety - have already been scrubbed half to death by Bush budget cuts. Billions of dollars of further cutbacks might be the final nail in the coffin.

Double-talk or nothing

Democratic vice-presidential hopeful Joe Biden would be the first to admit that he’s got a big mouth; it’s practically part of his brand. Still, the bloviating lawmaker has outdone himself in recent weeks, dissing his own side’s attack ads, asking a wheelchair-bound supporter to stand up and take a bow - and, most recently, appearing to tell a supporter that contrary to previous statements, the Democratic ticket didn’t support “clean coal”.

That’s music to the ears of many greens, who worry that “clean coal” is more an advertising slogan than a viable technology. Still, with the Appalachians in play, the McCain camp jumped on Biden’s comments, rushing out a bluegrass-tinged attack ad blasting Obama and Biden for pandering and flip-flopping. (The Obama camp quickly issued a statement claiming that Biden’s comments had been misconstrued, and reaffirming the ticket’s lamentable commitment to investing in zero-carbon coal plants.)

Of course, Joe’s not the only one who’s been making Kinsley gaffes on environmental issues. McCain has caught flak for claiming his cap-and-trade plan doesn’t include mandatory carbon caps (it does), while his running mate has been doing her best to backpedal on her earlier admission that she doesn’t believe that global warming is caused by human activity.

Then there’s McCain’s top energy adviser, Doug Holtz-Eakin, who told a panel in New York that regional efforts to cap carbon emissions are “costly and uncoordinated” schemes that will only impede federal efforts to counter climate change. “An enormous amount of regulatory infrastructure has to be cleaned up,” he said. That contradicts McCain’s earlier statements about the states’ role in tackling climate change, and worried greens in California and the other states currently pushing ahead with local emission caps.

Unfortunately, with the campaign heating up and the economy in meltdown, we’re unlikely to get much substantive talk about climate policy from either candidate in coming weeks, which means these unscripted moments may be all we have to go on. On the one hand, we’ve got a team whose gaffes hint at green aspirations they’re afraid to act upon; on the other, a ticket whose blooper reel suggests almost exactly the opposite. Sadly, neither one inspires much confidence; you pays your money, and you takes your choice.

Animal lovers get political

Climate change, schlimate change; with the election just six weeks away, why is nobody talking about the critter factor? Barack Obama, it turns out, doesn’t own a single pet; the McCains, meanwhile, have two dozen animal companions dotted around their seven homes, including a spaniel, a black-and-white cat, two turtles, three parakeets and a ferret. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that America’s animal lovers appear to be in the tank for McCain: a recent AP poll gave the Arizona senator a five-point lead among pet-owners, thanks in part to a commanding lead among dog-lovers.

Now, though, the Humane Society is trying to change that math: for the first time in its history, the organization has thrown neutrality to the wind and announced its endorsement for the US presidential race. The lucky candidate? “The Obama-Biden ticket is the better choice on animal protection,” says Humane Society Legislative Fund president Mark Markarian. “We urge all voters who care about the humane treatment of animals, no matter what their party affiliation, to vote for them.”

Obama has certainly earned the Humane Society’s endorsement, backing more than a dozen major animal-protection laws in Springfield and Washington; this year, he even agreed to pose in front of the Lincoln Memorial clutching a three-legged poodle to promote a campaign against puppy mills. Obama’s running mate, Joe Biden, also gets the thumbs-up from the HS, thanks to his work on legislation requiring tuna fishermen to go dolphin-friendly and his successful effort to ban the trophy hunting of exotic mammals in fenced enclosures.

McCain also has a pretty solid record on animal rights, having worked to end the slaughter of horses and to cut federal funding for the mink industry; it’s his moose-hunting running mate, Sarah Palin, who really lets the side down. She’s fought to keep polar bears from receiving protection as an endangered species, and waged a one-woman war on Alaska’s wolves, encouraging hunters to shoot the animals from helicopters and offering them a $150 bounty for each severed forepaw they bring back.

“She has perhaps done more harm to animals than any other current governor in the United States,” says Markarian. “If Palin is put in a position to succeed McCain, it could mean rolling back decades of progress on animal issues.”

In fact, Palin’s influence may already be making itself felt: this weekend, McCain is scheduled to speak to a rally of the US Sportmen’s Alliance, a group that supports the trophy-hunting of polar bears. Pets or no pets, it could be that the GOP ticket won’t be attracting too many animal lovers this time around.

Palin: A fading czar?

Since John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his number two, there’s been speculation about exactly how much influence the climate-denying, pro-drilling Alaskan governor would have on a McCain administration’s environmental policies. Fortunately, Palin has decided to clear things up for us: she’s announced that she would be McCain's energy czar, spearheading his administration’s “mission of energy security”.

That’s roughly the same slot filled by Dick Cheney during Bush’s first term: after spending three months conducting controversial behind-closed-doors meetings with Big Oil representatives, Cheney emerged to deliver a series of speeches dismissing environmentalists as wimps and calling for a massive expansion of the oil sector. Still, at least Cheney, as former CEO of Halliburton, knew - for better or worse - what he was talking about. Palin, it turns out, doesn’t know much more about energy policy than she does about the Bush doctrine.

In presenting Palin to the American people, McCain declared that she “knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States of America”, a claim that not even he could possibly have believed to have been true. Palin may be governor of an oil state, but her energy-policy achievements amount to little more than tinkering with Alaska’s oil taxes, talking up an as-yet-unbuilt pipeline and lobbying for increased drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Never mind that Palin has no national policy experience; she’s struggling even to keep tabs on her home state’s energy portfolio. In an interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson, the vice-presidential candidate said that she’s qualified to lead because Alaska produces 20 percent of America’s energy. In fact, Palin’s home state supplies only about 3.4 percent of US energy; it looks as though Palin’s claim was based on figures from the 1980s, which probably speaks to how closely Palin has been following Alaskan energy policy since reaching the Governor’s mansion.

In any case, coming from an oil-producing state doesn’t necessarily qualify someone to handle federal energy policy. It’s worth remembering that George Bush’s home state of Texas is the country’s top-ranked energy producer, followed by Dick Cheney’s home state of Wyoming - and we all know how that’s turned out. Maybe this time around, we should try to judge our aspiring leaders by the policies they propose, not the states they call home.

Presidential science lessons

Back in February, Plenty joined 175 leading academic and scientific institutions in calling for a televised debate on science policy in the run-up to the presidential election. Neither candidate took the bait; still, both John McCain and Barack Obama have now replied in writing to questions posed by the Science Debate crowd. Inevitably, that reduced the “debate” to little more than a set of copy-pasted campaign talking points; there was little in either candidate’s responses that you couldn’t find on their web-sites (or the Plenty Index). Still, it’s worth taking a look to get a sense of the kinds of arguments the candidates are making. Here are some of the highlights:

On innovation: Obama calls for a doubling of federal research budgets over the next decade and promises broadband internet access “for all Americans”. (No word yet on whether he’ll be paying my Comcast bill.) McCain, who admits to not knowing how to use a computer, says that he’s qualified to lead America’s technological revolution since he once flew planes for the Navy; also, he personally “spurred the rapid rise of mobile phones and Wi-Fi technology that enables Americans to surf the web while sitting at a coffee shop, airport lounge or public park”. (Al Gore may have invented the internet, but it seems it was John McCain who set it free.)

On climate change: No surprises here: both candidates reiterate their commitment to the climate struggle, saying they’d introduce a cap-and-trade system and return emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. McCain would then push for further reductions of 60 percent by mid-century; Obama would aim for an 80 percent emissions cut by 2050. Also worth noting: unlike McCain, Obama would establish cap-and-trade by auctioning off carbon credits, the method favored by most economists.

On energy: Obama promises to spend $150 billion on clean energy over the next decade; McCain says he’ll build 45 new nuclear reactors to meet rising demand, and that he’ll make government “an ally but not an arbiter” of renewable energy sources. McCain also backs away from his earlier suggestion that renewables will never have more than a bit-part in US energy supply: “Wind power alone could account for a fifth or more of all our electricity,” he now says. “And just in recent memory, solar energy has gone from a novelty to a fast-growing industry.”

On the oceans: Both candidates wax lyrical without saying much: Obama says America needs to begin a “program of ocean stewardship”, while McCain touts his Naval experience as having shown him “the power, wonder and complexity” of the world’s oceans.

Read the rest of the the candidates' responses here - and while you're at it, sign up to show your support for the Science Debate. Maybe next time around, we'll actually manage to get the candidates to discuss these issues in person.

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