How green are the candidates?

The environmental choices of Senators McCain and Obama could point to what kind of environmental president one of them will be.

By Samantha Harvey

Much has been written about the presidential candidates' policy proposals for energy and the environment, and with only a week to go before the election, the choice between Senators McCain and Obama is fairly clear for environmentalists. The candidate who said, “The truly clean technologies don't work” is the same one who inspires  chants of “drill, baby, drill” — and he’s not the candidate for us. But what do the candidates' personal choices say about what kind of leaders they might become?


Whether a presidential candidate walks the walk (or takes public transpo) as well as talks the talk could reveal how high a priority he'll give to climate change and other environmental issues in his administration.

Take a look at the candidates’ dinner plates, for example. All campaigning politicians traditionally endure an endless stream of local “delicacies” - high-fat concoctions they're required to exuberantly consume before legions of potential voters and their cell-phone cameras -- so the Senators are to be forgiven if  the Philly Cheesesteak is not exactly from Philly, and it comes with a side of greenhouse gas.

But when given their druthers, McCain’s and Obama’s food choices are quite telling. At home, John McCain favors barbeque; campaign sources do not specify how the senator heats his grill – with sooty, polluting charcoal briquettes or with cleaner options like natural gas, propane or solar energy, but it's safe to assume that greenhouse-gas intensive beef is often on the grill. On the road McCain’s choices are no greener, including hot dogs, doughnuts and Coca-Cola, all of which sustainable food guru Michael Pollan would reject as water and fuel-guzzling foods of the past: Most animals raised for meat are to be found in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations; they, as well as the production of high-fructose corn syrup found in soda, are significant agricultural polluters.

Barack Obama prefers a more ... dare we say evolved? ... diet, enjoying salmon, tilapia, and broccoli. We can only hope the senator’s salmon is wild instead of farmed, and his tilapia (nearly all of which is farmed) is an infrequent choice.

Next let’s look at the candidates’ homes. The Obama family home in Chicago’s affluent Kenwood neighborhood clocks in at over 6,000 square feet, more than twice the size of the average American’s. Heating an average home can release more than 5,000 pounds of CO2 through colder months, (depending on where you live), so the Obamas could be dumping more than 10,000 pounds during Windy City winters. That’s the equivalent of driving the distance between Chicago and Honolulu and back again.

But at least the Obamas only have one house. As has been widely reported, John McCain owns so many he has trouble remembering the exact number. (The popular consensus is somewhere between seven and ten.) Considering the sheer number of residences, as well as their generous square footage, it is safe to say the McCain family leaves a much larger footprint than do the Obamas.

The McCains' condo in Phoenix features a heated rooftop pool. An average-sized pool of 15,000 gallons in sunny Arizona roof would lose a lot of water to evaporation, and could use 450,000 Btus each day if powered by smog-forming natural gas instead of solar. The remaining McCain residences are located mostly in the hot, arid climate of the southwest and require air conditioning that spews more than 6,000 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere each year (for an average-sized home, that is). For the McCains, whose abodes are nothing if not spacious, that’s quite a cloud of carbon.

Digging deeper, things don’t improve much for McCain’s personal green factor. Public vehicle registration records link a whopping 13 cars to John and Cindy McCain, and the one registered in John’s name is no hybrid – it’s a 2004 Cadillac CTS, which gets about 16 mpg on city streets. His daughter Meghan drives a hybrid, but since it’s a foreign-made Toyota Prius, McCain is quick to distance himself from the purchase, clarifying that Meghan bought that car without his help.

Barack and Michelle Obama own only one car, a Ford Escape hybrid. When they drive around Chicago, the Obamas get 34 miles to the gallon.

Today’s campaign travel expectations make conservation next to impossible. Jet aircraft can use thousands of gallons of fuel per flight, and they release their emissions in an area of the atmosphere where it's particularly damaging. The Obama campaign's Boeing 757 holds around 11,000 gallons of gasoline and weighs about 255,000 lbs. McCain’s campaign fares only slightly better in the jet-fuel-related emissions department, choosing a smaller and lighter Boeing 737. Lighter planes require less energy to operate, and the 6,000-gallon gas tank on the flying Straight Talk Express has 100,000 fewer lbs to propel than Obama’s 757.

Boeing asserts today’s planes are more fuel efficient than the average car, getting about 60 miles to the gallon per passenger. But that’s a commercial passenger plane; both campaign planes have 70-80 fewer seats than the plane you fly home for Christmas on, to make room for R&R areas for the candidates as well as reporters' equipment—diminishing fuel efficiency in the process. On the other hand, airlines save fuel for every pound of weight removed.

More significantly, thought, both campaigns take short trips and make frequent stops, and planes expend the most energy during take-offs and landings. In one five-day period, John McCain made seven stops on a winding 3,000-mile route between Durango, Colo. and Hershey, Pa. Barack Obama’s travel schedule is comparably full.

Senator Obama's campaign earns back some green points by sending the bulk of his advertising through text messages, emails and even video games, instead of using paper and envelope glue. The EPA’s most recent inventory found the pulp and paper industry releases up to 263 million pounds of toxic chemicals into air, water and land each year; add that statistic to global deforestation, and the Obama campaign’s lists of tens of thousands of cell phone numbers — even when printed out — leave a lighter footprint on the environment. John McCain, meanwhile, openly calls himself a computer "lliterate,” and with the campaign headed by a protege of Karl Rove's — whose specialty was direct mail fundraising — it’s probably safe to say the McCain operation is generating a lot more paper waste and associated pollution than Sen. Obama's. (McCain's campaign did not respond to repeated requests for information on its fundraising methods by publication.)  

Finally, it’s been said the clothes make the man. John McCain hasn't said much when it comes to his wardrobe, but his campaign spent $150,000 on new clothes for his running mate. Barack Obama claims he wears his suits as long as he can, mending them as they weather — although the darning must be on the inside because we haven't seen any patches on the candidate's suits. (His campaign declined to clarify whether he avoids nylons and polyesters made from petrochemicals.)

So who wins the personal-green campaign? The greatest impact of each candidate and his campaign is surely from the planes they use, and McCain's aircraft uses less fuel. But there's no evidence this choice of aircraft was made for environmental reasons; indeed, given his puddle-jumping, and the rest of McCain's choices — into which little thought for the environment seems to have been given at all — in this race there’s no question Barack Obama is the cat’s pajamas. And if the Obamas get matching sets of pj's with the Presidential seal, we will be watching to make sure they are made from only the best organic cotton.