Monday, May 26, 2008

Comparing Obama and McCain on Climate Change

This was written for ChinaDialogue (

I am a vegetarian, but I am told that if you are going to eat sausage, you don’t want to see how it is made. It is often said that making political policy is almost as bad! That is especially true when it comes to political policy in the U.S. system. U.S. presidents have much less power than people think. They can propose policy to the Congress – but so can any member of the Congress. They can veto bills passed by the Congress – but those vetoes can be overridden by a two-thirds vote of the 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 Obama and McCain speeches on climate change, which were recently published here, I think something very important has happened. I say this not because of the details on which they differ, but because of how much they agree on. As all politicians do, in America, the two major parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, compete for supporters by looking for differences that they can highlight. One is for gun control, the other is not. One is for abortion, the other is not. And so on. The more the differences the better. Because the political parties are pretty close in the degree of support they have, this makes for stalemate. There aren’t 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. The reason there has been so little progress on climate legislation in the United States has been because it has been an issue the parties used to contrast each other. The degree of overlap between McCain and Obama’s position is significant because it shows that this is no longer the case. Climate change has been taken off the table as an area in which the parties are going to compete for votes. That makes the prospect for serious legislation in this arena under the next president very good. That is not say there are not important differences between Obama and McCain’s positions. The most important is that McCain calls for a 60% reduction of green house gasses over 1990 levels by 2050 while Obama call for an 80% reduction. (The scientific consensus is that 80% is the minimum necessary target to avoid serious consequences.) McCain sets specific intermediate greenhouse emission goals while Obama sets explicit intermediate efficiency and renewable goals. One other clear difference is that 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. These are the kinds of issues in which, as we say, “the devil is in the details”. They might be reasonable or they might undermine the whole program. Obama’s plan is silent on these issues. That might be a good sign or a bad sign – depending on how cynical you are! Sticking with the theme of cynicism, I think it is a mistake to think of these plans as just about climate change. Both speeches make the re-assertion of U.S. leadership in the World a central theme, as they do the development of business opportunities for U.S. corporations. This is not just electioneering – for better or worse, these are two of the major traditional drivers of U.S. foreign policy. How much that matters remains to be seen. In some ways, the details of any U.S. legislation on climate change don’t matter as long as they are serious enough to establish the U.S.’s bona fides on the international stage. The more they are seen as an attempt to re-assert U.S. political and corporate power, the harder that goal may be to achieve.

You can read more details about the McCain and Obama plans at: and

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