Climate change getting the attention of both parties

An undated photo provided by the Center for Northern Studies shows the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, which has been disintegrating because of climate change, scientists say.
REUTERS/Denis Sarrazin
An undated photo provided by the Center for Northern Studies shows the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, which has been disintegrating because of climate change, scientists say.

Environmentalists had reason to be encouraged by two developments at last week’s Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

The convention ended with a presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, who agrees with scientists – and his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama – that global warming is an urgent problem calling for major changes in the marketing and use of energy.

“The facts of global warming demand our urgent attention, especially in Washington,” McCain said in a speech in May.  “Good stewardship, prudence, and simple common sense demand that we to act meet the challenge, and act quickly.”

The Bush administration had only recently agreed that global warming is a problem. And environmental groups welcome McCain’s strong affirmation of the warnings they had sounded for years.

“This is a first, where you not only have both candidates agree that climate change is real and we are causing it but also agree that we need a market-based approach to it,” said J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director for Fresh Energy, a non-profit organization in St. Paul that promotes clean energy.

“It is the first time anything has happened like this in a federal election,” Hamilton said.

Further, for the first time the Republican Party included a plank in its platform acknowledging that climate change is a serious problem. Although the plank is cautiously worded, it does reflect a step toward recognizing the scientific evidence that the planet faces major disruptions unless steps are taken now to curb emissions of greenhouse gases. It also reflects McCain’s fresh influence on the party as it approaches that issue.

Hesitant platform language would not bind McCain to taking tentative steps rather than bold strides toward curbing the emissions.

And so, the next president is poised to tackle the global warming problem regardless of the election’s outcome.

The crucial question now is exactly what the winner would set out to do. Both McCain and Obama have laid out plans for their approach. Let’s look at the highlights of two major points they address.

Cap and trade
Both McCain and Obama propose a marketing system in which a cap would be set on the overall amount of a pollutant that could be allowed. Companies and other groups would get allowances to emit a set amount of the pollutant. Those who didn’t use all of their allowances could sell them to others who want to exceed their limits.

While McCain and Obama agree on the approach, they differ on some significant details, said Bill Grant, who directs the Midwest Office of the Izaak Walton League of America.

One difference is in the amount greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced by 2050.  McCain proposes a reduction of 60 percent from 1990 levels. Obama calls for an 80 percent reduction, a level most scientists advocate.

Another difference is in the candidates’ plans for how companies could get their allowances.

Obama proposes to auction the allowances in order to facilitate market-based pricing and also to raise money for new alternative and energy-saving technologies. In other words, the privilege of polluting would come with a price tag.

“A 100 percent auction ensures that all large corporate polluters pay for every ton of emissions they release, rather than giving these emission rights away for free to coal and oil companies,” says Obama’s position statement on the issue.

McCain proposes to start with some free allowances and auction at least some of them eventually. Industries have argued that abruptly forcing them to pay to pollute would drive up consumer costs for the goods they produce.

Under McCain’s plan, a commission will “be convened to provide recommendations on the percentage of allowances to be provided for free and the percentage of allowances to be auctioned.” The commission also would develop a schedule for transition from allocated to auctioned allowances.

Many other aspects of a cap and trade system will be up for debate after the next president takes office. One major question is which sectors of the economy would be in the system and how other sectors, such as agriculture, might participate from the sidelines. The details available from the candidates on such fine points in any plan are sketchy for now. 

Energy efficiency
Obama stresses energy conservation as the “fastest, cleanest way to reduce emissions.” He proposes dramatic improvements in the energy efficiency of buildings, including all federal buildings but also homes and businesses. Among other incentives, he would create a competitive grant program, rewarding states and localities that take the first steps in implementing new building codes that prioritize energy efficiency. He also would provide a federal match for states that support energy efficiency retrofits for existing buildings.

Beyond buildings, Obama proposes to double fuel efficiency (mileage) requirements for vehicles within 18 years. In order to protect domestic automakers and parts manufacturers during that transition, he offers tax credits and loan guarantees.

McCain stresses cleaner alternative sources of energy, pledging to put the nation on track to construct 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030 with the ultimate goal of building 100 new plants.

“Nuclear power is a proven, zero-emission source of energy, and it is time we recommit to advancing our use of nuclear power,” says his policy outline.

“Currently, nuclear power produces 20 percent of our power, but the U.S. has not started construction on a new nuclear power plant in over 30 years. China, India and Russia have goals of building a combined total of over 100 new plants and we should be able to do the same.”

As for fuel efficiency standards in vehicles, McCain said the standards already set by Congress should be enforced. “Some carmakers ignore these standards, pay a small financial penalty, and add it to the price of their cars,” his position statement said.  It called for penalties that are “effective enough to compel all carmakers to produce fuel-efficient vehicles.”

McCain is referring to “rather large loopholes for SUVs and light trucks in the current standards,” said Grant at the Izaak Walton League. If those loopholes were closed the overall efficiency of the nation’s fleet of vehicles would improve significantly, Grant said.

Whichever way it is done, mileage improvements could make a big difference.

“For every couple of miles of efficiency you get huge reductions in carbon emissions,” Grant said.

The candidates’ positions on efficiency vs. clean energy development are not mutually exclusive. McCain offers many ideas for improving efficiency while Obama also calls for considering nuclear and other forms of cleaner energy. The difference is in emphasis and priorities.

Overall, many environmental groups favor Obama’s call for starting first with the low-hanging fruit of efficiency improvements rather McCain’s longer term plan to build newer, cleaner energy sources.

“If you are really serious about climate and you really want a new energy economy that Americans can be proud of what you want to start with is the cheapest fastest way to get there which is energy efficiency, not nuclear,” said Hamilton at Fresh Energy.

International cooperation
Both candidates propose a range of incentives for developing cleaner alternative sources of energy.

And both propose to engage more fully in international efforts to address climate change while adding that rapidly growing countries like China and India need to be part of the solution.

While they may differ here and there on that point, together they project a clear departure from the Bush administration’s arms-length stance on international cooperation.

“We have been largely absent from that during the Bush years,” Grant said.

Meanwhile, the world has been waiting for the United States to take action.

“Nobody wants to go first,” said Hamilton at Fresh Energy. “China and India have been saying to the United States, ‘You are the richest nation on Earth. You have an obligation to lead.’ “

Eventually, the whole world is going to need climate-friendly technology, she said.

“I would rather be selling it to other places than buying it from other places,” she said.

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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