Sustainable Development on the Stump Environmental Policies of Obama Clinton and McCain

How will U.S. environmental and energy policies look in 2009? With the primaries winding down, we're starting to get a better idea. Senator Barack Obama fancies himself on this issue, as on most, a man of vision. Senator Clinton calls above all for accountability.

The presumed nominee of the Republican Party, Senator John McCain, has very noble beliefs. Because recent polling shows that environmental issues like global warming aren't at the top of voter priorities, it is doubly important to press candidates about clarifying their positions. So, what are candidates saying now about environmental and energy policies? Obama's rabble rousing oratory capacities have awed and inspired many; however if you watch a clip of him on the stump it is easy enough to see how he is guilty of espousing what one journal describes as a "vague uplift". While hardly a death blow, this claim is at present especially damaging for its implicit contrast to the "crisp detail" famously proffered, and willingly delivered on cue, by the Clinton machine.

Not so in the policy literature. Hillary's showing is respectable, to be sure; however it is Obama's campaign webpage that wins my top marks for clear, effective and economical presentation of his intended approach. In the field of carbon emissions, he aims to impose a market-based cap-and-trade system with the ultimate goal of reducing emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by mid-century. He would utilize some of the revenues generated in carbon-credit auctions to ease the burden of those negatively impacted by the enormous economic transition. Obama believes in a massive investment in clean energy initiatives.

As president he would "invest $150 billion over 10 years to advance the next generation of biofuels and fuel infrastructure", with the specific goal of ensuring that newly developed technologies are commercialized and brought to market in the United States and beyond. He would pursue an ambitious campaign to double funding for energy research and development. He would invest to ensure labor supply in a "clean technologies workforce" and to bring clean technologies to manufacturing centers such as Detroit.

Obama would actively pursue the development of coal technologies cleaner than those which are presently in use. His hope to move toward oil independence is founded on the improvement of fuel efficiency standards. To do this he would provide guarantees to auto manufacturers that experiment with new engines and lightweight materials.

This would be parcel to a broader national campaign of efficiency improvement; other incentives would include grants for local governments that implement building codes more favorable to energy efficiency. The final pillar of his environmental policy is the restoration of American leadership on climate change. He would create a new Global Energy Forum to facilitate communication amongst the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases, and would further pursue coordination within the framework of the U.

N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Senator Clinton's proposals are remarkably similar to Obama's on a number of levels.

She too favors a cap-and-trade system which would see 100% of permits auctioned; she too hopes to invest $150 billion over ten years in "new energy" (some of the bills to be footed by corporations); and she too hopes to double federal investment in energy research. She has established timetables of national goals for energy reduction and use of clean energy similar to those of Obama. And finally, she too favors efforts to increase automobile fuel efficiency, specifically through the provision of $20 billion in "Green Vehicle Bonds" to American automakers. It would be interesting to see a chronological side-by-side of their respective policy evolutions. In her traditional mass appeal to America's middle and lower-middle classes, there is finally something of a differentiation, if it is more one of form than function.

In addition to supporting "green collar" jobs, she would seek to modernize 20 million existing low income homes to improve energy efficiency. She would initiate a "Connie Mae" program to ease the acquisition of green homes by low and middle-income Americans. And finally she would require all new federal buildings to comply with zero-emissions specifications. There is one commendable initiative unique to Clinton.

She would oblige publicly-traded companies to include estimations of financial risk posed by climate change in annual reports submitted to the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. However such a policy might be of limited effectiveness if companies included the estimations only to appease the requirement without genuine regard for its implication. To end the investigation, it is John McCain who receives poor marks, not for benevolence of intentions but for clarity of vision. In five short and murky paragraphs, it is he who commits the sin of "vague uplift", failing to elicit a single clear policy initiative through verbose allusions to the forces of a cap-and-trade regime. In the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt he believes in preserving America's natural majesty. His belief that "America's economic and environmental interests are not mutually exclusive, but rather inextricably linked" is all fine and well.

But I would hope to see a more clear-eyed expression of his means to this end. In a video clip tagged to the page, the Senator expresses his belief that the United States should join the Kyoto Protocol if China and India could be brought onboard. This suggests another debate which I evoked in last week's column concerning the respective sacrifices of developed and developing nations in the battle to cut greenhouse emissions. Finally, citing the instability of many oil-producing states, McCain too advocates energy independence for the United States.

America has been a net importer of oil for decades; true independence is only achievable through the intensive use of renewables and a great push to improve conventional fuel efficiency. I hazard to presume that more specific policy proposals will become readily available from the McCain campaign as November approaches. Copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Lafleche.

Daniel Lafleche is the co-founder of Alternative Channel, a website dedicated to giving non-profit organizations concerned with issues of sustainable development, environmentalism, and humanitarian issues an online forum for their video content. You can learn more at http://www.alternativechannel.tv

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