It’s been a long time coming, but the United States is finally going to have a President who takes climate change seriously enough to do something about it.
The day before Senator Barack Obama clinched the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, his colleagues in the United States Senate began preparing for the biggest global warming vote in Washington’s history. The bill under debate, The Climate Security Act, would for the first time impose large, mandatory cuts on greenhouse gas emissions in the US. The bill was not expected to become law, if only because of President Bush’s promised veto, and by the end of the week stalling tactics by Senate Republicans had blocked the bill from even coming to a vote. Nevertheless, the Senate debate was a defining moment in US climate politics, not least for what it revealed about how the next President–either Obama or Senator John McCain–will address the climate issue when he takes office in 2009.
In contrast to Bush, both McCain and Obama have long said that climate change is a top-priority threat that requires real action now. Environmentally, Obama’s proposals are stronger. The Democrat favors what science says is necessary: an 80 percent cut in emissions by 2050. As President, Obama would achieve this through a “cap and trade” system that sells corporations permits to emit greenhouse gases and then invests the resulting revenue in green energy development and rebates to Americans hit by higher energy prices.
McCain, however, can rightly point out that he has been talking about climate change longer than many Democrats; the Republican co-sponsored the last important Senate climate bill, in 2005. McCain says he supports a 60 percent emissions cut by 2050. But it is doubtful his proposed approach would actually deliver such large cuts, since his cap-and-trade system would give most permits away for free, a provision environmentalists attack as a corporate giveaway. Obama would sell all emissions permits at auction. Obama is also much less enthusiastic than McCain about nuclear power as a response to climate change.
The Climate Security Act aimed to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by 19 percent by 2020 and 71 percent by 2050, again through a cap-and-trade system. Thus the bill went further than McCain’s proposal but fell well short of Obama’s. It also confronted both candidates with a political minefield. With gasoline hovering near $4 a gallon in the US, politicians were wary of any measure that might raise prices even higher. Further complicating matters was an explosive new scientific study that warned that reversing climate change would require a swift end to burning coal. Neither candidate was likely to endorse that idea (though Obama’s website said he’d consider it), since it would all but doom the candidate’s chance to win in Appalachia and other coal regions in the general election in November.