Climate Feedback

The presidential race 2008: where the candidates stand

Posted by Olive Heffernan on behalf of Alex Witze

There are only 17 months left until the US presidential election, which means it’s time for the jockeying to begin in earnest. On climate issues, this means that the leading candidates from both parties have in recent weeks been competing to see who can be greener than thou.

Most notable has been the recent about-face pulled by Illinois senator Barack Obama, the fledgling star of the Democratic party, on coal-to-liquids technology. Illinois is a state with a lot of coal, and so it was perhaps not surprising when earlier this year Obama supported legislation that would give tax breaks to the coal industry to develop coal-to-liquids (CTL) technology. The problem is that CTL is a major emitter of greenhouse gases, even if much of the resulting carbon is captured in sequestration. So recently Obama backed off his support of CTL, saying he thinks it is a good idea only if the technology improves to the point of emitting fewer carbon emissions over its life cycle than conventional fuels. A political move to be sure, but one with significant energy ramifications, given Obama’s prominence in the race so far.

Obama’s leading rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, has no such problems: she represents New York, a state with little interest in coal. She has instead come out with alternative energy plans that rely heavily on taxes and research money to shift the US away from dependence on foreign oil. Using the same rhetoric one hears from many energy experts these days, she says the US needs an investment on the scale of the Apollo moon project to improve energy efficiency. This may be true — but given the level of wrangling going on in Congress this week over proposed energy legislation, it’s pretty clear that we would have never gotten to the moon at all had politicians been in charge.

Meanwhile, trailing far behind Clinton, Obama, and former senator John Edwards in the Democratic field is a man who really knows his energy: Bill Richardson, currently governor of New Mexico and former US Secretary of Energy. As he points out in a critically-acclaimed YouTube campaign ad, the man is perhaps too qualified to be president. This is the man to listen to for true energy wonkery.

On the Republican side, former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani has criticized the Bush administration for a lack of action on climate issues; Giuliani supports a range of approaches, including popular ones like ethanol and unpopular ones like nuclear power. John McCain, the senator from Arizona, is of course a leading proponent of legislation to cut carbon emissions; the bill he co-sponsored years ago with Joe Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent from Connecticut, is the early gold standard for climate-change legislation, proposing a 65 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. And the third leading Republican candidate, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, has said relatively little so far, other than the standard lines about reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil.

Potential late entries into the race could also shake up energy and climate issues. Rumors continue to swirl that former vice-president and climate lecturer Al Gore may jump in. And Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire current mayor of New York, this week withdrew from the Republican party in what is widely seen as a move towards a potential presidential candidacy as an independent. He’s been very active on energy issues – for instance, ordering the entire New York taxi fleet to convert to hybrid vehicles within five years. And his closeness with California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger makes for a powerful partnership of regional leaders who want to pave the way for federal action on climate.

Stay tuned – it’ll be a long and interesting 17 months.

Alex Witze

Senior News and Features Editor

Nature

Comments

  1. Report this comment

    James Aach said:

    I work in the electric energy sector and I am increasingly concerned that the physical basics of energy and its production are becoming politicized. If you wish to have electricity on demand in large quantities, without significant lifestyle changes (as the US public does), then the choices are fossil fuels, nuclear and hydropower (big dams). Other talked-about options (solar, wind, tidal, etc.) can be helpful on the margins, but they are intermittent and diffuse – which are not properties that can be alleviated by more scientific research (though having better energy storage would certainly increase their effectiveness). Such alternative sources may be thought to be morally superior, but that doesn’t mean they can produce the equivalent amount of power. Conservation should clearly be the number one goal of any energy policy to lessen dependency on the big producers, as well as climate change effects. The willingness to push or ignore conservation issues IS a political decision.

    James Aach

    Author of “Rad Decision”, the first insider novel of nuclear power.

  2. Report this comment

    YJ Draiman said:

    As you know, many serious problems are associated with our insatiable thirst for energy. The reason is simple: To gain the energy we must burn the fuels. The combustion, by the way quite inefficient, causes huge gaseous emissions polluting the air and forming an invisible screen responsible for the famous “ green house effect ”, i.e., blocking the dissipation of heat and thus causing the feared warming up of our planet, with deadly consequences for nature and man.

    There is only a finite amount of oil in the world. Everybody knows this.

    Someday, we’ll run out. It will be gone.

    Meanwhile, our insatiable thirst for oil — which we burn — has put enormous sums of money into the hands of fanatics who hate us and everything we stand for, and who use that oil money to fund the terrorists who murder Jews and Americans wherever they can.

    We can’t burn oil forever.

    And it’s bad strategy to base our economy on cheap oil when we have to buy at least some of it from our enemies.

    Optimists tell us that the free market will eventually deal with the problem. Their theory is that as oil gets harder to extract cheaply, the price will go up; then other forms of energy will become economically attractive and we’ll switch over to them.

    Here’s why their optimism is nothing short of suicidal.

    First, there’s no guarantee that without intense government-funded research and financial incentives now, the new energy sources will be available in quantities large enough to replace oil when it does run out.

    In other words, if we wait until it’s an emergency, our economy could easily crash and burn for lack of energy sources sufficient to drive it.

    It’s easy to supply energy for an economy that’s only a tenth the size of the world’s economy today. The question is how many people will die in the resulting chaos and famine, before new free-market equilibrium is established?

    Second, how stupid do we have to be to wait until we run out of oil before acting to prevent its waste as a fuel? Petroleum is a vital source of plastics. We could use it for that purpose for hundreds of generations — if we didn’t burn any more of it. But if we wait till we’ve burned all the cheap petroleum, it won’t be just fuel that we have to replace.

    Third, market forces don’t do anything for our national defense, our national security. We had a clear warning back in the 1970s with the first oil embargo. What if terrorism in the Middle East specifically targets all oil exports, from many countries?

    And even if they keep the oil flowing, why are we pumping money into the pockets of militant extremists who want to destroy us? Why are we subsidizing our enemies, when instead we could be subsidizing the research that might set us free from our addiction to oil?

    You notice that I haven’t said anything about polluting the environment. Because this is not an environmental issue.

    In the long run, it’s an issue of whether we wish to provide for our children the same kind of prosperity that we’ve luxuriated in as a nation since World War II.

    It is foolish optimism bordering on criminal neglect that we continue to think that our future will be all right as long as we find new ways to extract oil from proven reserves.

    Instead of extracting it, we ought to be preserving it.

    Congress ought to be giving greater incentives and then creating mandates that require hybrid vehicles to predominate within the next five years.

    Within the next fifteen years, we must move beyond hybrids to means of transportation that don’t burn oil at all.

    Within thirty years, we must handle our transportation needs without burning anything at all.

    Predicting the exact moment when our dependence on petroleum will destroy us is pointless.

    What is certain is this: We will run out of oil that is cheap enough to burn. We don’t know when, but we do know it will happen.

    And on that day, our children will curse their forebears who burned this precious resource, and therefore their future, just because they didn’t want the government to interfere with the free market, or some other such nonsense.

    The government interferes with the free market constantly. By its very existence, government distorts the market. So let’s turn that distortion to our benefit. Let’s enforce a savings program. But instead of putting money in the bank, let’s put oil there.

    Oil in the bank … so our children and grandchildren for a hundred generations can slowly draw it out to build with it instead of burn it.

    Oil in the bank … so we’ll be free of the threat of fanatics who seek to murder their enemies — including us — with weapons paid for at our gas pumps.

    Do you want to know who funded Osama bin Laden? We did. And we continue to do it every time we fill up.

    You don’t have to be an environmental fanatic to demand that we control our greed for oil.

    In fact, you have to be dumb and a fool not to insist on it.

    But … foresight just isn’t the American way. We always seem to wait until our own house is burning before we notice there’s a wildfire.

    Oh, it won’t reach us here, we tell ourselves. We’ll be safe.

    Talk about foolish optimism.

    Fair Threat to World Economy But Oil Boycott Improbable

    Energy Efficiency Must Be North America’s Priority but Canada and

    U.S. Fail on Energy Efficiency Policies

    “The despots of the moderate Middle East are non-players save for

    their oil in the ground… My concern is that my grand kids might see parts of the

    Middle East turned into a nuclear waste land, and Ali Baba and The Forty

    Thieves. The world community needs to see a checkmate within the next 60 –

    90 days. Failing that, Iran and Syria will be emboldened.” Reiterating an almost

    universal view on the panel, this CEO emphasized that the world’s seemingly

    The Chinese contribution to the energy crisis

    The quest for resources. The dynamic Chinese economy, which has averaged 9 percent growth per annum over the last two decades, nearly tripled the country’s GDP, has also resulted in the country having an almost insatiable thirst for oil as well as a need for other natural resources to sustain it. The PRC has been a net importer of petroleum since 1993, and has increasingly relied on African countries as suppliers. As of last year, China was importing approximately 2.6 million barrels per day (bbl/d), which accounts for about half of its consumption; more than 765,000 bbl/d – roughly a third of its imports – came from African sources, especially Sudan, Angola, and Congo (Brazzaville).

    To get some perspective on these numbers, consider that one respected energy analyst has calculated that while China’s share of the world oil market is about 8 percent, its share of total growth in demand for oil since 2000 has been 30 percent. The much publicized purchase, in January of this year, of a 45 percent stake in an offshore Nigerian oilfield for $2.27 billion by the state-controlled China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) was just the latest in a series of acquisitions dating back to 1993 whereby the three largest Chinese national oil companies – China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (Sinopec), and CNOOC, respectively – have acquired stakes in established African operations.

    Our insatiable thirst for Middle East energy is “the oil [that] feeds the fire.”

    This idea that we can live in a homogenous cul-de-sac suburban development in our plastic homes driving 50 to 100 miles to work in a 4700lb SUV to our middle management job at Bed Bath and Beyond and expect this way of life to just continue on indefinitely with no consequences represents mind boggling ignorance and negligence towards our future. The “American Dream” is a relic of the Baby Boomer generation and will die with our parents and grandparents. To quote author James Kunstler: “Suburban development in this country represents the single largest misallocation of wealth and resources in the history of the planet.”

    So could a 900 acre photo voltaic array power a major metropolitan grid. No, probably not. But the question isn’t how do we squeeze enough energy out of the technology to accommodate our seemingly insatiable thirst for electricity and fuel but rather how do we cut the fat and waste out of our civilization and our lives and actually live WITHIN our environment with some sort of sustainability. There is no one technology that will provide all our solutions. It will have to be a combination of wind turbines, solar and hydroelectric excluding the remote possibility that some new form of energy production (i.e. cold fusion or something equally fantastical) is unleashed on the world by CERN or ET. These power plants will operate primarily at a local level servicing on a much smaller scale than what we here in North America have been so used to in the last 70 or so years.

    If the American public’s insatiable appetite for automobiles continues, uncurbed by any sense of responsibility, someone must, like a parent with a selfish child, at least start slapping wrists.

    Perhaps we should ration gasoline, and insist that all cars meet a miles-per-gallon minimum — one higher than many sport utility vehicles, for example, achieve now. The rationing would not be a wartime figure, of course, but a reasonable amount allowed for business and pleasure.

    Americans consume the largest portion of gas in the world and cry the loudest about the price.

    The government should repeatedly increase the price of gasoline in an effort to slow our country’s insatiable thirst for oil. Utilize the excess profits and taxes to fund research and rebates for renewable efficiency and renewable energy.

    YJ Draiman, Energy Analyst – 6/21/2007

    but they will keep pumping more in the years ahead to quench our insatiable thirst for energy

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    ZooTrouble said:

    This will certainly be an interesting election, as always. However, I’m afraid as usual the issues really don’t matter to the candidates; success does.

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    Andrew said:

    Pelosi remains 3rd in line for the presidency. After double impeachment she becomes president. This means that as incumbent 2008 is not particularly relevant anymore.

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