I doubt that a post on this blog is going to sway many votes, but, just in case, I think it’s important to point out the vast difference between the two candidates on the environment. While John McCain would (almost by definition) be better for the environment than George W. Bush, Barack Obama’s plans (if enacted) would represent a sea change for the fight against climate change, green tech, and our energy future.
This isn’t to say that Obama would be perfect on the environment. He has a long history of supporting corn-based ethanol, a very problematic fuel which uses more fossil fuel to produce than it saves. Further, he is on the record supporting “clean coal” production, which is still largely an oxymoron (because plans such as carbon capture and storage are still controversial and uneconomical). Further, on the most widely known environmental problem today, climate change, Obama and McCain have similar plans: A national cap-and-trade plan to limit carbon emissions. On the surface, then, the choice doesn’t seem that dramatic.
The devil, however, is in the details. There are two main differences between their climate change plans:
First, by 2050, Obama would reduce emissions by 80% of 1990 levels. McCain stops at 60%. Second, Obama would use a market-based auction to allocate permits that power CAT policy, while McCain would simply give them to polluters, providing huge annual handouts to a favoured few at everyone else’s expense.
There is a significant difference between auctioning permits and handing them out. Giving companies who pollute permits for free essentially rewards them for polluting, as the companies who pollute the most will have the most permits. While there is an incentive to reduce emissions and thus be able to trade permits to others, there are no costs associated with failing to reduce emissions. Forcing an auction is often politically difficult, because powerful business lobbies are invariably opposed to significant new costs. However, the failure of Europe’s first Emissions Trading Scheme (in which permits were handed out, the cost of carbon permits stayed low, the EU emissions continued to rise, and businesses made profits from their permits) demonstrates that there must be sticks as well as carrots in order for a cap-and-trade plan to work.
The second major difference is related to green tech and our energy future. Both candidates want to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but the differences between their plans couldn’t be bigger. John McCain’s focus is on greater fossil fuel production in the United States (offshore drilling), importing oil from friendly nations (Canada, even though the oil market is global), and a pointless $300 million prize for whoever comes up with a good electric car battery (pointless because they would make tons of money from the battery anyway). Obama has a much larger vision, however. He proposes rebuilding the American economy through a $500 billion investment in renewable energy, hybrid vehicle tax credits, “green collar” jobs, and energy efficiency. This Keynsian approach would (theoretically) build the framework for decades of economic growth in the same way that FDR’s New Deal built the framework for the post-WWII economic boom. While this plan is undoubtedly ambitious and costly, a drastic change is necessary to truly become energy independent and reduce the scope of climate change.
This election may mark the turning point in the global fight against climate change. If Barack Obama is able to accomplish half of what he proposes in the next four (or eight!!) years, the United States will be a much cleaner, efficient, and sustainable country. Nothing less than our environmental future is at stake in this election.
Filed under: Global Warming | Tags: biology, Carbon, carbon dioxide, clouds, ecology, Global Warming, soil, trees, van Helmont, wye oak
My wife and I were recently discussing the weight of the Wye Oak. It turns out it weighed over 30 tons1. I knew all of that mass had to come from somewhere, and thinking that most of the mass of the tree came from the surrounding soil, I was wondering if there was a huge depression around the tree as the tree “ate up” the soil as it grew. My wife corrected me and pointed out that most of a tree’s mass comes not from the soil, but from the atmosphere.
About 400 years ago a Flemish guy named Jan Baptista van Helmont also wondered where a tree’s mass came from. So he planted a small tree in 200 pounds of soil. The tree gained 164 pounds, but the soil only lost two ounces!
It turns out that most of a tree’s mass is carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. It gets the carbon from the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the oxygen and hydrogen from water. So in terms of my twisted logic:
- The vast majority of a tree’s mass comes from the air (carbon dioxide) and water (rain).
- Clouds are made of air and rain.
- Therefore, trees are made of clouds!
So what does this have to do with you? Well, go plant a tree in your back yard. It will pull some of the carbon dioxide out of the air. Tired of raking leaves? Hire a neighborhood kid to rake the leaves for you. Don’t cut the tree down; it’s not worth the carbon (and financial) cost! And don’t throw dirt in the air. It might combine with a passing cloud and instantly turn into a tree.
The U.S. is currently the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions. President Bush waived his hands at the issue last Thursday calling for a global meeting of the world’s top polluters, but remains at arms length from any concrete policy. Today a New York Times article described China’s global warming strategy, which promised energy efficiency measures but declines to accept any emissions caps…sound familiar? Yes, that’s right, in the U.S. we do the exact same. Thanks to municipal and state level initiatives such as GREENYC and California’s climate change program, we are slowly moving towards a policy that could begin to make a difference. Let’s face it though, until the federal government mandates a pollution tax, cap-and-trade program, or some form of legislative hold on emissions, we can not point fingers at China. In the end, if we add up our own greenhouse gas emissions over the past century and compare it to China’s, we’re definitely the biggest bully on the block.
Of course, in many ways China is the elephant in the room vis-a-vis global warming’s future – by 2050, if they continue to grow on the same path, China will be responsible for 22.9 gigatons of carbon, more then the global total today. But presently we need look no further then our own home, car, and office to start rectifying the situation. The power of the free market economy lies in our hands, in consumers’ hands. When we start driving less, installing CFL’s, adamantly avoiding bottled water, recycling paper, and generally living a more ecologically conscious lifestyle, the powers that be will take notice. Change is most powerful from the ground- up, from the house, to the supermarket, to the gas station, to the Starbucks down the street (bring your mug!).
We have to take responsibility of our own actions before encouraging (not blaming) others to take the plunge. My father always made me fish bottles out of the trash if I threw them away rather then recycle them. At my youth soccer games he would stroll around the field and pick up trash throughout the game. He scolded me in high school if I left lights on at night. At the time I figured, “what’s the big deal?” Now I admire and emulate my father, and I continue to screw up at times. He understood that every small piece adds up to make a difference.