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McCain, Obama on Energy, the Environment and AIDS

10/17/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Over the course of this week, OffTheBus is running a primer on some of the most important foreign policy issues the next president will face. The primer can act as a guide to how candidates Barack Obama and John McCain stand on each issue. Check out the links for more information on these issues. Today, the primer looks at where Obama and McCain stand on energy and environmental policy and the AIDS crisis.


Energy and Environmental Policy: Barack Obama

Both Obama and McCain support a 'cap-and-trade' solution to carbon emissions. Obama says he will implement a system of carbon credits, in which units of pollution will be auctioned and proceeds will go to clean energy investments and "other transition relief for families." Despite his cryptic language (by transitional relief, he means he wants to provide tax breaks to consumers to reduce the impact of rising fuel prices), Obama has repeatedly expressed his commitment to reducing carbon emissions. He also hopes to wean the US off of Venezuelan and Gulf oil by the year 2010, in the interest of national security.

"We should push for binding and enforceable commitments to reduce emissions by the nations which pollute the most - the United States, the European Union, Russia, China, and India together account for nearly two-thirds of current emissions," remarked Senator Obama at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in April, 2007.

Obama is a big fan of fueling cars with ethanol. Foreign Policy Magazine calls this one of Obama's 10 Worst Ideas:

"World Bank economist Daniel Mitchell blames biofuels, including ethanol, for a 75 percent increase in global food prices since 2002 that has led to economic distress and rioting in such countries as Haiti, Egypt, and Somalia... A recent study published in Science demonstrated that the farmland needed to grow corn for ethanol results in deforestation on a massive scale, negating any benefit the reduction in carbon emissions might have. So why does the senator support such a wasteful and damaging subsidy, even voting for the recent farm bill's billions in pork for ethanol producers? "[B]ecause Illinois ... is a major corn producer," he said in April. At least he's honest."

Early in his campaign, Obama spoke in support of a bill promoting fuel derived from coal to power cars, but he later said that he would only support coal-to-liquid fuels if the technology was perfected to reduce carbon emissions. Obama's cheer for coal was noted as another one of his 10 worst ideas, "Coal-to-liquid fuels produce nearly twice the greenhouse gases of ordinary petroleum." The coal issue seems to be off the table for now.

Energy and Environmental Policy: John McCain

McCain's 'cap-and-trade' proposal is similar to Obama's, but he emphasizes the role of the free market in dictating how the process works. "The key feature of [cap-and-trade] is that it allows the market to decide and encourage the lowest-cost compliance options."

In other words, step out of the way, government, and let the infallible capitalist system do its job of making everyone feel warm and fuzzy from breathing so much clean air.

According to his website, "John McCain will establish a market-based system to curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, mobilize innovative technologies, and strengthen the economy. He will work with our international partners to secure our energy future, to create opportunities for American industry, and to leave a better future for our children."

Now isn't that sweet? We all want a better future for our children. But pundits have called McCain's cap-and-trade proposal weak, because he refuses to take a firm stand on emission caps. Instead of regulating all carbon emissions by the cap-and-trade system, McCain wants to regulate only a fraction of emissions covered by permits.

Obama likes ethanol. McCain likes (you guessed it) nuclear power. "If I am elected president, I will set this nation on a course to building 45 new reactors by the year 2030, with the ultimate goal of 100 new plants to power the homes and factories and cities of America," said McCain on June 18, 2008.

Our favorite pundits from Foreign Policy Magazine consider this one of McCain's 10 Worst Ideas, namely because there is little evidence that converting to nuclear energy will have any immediate impact on climate change. However, fears of three-eyed toads and two-tailed dogs aside, there isn't much proof that his plan will have any negative impact on the environment.

AIDS: Barack Obama

As we've come to expect from those wacky democrats, Obama is pro-condom and sex education.

"[A]bstinence and fidelity may too often be the ideal and not the reality - that we are dealing with flesh and blood men and women and not abstractions - and that if condoms and potentially microbicides can prevent millions of deaths, they should be made more widely available," said Obama at the 2006 Global Summit on AIDS and the Church.

Obama put out a formal plan to combat AIDS, the text of which can be downloaded from his healthcare site, and he says that he wants to work with drug companies to reduce the price of generic anti-retroviral drugs in developing countries. "Barack Obama believes that people in developing countries living with HIV/AIDS should have access to safe, affordable generic drugs to treat HIV/AIDS."

He supports the President's Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and proposes adding $1 billion a year in new funds to the global battle against AIDS.

But, according to the AIDS resource site, the Body, Obama's international AIDS plan does not pass the "funding test."

"He didn't commit $50 billion a year for five years to fight HIV/AIDS worldwide -- as he sort of, kind of [said] he would. Instead, he pledged $50 billion to cover all United Nation's Millenium Development goals which, in addition to fighting AIDS, include halving the number of people who die of tuberculosis, malaria and avian influenza, as well as reducing global poverty."

[In a 2007 article in Foreign Affairs Magazine, Senator Obama said that he wanted to contribute $50 billion by 2012 to developing countries to "invest in building capable, democratic states that can establish healthy and educated communities, develop markets, and generate wealth. Such states would also have greater institutional capacities to fight terrorism, halt the spread of deadly weapons, and build health-care infrastructures to prevent, detect, and treat deadly diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and avian flu."]

"Obama also said he supports adding $1 billion a year to fight global AIDS through the President's Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). But Obama didn't make clear if he wants to add $1 billion to the $15 billion annually in PEPFAR funds or the $30 billion Bush proposed... Paul Davis of Health GAP points out that Obama's total for PEPFAR could be anywhere from $20 billion to $45 billion over five years, depending on the details of his position."

Africa Action, however, gives Senator Obama a passing grade for his stand on the global AIDS epidemic, based on two simple criteria:

AIDS: John McCain

Condoms! Sex! Do those words scare you? They sure seemed to frighten Senator McCain. The New York Times blog, The Caucus, reported that McCain stumbled in response to a question by reporters on his position on AIDS prevention.

"Senator John McCain met a question, while sitting with reporters on his bus as it rumbled through Iowa today, that he couldn't - or perhaps wouldn't - answer.

Did he support the distribution of taxpayer-subsidized condoms in Africa to fight the transmission of H.I.V.?

What followed was a long series of awkward pauses, glances up to the ceiling and the image of one of Mr. McCain's aides, standing off to the back, urgently motioning his press secretary to come to Mr. McCain's side...

His press secretary, Brian Jones, later reported that Mr. McCain had a record of voting against using government money to finance the distribution of condoms...

"Q: ...Do you think contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV?"

Mr. McCain: (Long pause) "You've stumped me."

Q: "I mean, I think you'd probably agree it probably does help stop it?"

Mr. McCain: (Laughs) "Are we on the Straight Talk express? I'm not informed enough on it. Let me find out. You know, I'm sure I've taken a position on it on the past. I have to find out what my position was. Brian, would you find out what my position is on contraception - I'm sure I'm opposed to government spending on it, I'm sure I support the president's policies on it."

Q: "But you would agree that condoms do stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Would you say: 'No, we're not going to distribute them,' knowing that?"

Mr. McCain: (Twelve-second pause) "Get me Coburn's thing, ask Weaver to get me Coburn's paper that he just gave me in the last couple of days. I've never gotten into these issues before."

So McCain isn't quite sure of his position on condoms and AIDS prevention. How about funding condom-free AIDS projects?

"I'm proud of the commitment that this administration has made to combat HIV/AIDS. . . and I would continue the present administration's policy . . . In my view, it's not so much a matter of money, which I would be glad to commit to, but I do not want to commit money to a country that's so corrupt in its government that the money won't be used to combat the problems that it's intended to address," said McCain in 2007.

McCain is all for AIDS prevention, as long as it doesn't involve condoms (he thinks) or corrupt governments. So who and what does he actually want the money to go to? We'll have to wait for him to come out with an actual plan to find out.

Africa Action sets the record straight on McCain's position (even if he can't figure it out himself):

This week OffTheBus is publishing a variety of stories that cover the presidential election from an international perspective.