11/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nuclear Power, Clean Coal, Cap And Trade, Biofuels: Comparing And Contrasting Obama And McCain On Energy

The San Francisco Chronicle recently declared that John McCain and Barack Obama are "like peas in a pod" on a major issue. The newspaper was talking about their energy platforms. It's time to debunk this: there are real differences in priorities. Yes, both John McCain and Barack Obama agree that we should urgently address our energy and climate crises. Although these two candidates espouse the same list of ingredients, however, the cakes they plan to bake are decidedly different.

Let's first review John McCain's plans. Overall, they lack much detail but there are main themes: offshore drilling and the expansion of nuclear power. McCain's main mantra of "Drill, baby, drill!" is as flawed as Bush's energy policy in being too little, too late and too polluting. Offshore drilling will not yield enough oil to significantly affect gasoline prices, and it won't become available for 20 years. Moreover, oil still generates greenhouse gases when burned.

McCain's second emphasis -- build 45 new nuclear plants -- is equally useless. Even with government subsidies nuclear power today is more expensive than wind or solar thermal energy production, and the cost of building nuclear plants continues to increase. Furthermore, our energy demands are increasing faster than the rate at which nuclear plants can be built. The incredible amount of coolant water they require has already forced some U.S. plants to shut down during recent droughts, which are predicted to increase as the planet heats further. Disposal of the resulting toxic and long lasting radioactive wastes remains an unsolved, expensive problem. Considering the economic crunch we're in, nuclear power is one of the most expensive and least promising avenues for generating cheap, clean renewable energy - a truly bad investment.

McCain supports biofuels, but they are not clean - growing, processing, and burning them produce greenhouse gases. Production of the most popular biofuel, corn-based ethanol, is so inefficient that it's literally not worth the effort financially or environmentally. Growing biofuels also has the nasty side effect of driving up basic food prices worldwide because farmed biofuels compete with food crops for cropland.

To be fair, there's a little green among his plans. McCain doesn't support subsidizing corn ethanol production. He supports current fuel efficiency standards but offers no target for increasing them. He also supports developing solar and wind power sources, but his scant, almost peripheral mention of them indicates that they are low on his list of priorities. If policy plans had warning lights, most of his would be flashing red.

Barack Obama's plans are comparatively rich in detail, with specific targets and financial investments. His main emphasis is on the cheapest and most promising sources of clean renewable energy, solar and wind power. Compared to nuclear power, the solar thermal and wind power sources are much cheaper and produced with far cheaper infrastructure. Although solar photovoltaic's cost is comparable with nuclear, recent technological advances indicate that its price will decrease substantially. Substantial but surmountable challenges must be met: distributing the new power via a new upgraded national power grid, and storing the energy when not needed are two main challenges.

With appropriate investment and development, however, we could replace all our current and future energy demands with wind and solar energy. Obama calls for replacing 25% of U.S. electricity with clean renewable energy by 2025, and a yearly investment of $15 billion dollars over the next decade devoted to developing clean renewable energy, biofuels, energy efficiency, and other clean technologies. He places a high priority on greatly increasing fuel economy standards.

Some elements of Obama's energy plan do represent political compromises. Obama understands that nuclear power is not a great option but is willing to explore its potential. He is willing to consider offshore drilling but only as part of an overall plan that includes developing clean energy sources. He also calls for stipulating greater use and incentives for "advanced biofuels" such as cellulosic ethanol, which has much the same problem of other biofuels. Overall, though, most of the lights of Obama's plans flash green.

There are troubling concerns about both plans. Both candidates support investing in developing "clean" coal technology. McCain, for example, proposes spending $2 billion a year to develop "clean" coal technologies, processes that will prevent any greenhouse gases escaping when the coal is burned. By the estimates of many technologists, however, creating "clean coal" is far on the technological horizon and will be expensive, as the recent PBS Frontline Report HEAT emphasized.

Both Obama and McCain believe in instituting some form of cap and trade plan for industrial carbon emissions as a means of enforcing a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. A cap and trading system would require substantial time and resources to execute, however, and has yet to be proven effective where it has been instituted elsewhere, notably Europe. A combination of regulations, shifting subsidies from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy sources, and investing in their development could be a more effective way to accomplish the same decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.

Furthermore, neither of the candidates' plans go far enough fast enough to address the climate crisis. Although the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has mapped out expected consequences of global warming, their predictions at best underestimate how soon and severely those consequences will affect us. Why? The predictions do not include important feedback effects that can accelerate global warming. Indeed, physical observations indicate that some consequences of global warming are already accelerating faster than the IPCC predicted. And then there are those nasty, unexpected surprises that occur despite our best efforts to predict them. The next president will have to be mentally agile enough to both assess these unexpected climatic developments and adapt his policies accordingly.

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Where can you go to learn more about solving the climate crisis? There's a new readable resource book freely available for download on the web that 1) describes global warming and its consequences; 2) comprehensively reviews and assesses the feasibility and costs of both technological and policy solutions; and 3) proposes a fairly simple straightforward plan. It is called "Cool the Earth, Save the Economy: Solving the Climate Crisis is EASY." We've written it, based on the findings of numerous scientific, technological and social studies by noted experts. Go to www.CoolTheEarth.US , download it, read it, and spread the word!