10/30/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama and McCain on Energy & Environmental Policy

The world is in perilous shape, especially from unsustainable human impacts on the natural environment. Unlike past historical eras, these abuses are conscious: humans are aware of the consequences of their actions and yet they persist. Thoughtful policy and good leadership can help prevent serious damage. A new poll at the University of Maryland reveals that both Obama and McCain supporters favor stronger energy and environmental policies than are currently endorsed by either campaign:

'Good' energy policy is fairly clear. The USA needs to reduce oil dependence from Middle Eastern and Venezuelan oil suppliers, particularly for oil, and the USA needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.

There is little that the USA can do in the short term, as it takes several years to develop and commercialize new technologies. The best the USA can do for the first few years of a new administration is to try to diversify oil imports away from potentially unreliable partners. Reductions in energy demand can still be achieved relatively easily through energy conservation. Both candidates have discussed residential tax credits for energy conservation, along with credits for the poor. Firms are increasingly recognizing the cost savings from energy conservation, particularly when the price of fuel is high. The government can also trigger conservation efforts by setting efficiency procurement policies for computers and appliances, such as the Energy Star program that led to the design and marketing of computer monitors that go to sleep and draw less energy.

Existing ethanol policy is domestic agricultural policy masquerading as energy policy. It is a good price supports system for Midwestern corn farmers, but not a sustainable energy policy as corn based ethanol generates very little net-energy gain, and the US would use less oil if it were to import more efficient sugar based Brazilian ethanol.

Medium term options involve fostering alternative energy sources and encouraging fuel switching to lower carbon energy sources. The International Energy Agency reports declining public energy research and development funding throughout the industrialized countries and the USA since 1980! Senator Obama calls for investing 150 billion dollars over next 10 years in clean energy.

Many current proposals are stopgaps at best. Offshore drilling offers only limited increased supply, with significant tradeoffs for nature preservation, and commercial and sports fishers. Nuclear, offered as a limited option by Obama and presented much more forcefully by McCain is falsely presented as an energy panacea. The true policy downsides of nuclear energy are not the safety of the power plants, which are actually fairly safe, but have to do with the unresolved disposal options for long-term highly hazardous spent fuel wastes, proliferation dangers, and the safety hazards from transporting spent fuel rods.

Opening up nationally protected lands in Alaska for drilling simply isn't worth it. The US government Energy Information Administration estimates that it will take nearly a decade to open up Alaskan fields, and Alaskan oil will only provide an additional 780,000 barrels per day of oil between 2018 and 2028: only .5% of current US imports and under 2% of total US consumption. Alaskan oil is a sideshow with significant environmental costs in terms of lost species and tourism revenue for Alaska.

The US can set a strong standard for international emulation in terms of policy and practices for energy efficiency. Negotiations with like minded countries, such as the G8 plus 5 venue suggested by Obama for climate change, could also help kick start efficiency standards for widely traded appliances, and vehicle standards, as well as stimulating joint ventures and collaborative investment projects in renewable energy technologies and other environmentally friendly efforts. Both candidates have proposed measures to develop and put more hybrid cars on the road.

The long term requires a systematic shift from fossil fuels to reneweables. It is still unclear if all the options are even known. A massive and concerted effort to commercialize these technologies is necessary, through some coordinative mechanism such as the G8 plus 5. Estimates show that these goals are demanding, but attainable. Obama calls for $150 billion over the next 10 years. McCain is silent.

Energy policy is good environmental policy because it helps mitigate climate change. Climate change is now widely regarded as the most pressing global environmental threat. The scientific community now widely accepts that human induced global warming is likely to increase the average temperature of the earth by several degrees Fahrenheit by the middle of the century: even if significant efforts are taken to prevent or slow it and adaptive resources are provided to regions that will be most at risk from global warming.

Both candidates say they will reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Senator Obama says that he would cut carbon emissions by 80% by the year 2050, whereas McCain has a target of 60% reductions by 2050.

Seriously addressing climate change requires a multi-front strategy. It requires an ethical campaign to protect the climate, and to educate people for the need of changing individual behaviors. It requires government support to help people make these changes, through a cap and trade system for Greenhouse gas emissions, with some efforts to compensate the poorest who cannot afford increased fuel costs. It also requires international cooperation to ensure that everyone makes a serious effort, that they comply with their commitments, and that verification and enforcement provisions are in place to track countries' behaviors. International cooperation may be best pursued through a streamlined bargaining network of the major emitting countries that compliments the UN. China and India must be encouraged to make staggered reductions in their emissions.

Good energy policy can help stave off global warming. Princeton engineer Rob Socolow developed a list of available technologies to achieve these energy switches, including: increased energy efficiency, fuel switching, more renewables, nuclear power, conservation, appliance efficiency, emission control, carbon sequestration, tree planting, and international cooperation. Each technology is a "wedge" which can contribute to a coherent approach to energy policy and environmental improvement.

Good energy and environmental policies also make for good American politics. Moral stewardship commands respect. It speaks to human emotions about complex issues where a detailed discussion about details runs the risk of eclipsing the forest for the trees. Strong energy and environmental policies sound an emotional clarion which mobilizes people. It provides a reasonable roadmap for improving energy policy. It can also mobilize the collective will to wean ourselves from oil. Energy and environmental technology stimulation encourage sale of American green technology to developing countries to help them reach their targets and creates manufacturing jobs at home for green technology and because it helps make American soft coal a sustainable energy source.