Thomas Kostigen Interviews McCain and Obama for "Discover Magazine"

October 1st, 2008

Obama & McCain Answer DISCOVER’s Questions on the Environment
by Thomas Kostigen

While there’s little doubt the economy will be the defining issue in this election, the candidates’ positions on environmental issues can’t be downplayed (after all, what good are $700 billion bailouts if our coastlines are underwater). With the goal of keeping the environment front and center during this election season, best-selling author and DISCOVER contributor Thomas Kostigen put five questions to the two candidates, on topics including climate change, the dwindling water supply, hazardous waste, alt-energy investments, and the private sector’s role in contributing to the clean-up.

As you may recall, both Obama and McCain recently answered 14 questions on science policy from ScienceDebate 2008. While the Obama camp’s answers concerning climate change and alt-energy investments are largely consistent with what ScienceDebate received, this time he includes more detail, including his plans for allocation of the revenue generated by cap-and-trade auctions as well as his proposal to create a $10 billion venture capital fund to bolster clean technology development.

Similarly, McCain’s responses on energy and global warming echo what he told ScienceDebate, including his pledge to instate permanent alt-energy tax breaks (a promise that Obama makes as well) and a vow to “lead by example” in the “greening of the federal government.”

Questions to Barack Obama

TK: Ensuring an adequate water supply is a huge issue, arguably a bigger challenge than energy. Recent estimates say we are going to have to increase our supply of freshwater by 20 percent in the next 20 years to meet world demand. Two-thirds of the world’s population will experience water shortages by 2025. Meanwhile, the Clean Water Act hasn’t been updated since 1972. What plans do you have for addressing the freshwater issue?

BO: Water quality and availability are critical issues for America and the world. An Obama administration will put water issues—both quantity and quality—at the top of our environmental agenda.

My family and I have lived near one of the world’s most precious freshwater treasures, Lake Michigan, for nearly 20 years. I understand how clean water can make a difference in people’s lives and a community’s economic health. I have seen beaches close because of pollution. As a result, I worked to understand and address the root causes of beach closings, including polluted runoff and sewage overflows that limit the time families can spend along some of our most treasured coasts.

It’s time to revitalize the Clean Water Act. I am troubled by recent court rulings that have confused rather than clarified federal jurisdiction over “waters of the United States,” including environmentally sensitive wetlands critical to maintaining supplies of clean freshwater. I will support efforts to ensure that federal protection of the nation’s waters is strengthened, not weakened. As president, I will also work to restore funding to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) and other programs aimed at improving the quality of our nation’s lakes, rivers, and drinking water.

TK: While the number of landfills in the United States has shrunk over the past 20 years from 8,000 to 1,700, we now create twice as much waste. Do you have any plans to create incentives for manufacturers to develop environmentally friendly products? And how should we deal with the growth of hazardous consumer waste, including electronics and compact fluorescent light bulbs?

BO: Waste—household and hazardous—represents an ongoing challenge to the United States. I believe we need incentives to minimize waste production and promote much more recycling. We can do this by more aggressively using the federal laws that regulate waste disposal and product manufacture so that we use fewer toxic chemicals, generate less manufacturing waste, and reduce packaging materials. We can also challenge manufacturers of computers, printers, and other electronic equipment to more effectively take back these products when they are discarded so that their components can be reused rather than shipped to landfills.

TK: What are your plans for alternative-energy investments and research, as well as for the tactical implementation of different power sources?

BO: I have committed to a broad array of incentives that would engage the private sector in developing alternative energy. Moving toward a clean-energy future will require galvanizing the American people and harnessing our spirit of innovation. I will invest $150 billion over 10 years to advance the next generation of biofuels and fuel infrastructure, accelerate the commercialization of plug-in hybrids, promote development of commercial-scale renewable energy, invest in low-emissions coal plants, and begin the transition to a new digital electricity grid. A principal focus of this fund will be ensuring that technologies that are developed in the United States are rapidly commercialized here and deployed around the globe. I will double science and research funding for clean-energy projects, including those that make use of our biomass, solar, and wind resources. I will establish a federal investment program to help manufacturing centers modernize and help Americans learn the new skills they need to produce green products. I will create a Clean Technologies Venture Capital Fund to fill a critical gap in U.S. technology development, and I will invest $10 billion per year into this fund for five years. The fund will partner with existing investment funds and our National Laboratories to ensure that promising technologies move beyond the lab and are commercialized in the United States.

TK: During World War II Franklin Delano Roosevelt called upon the automakers in Detroit to do their part for the war and repurpose their facilities to make military equipment. The automakers complied, but it took tough talk and convincing. Do the private sector and the public today need a similar call to arms? If so, what is it?

BO: America does need a new spirit of commitment to a clean-energy future and a cleaner environment. Progress in these key areas depends on strong political leadership, which has been entirely lacking in Washington for too long. In addition, it is critical that we create incentives to guide the private sector toward the innovation required to address our pressing energy and environmental challenges. A good example is the automobile industry, where I would push our manufacturers to make more-efficient vehicles using advanced technologies like plug-in hybrids and would provide tax incentives for consumers to purchase these vehicles and financial assistance to help the industry retool our existing plants to build them.

TK: What is the most imminent danger brought on by climate change, and what are you going to do about it?

BO: The dangers posed by climate change are varied and complex. As a result of climate change, sea levels are rising, storms are becoming more intense, regions are experiencing extended drought, ocean food chains are at risk, and habitat and agricultural patterns around the globe are changing. These serious impacts are under way today. However, the greatest risk to our planet is the prospect of reaching a so-called tipping point in the climate system—like the release of methane in permafrost regions or a shift in the Gulf Stream—that would result in runaway climate change impacts we cannot control or respond to.

I support implementation of an economy-wide cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount science says is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change: 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. My proposed cap-and-trade system will require 100 percent auction of credits. Some of the revenue generated by the auction will be used to support the development of clean energy, to invest in energy-efficiency improvements, and to address transition costs, including helping American workers affected by this economic transition. I will also develop domestic incentives that reward forest owners, farmers, and ranchers when they plant trees, restore grasslands, or undertake farming practices that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Questions to John McCain

TK: Ensuring an adequate water supply is a huge issue, arguably a bigger challenge than energy. Recent estimates say we are going to have to increase our supply of freshwater by 20 percent in the next 20 years to meet world demand. Two-thirds of the world’s population will experience water shortages by 2025. Meanwhile, the Clean Water Act hasn’t been updated since 1972. What plans do you have for addressing the freshwater issue?

JM: As a westerner, I understand the vital role that water plays in the development of western economies and in maintaining a high quality of life. Water is truly our lifeblood. I believe that we must develop, manage, and use our limited water supplies wisely and with a conservation ethic to ensure that we have sufficient supplies to meet municipal, tribal, industrial, agricultural, recreational, and environmental needs. I believe that water rights must be respected, and that disputes are better resolved not in the courts but through negotiations that build consensus. I understand the importance of state law and local prerogatives in the allocation of water resources, and that all levels of government must work together with stakeholders to ensure that our lifeblood is protected, managed, and utilized in a wise, just, and sustainable manner.

The Clean Water Act is one of our most successful environmental laws. As president I will work to develop policies that provide necessary protection of our aquatic resources, build strong and lasting partnerships, and respect local conditions and needs.

D: While the number of landfills in the United States has shrunk over the past 20 years from 8,000 to 1,700, we now create twice as much waste. Do you have any plans to create incentives for manufacturers to develop environmentally friendly products? And how should we deal with the growth of hazardous consumer waste, including electronics and compact fluorescent light bulbs?

JM: I am proud of my long-standing commitment to conserving America’s natural resources and promoting environmental stewardship. I know we face immense environmental challenges that will impact the quality of life we leave our children and future generations. Essential to this commitment is promoting an ethos of conservation across our nation. I will lead by example and will make greening the federal government a priority of my administration. The federal government is the largest electricity consumer on earth and occupies 3.3 billion square feet of space worldwide. It provides an enormous opportunity to lead by example. By applying a higher efficiency standard to new buildings leased or purchased or retrofitting existing buildings, we can save taxpayers money in energy costs and move the construction market in the direction of green technology to reduce waste and consumption.

TK: What are your plans for alternative energy investments and research, as well as for the tactical implementation of different power sources?

JM: I will encourage the market for alternative, low-carbon energy sources as well as wind, hydro, and solar power. According to the Department of Energy, wind could provide as much as one-fifth of our electricity by 2030. The U.S. solar energy industry continued its double-digit annual growth rate in 2006. Also, across the country, water is currently the leading renewable-energy source used by electric utilities to generate electric power. Developing these and other sources of renewable energy will require that we rationalize the current patchwork of temporary tax credits that provide commercial feasibility. I voted against the patchwork of tax credits for renewable power in the past because they were temporary and reflected special interests, not what was the best policy. Because of the urgent need to reform our energy portfolio, I will put in place real support for these sources of energy in the form of permanent credits that are fair, level, and rational, letting the market decide which ideas can move us toward clean and renewable energy.

TK: During World War II Franklin Delano Roosevelt called upon the automakers in Detroit to do their part for the war and repurpose their facilities to make military equipment. The automakers complied, but it took tough talk and convincing. Do the private sector and the public today need a similar call to arms? If so, what is it?

JM: Climate change is the single greatest environmental challenge of our time. The facts of global warming demand our urgent attention, especially in Washington. Not only does our dependence on foreign oil bring about sizable national security risks, but the preponderance of scientific evidence points to the warming of our climate from the burning of fossil fuels. We can no longer deny our responsibility to lead the world in reducing our carbon emissions.

A cap-and-trade system harnesses human ingenuity in the pursuit of alternatives to carbon-based fuels. Market participants are allotted total permits equal to the cap on greenhouse-gas emissions. If they can invent, improve, or acquire a way to reduce their emissions, they can sell their extra permits for cash. The profit motive will coordinate the efforts of venture capitalists, corporate planners, entrepreneurs, and environmentalists on the common motive of reducing emissions.

TK: What is the most imminent danger brought on by climate change, and what are you going to do about it?

JM: The burning of oil and other fossil fuels is contributing to the dangerous accumulation of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere, altering our climate with the potential for major social, economic, and political upheaval. The world is already feeling the powerful effects of global warming, and far more dire consequences are predicted if we let the growing deluge of greenhouse-gas emissions continue and wreak havoc with God’s creation. A group of senior retired military officers recently warned about the potential upheaval caused by conflicts over water, arable land, and other natural resources under strain from a warming planet.

As president, I will submit to Congress a cap-and-trade system to set clear limits on all greenhouse-gas emissions, while also allowing the sale of rights to excess emissions. We will cap emissions according to specific goals, measuring progress by reference to past carbon emissions. By the year 2012 we will seek a return to 2005 levels of emission; by 2020, a return to 1990 levels; and so on until we have achieved a reduction of at least 60 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050. In the course of time, it may be that new ideas and technologies will come along that we can hardly imagine today, allowing all industries to change with a speed that will surprise us. More likely, however, there will be some companies that need extra emissions rights, and they will be able to buy them. The system to meet these targets and timetables will give these companies extra time to adapt—and that is good economic policy. The cap-and-trade system will create jobs, improve livelihoods, and strengthen futures across our country.