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The Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls put forward their respective energy and environmental platforms last week, addressing offshore drilling, coal, nuclear energy and fuel efficiency . Both John McCain and Barack Obama have said that global warming is a problem and would make it a top priority. But would they go as far as NASA’s Dr. James Hansen says is necessary before reaching what he calls the tipping point? The Real News spoke with Ben Wikler of and Professor Catherine Gautier about the promises and shortfalls of the candidates’ plans.

Story Transcript

US candidates on Green issues
Producer: Carlo Basilone & Jessica McKillop

ZAA NKWETA, PRESENTER: The Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls put forward their respective energy and environmental platforms earlier this month. John McCain, speaking in Pennsylvania, again advocated more oil drilling off the US coast.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (R): We need to aggressively develop alternative energies like wind, solar, tide, biofuels, and geothermal. We also need to expand our use of existing energy resources here at home. That means we need more nuclear power. It means we need more clean-coal technology, and that means we need to offshore drill for oil and natural gas, and we need to drill here, and we need to drill now.

NKWETA: Barack Obama spoke in Michigan about reducing dependence on foreign oil.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (D): If I am president, I will immediately direct full resources of the federal government and the full energy of the private sector, working with state and local governments, to achieve a single overarching goal: in ten years, we will eliminate the need for oil from the entire Middle East and Mediterranean, in ten years’ time.

NKWETA: Both candidates believe that global warming is a problem and would make it a top priority. But would they go as far as Dr. James Hansen of NASA says is necessary before reaching what he calls the tipping point?

DR. JAMES HANSEN, DIRECTOR, NASA GODDARD INSTITUTE: What I can say with a very high degree of confidence, I would say more than 99.9 percent certainty, that the safe level of CO2 is no more than 350 ppm [parts per million]. And we have already passed that level. If we phased out coal by 2030, then the peak CO2 would only be a bit more than 400 ppm. However, it would stay above 350 for a couple of centuries. We could get it down below 350 by means of improved forestry and agricultural practices. We have to level with the public that there has to be a price on carbon emissions. That’s the only way we’re going to begin to move toward the carbon-free economy, which we have to do.

BEN WIKLER, CAMPAIGN DIRECTOR, AVAAZ.ORG: We have an interesting scenario with this election. The first thing is that the US has been so bad on climate change that whichever guy gets elected, it’ll actually be a revolution forward; it’ll be a huge change. Then there’s the differences between the candidates, and then there’s the difference between either candidate and where we ultimately have to go. So if you imagine a spectrum from where we are now to where we need to be, both guys are kind of in the middle. And Obama’s, you know, significantly further along than McCain, but McCain’s still a lot better than where the US is right now and, thus, where the world is right now.

NKWETA: Both candidates say that they would reduce gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. On further reductions by 2050, McCain would reduce them by 60 percent, while Obama would reduce them by 80 percent.

PROF. CATHERINE GAUTIER, EARTH SYSTEMS SCIENCE, UCSB: I personally think we need to go faster than that, but, you know, we have to see how we can do it. In terms of numbers, we have to go beyond that, but if we were followed by the developing countries in numbers that would be a bit smaller but significant for them, we could reach probably something like 450 parts per million by 2050 with these kind of numbers. So if we want to go to the number of 350, we have to be more stringent than those numbers.

NKWETA: The two candidates also believe that coal, a major global-warming gas producer, can still be used. Barack Obama, from Illinois, a coal-producing state, says coal is a valuable and plentiful domestic energy resource. He believes that any new coal plants should use low-carbon technology and old plants should be carbon-capture retrofitted. John McCain says coal is the United States’ greatest natural energy resource. He would give $2 billion over 15 years to fund clean-coal research, but would not stop new coal plants, even without clean-coal technology.

WIKLER: McCain seems more focused on moving away from importing oil from overseas and replacing it with sort of homegrown energy sources, including oil and more coal, things like that, and nuclear, a tremendous increase in nuclear.

GAUTIER: From now on we should not build a new coal plant, because they take about 25 years to be efficient and profitable. So those that are already there, they will be used, probably, for another 25 or 30 years. So no new coal power plants should be built at this time.

NKWETA: As for nuclear power, Obama says it will be part of the US energy supply, but there must be a new way to store the waste. John McCain would build 45 new nuclear reactors by 2030 and potentially over 100 in the long term. On automobile fuel efficiency, McCain believes that every state should set its own standards. Barack Obama supports raising them to 40 miles per gallon by 2020 for cars and to 32 miles per gallon for light trucks.

GAUTIER: Obama is proposing to grow the capping standards, which are right now 27 miles per gallon on average, by four percent per year. And if you do that, you get the number of 40 [miles per gallon] by 2020. And that’s really not sufficient, because in Europe in 2008, we already have 45 miles per gallon. So we should be able to catch up with the Europeans. In Japan it’s even much better. If you look at any graphic that shows where the US stands, it’s at the bottom of the barrel. And even China, Japan, Australia, any country in the world is doing better, maybe except for Canada—Canada is about the same.

MCCAIN: We need to start drilling offshore at advanced oil rigs like this one.

WIKLER: McCain has essentially gone from being a sort of vocal critic of the Bush administration on climate change to now really, basically, supporting the oil companies’ line. His campaign looks like one of these TV commercials from Exxon, where they say, “Exxon’s leading the way towards envisioning a new future.” And McCain is talking about climate change, but at the same time, he’s just hammering and hammering on this point of trying to open up US offshore drilling, which would have a minuscule effect on anything and certainly be entirely bad for climate change.

NKWETA: Though both candidates’ plans propose far greater changes than anything before, are these enough to make a real difference?

GAUTIER: We are really talking about a major change in the way of doing things. We are talking about [inaudible] of the efforts that are of the order of the efforts that went into World War II almost.

WIKLER: If you look at the way political change has happened in the United States, you know, since the revolution, I guess, it tends not actually to be gradual improvements; it tends to be these huge leaps. And those leaps happen at moments of political possibility. And so there’s a funny sense in which we actually don’t know what either candidate would do if such a moment really came along; what we can do is kind of read the tea leaves from what they’re literally proposing right now. And, you know, neither of them is proposing a plan that’s anywhere close to what Hansen says that we need and quite compellingly argues that science suggests that we need now.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Ben Wikler is a campaign director for, a global version of, where he oversees efforts on climate change, global health, and other issues. Previously, he worked as press secretary for Congressman Sherrod Brown's US Senate campaign in Ohio, and was a founding producer of The Al Franken Show on Air America Radio.

Caterine Gautier is involved in educational aspects of climate change science and policy. Originally from Paris, France, Gautier directs the Institute for Computational Earth Systems Science at the University of California Santa Barbara. the book 'Facing Climate Change Together' was compiled and edited by Catherine Gautier and Jean-Louis Fellous.