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Our view : No matter who wins, the next president will chart a new course on climate, but even the best intentions could fall short of addressing this daunting global threat

October 22, 2008

One disappointment in a presidential race seemingly lowering the bar of expectations by the day is the lack of conversation about climate change. Even with the financial crisis and the war in Iraq, there are few more pressing issues, not only because of how disastrous global warming will be for the nation's - and world's - economy, health, security and environment but also because we're running out of time to do much about it.

Fortunately, whichever candidate is elected, the 44th president of the United States is likely to take far greater action than the 43rd, but given President Bush's relative inaction that's not saying much. Both the Republican and Democratic nominees have at least recognized the threat and have pledged to take significant action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in this country and around the world.

How do their plans compare? On balance, Sen. Barack Obama has offered to take stronger action than Sen. John McCain. In the critical area of carbon pricing, for instance, Mr. Obama would expect carbon producers to compete for 100 percent of offsets under a cap-and-trade approach, while Mr. McCain would give some allowances away - essentially grandfathering some greenhouse gases.

Mr. Obama also sets a goal of an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 compared with Mr. McCain's 60 percent. The Illinois Democrat would spend more on renewable power and research and development as well as give a higher tax credit for zero-carbon vehicles. And he offers a specific target for energy efficiency - 15 percent below projected demand by 2020. Mr. McCain sets no such goal.

Nuclear energy may play an important role in reducing greenhouse gases, but the Arizona Republican's seemingly unconditional love for the industry gives pause. Mr. Obama is willing to support nuclear power but only if waste storage, proliferation and safety concerns are addressed.

Unfortunately, the few times that climate change has been raised during the campaign, it's usually been about the development of so-called green jobs or about national security and the country's dependence on foreign oil. Those are certainly valid points (and political appealing ones to discuss), but they don't tell the whole story. What the candidates are not talking about is the urgency of the problem and some of the difficult decisions that must be made, including ending subsidies to carbon producers (particularly big oil), halting the development of conventional coal-burning power plants and investing far more money in mass transit. Ultimately, addressing global warming will require some short-term sacrifice.

Merely to blunt the effects of climate change and have some credibility in negotiations with the rest of the world, including critical players such as China and Russia, the U.S. would have to go substantially further than what either candidate has proposed. But of the two, Senator Obama is at least offering the more ambitious proposals and represents the nation's best hope for averting disaster.

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