Partisan Plans for Energy and Climate Change

Cap and trade, drilling, no nukes, and tax credits for all


At their conventions this past month, the Democrats and Republicans each laid out their differing solutions to our nation's energy and climate troubles. Energy and climate change are intertwined because burning fossil fuels that power the modern world produces carbon dioxide emissions that are warming the planet. In addition, higher oil prices have raised concerns about the nation's energy security.

Combing through both platforms, it appears that the Republicans endorse a far more sweeping set of energy and climate change policies than do their Democratic counterparts. The GOP platform declares, "In the long run, American [energy] production should move to zero-emission sources, and our nation's fossil fuel resources are the bridge to that emissions-free future." Zero-emission energy obviously means energy sources that don't produce greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. The Democratic platform only pledges to "implement a market-based cap and trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary to avoid catastrophic change."

But let's put aside the proposed climate change policies of the two major parties for the moment and look at their energy security concerns. The Democrats promise "we will break our addiction to foreign oil." The Republicans also vow to reduce "our excessive reliance on foreign oil." So just how do our politicos plan to attain this elusive goal? "We know we can't drill our way to energy independence," declares the Democratic Party platform. Instead, the Democrats want to dramatically increase the fuel efficiency of automobiles and crack down on speculators who are driving up oil prices beyond the natural market rate.

The Republicans, however, think that drilling can help. "We simply must draw more American oil from American soil," insists the GOP. The alleged party of business wants companies to produce crude and natural gas from the outer continental shelves and from shale formations in the West. It even opposes "any efforts that would permanently block access to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge." The Democratic platform doesn't come right out against opening these areas to energy exploration, though perhaps that's because its presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), now supports at least some additional offshore drilling.

So what do the Republicans say about climate change? "The same human economic activity that has brought freedom and opportunity to billions has also increased the amount of carbon in the atmosphere," notes the party's platform. "While the scope and long-term consequences of this are the subject of ongoing scientific research, common sense dictates that the United States should take measured and reasonable steps today to reduce any impact on the environment." The Republicans acknowledge that man-made climate change is a potential problem, but they "caution against the doomsday climate change scenarios peddled by the aficionados of centralized command-and-control government."

The tone of Democratic platform is far more ominous. "Global climate change is the planet's greatest threat, and our response will determine the very future of life on this earth," it warns. The party of Al Gore predicts that climate change "will lead to devastating weather patterns, terrible storms, drought, conflict, and famine."

So what to do? "Because the issue of climate change is global, it must become a truly global concern as well," say the Republicans. "All developed and developing economies, particularly India and China, can make significant contributions in dealing with the matter." How a Republican administration (and Congress) would deal with climate change policy at the international level is passed over with decorous silence. The Democrats, on the other hand, argue, "We need a global response to climate change that includes binding and enforceable commitments to reducing emissions, especially for those that pollute the most: the United States, China, India, the European Union, and Russia." One wonders, would these commitments make Democrats into aficionados of centralized command-and-control government?

Oddly, the Democratic platform seems to be taking a page from the detested Bush administration's playbook on how to handle climate change. For example, the platform calls for reaching "out to the leaders of the biggest carbon emitting nations and ask them to join a new Global Energy Forum that will lay the foundation for the next generation of climate protocols…Clean energy development must be a central focus in our relationships with major countries in Europe and Asia." The Global Energy Forum proposal is more than a little reminiscent of President Bush's Major Economies Summit on Energy Security and Climate Change which met in September 2007. And the focus on "clean energy development" sounds a lot like the goals of President Bush's Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate initiative.

What do the two major parties think should be done at home to address the problem of man-made climate change? The GOP platform claims that Republicans will deal with it by supporting "technology-driven, market-based solutions." Sounds good, but what does that mean? Apparently, it means that "alternate power sources must enter the mainstream." Must? The Republicans happily acknowledge, "The technology behind solar energy has improved significantly in recent years, and the commercial development of wind power promises major benefits both in costs and in environmental protection." This is clearly true, but the Republicans forgot to mention that these improvements have been driven by billions in tax credits and government mandates generally favored by Democrats, not the free market. Or maybe it's not an oversight at all. Perhaps the Republican platform is implying that new energy technology markets do need a little help. After all, the GOP platform does advocate "a long-term energy tax credit equally applicable to all renewable power sources." Extending current solar and wind tax credits is being held up in Congress as part of a legislative stalemate over authorizing offshore drilling.

Unlike the Republican platform, the Democrats clearly state how they plan to encourage Americans to switch to low-carbon energy—by imposing "an economy-wide cap and trade program." The idea is that the cap on greenhouse emissions will be lowered over time, meaning that emitters will trade ever fewer greenhouse gas permits among themselves. Naturally, the Democratic platform discreetly fails to mention that the cap and trade proposal is actually equivalent to an energy tax that will boost the prices Americans pay for their electricity and gasoline. (To be fair, the GOP's presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), unlike the Republican platform, also favors a cap and trade scheme.)

So if fossil fuels are a no-no, from what sources will Americans get their energy? "We Democrats commit to fast-track investment of billions of dollars over the next ten years to establish a green energy sector that will create up to five million jobs," declares the progressive party's platform. Green energy means solar, wind, and geothermal. Of course, the billions "invested" in green energy will come from the pockets of taxpayers who will be shelling out more for energy under the new cap and trade scheme.

The Republicans aim to "usher in a renaissance in the American auto industry" and declare that America "must…produce more vehicles that operate on electricity and natural gas." Again, the platform remains silent on just how Republican policies will conjure up this auto industry renaissance. Perhaps Republican fat cats will all go out and buy a Ford Escape hybrid or a GM Volt? The Democratic platform makes it clear that corporate handouts are just fine so long as your company doesn't produce oil or pharmaceuticals. In order to get plug-in hybrids to start rolling off the assembly lines in Michigan, the Democrats promise to "help auto manufacturers and parts suppliers convert to build the cars and trucks of the future." And what "help" can be more sincere than a nice fat subsidy?

The major parties really do differ on the future of climate-friendly nuclear power. The Republicans promise to "pursue dramatic increases in the use of all forms of safe, affordable, reliable—and clean—nuclear power." In fact, Sen. McCain has set the goal of building 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030. In contrast, the Democratic platform mentions "nuclear power" once and then only in the context of countries that use it as a sneaky ruse to develop nuclear weapons. The platform also promises to "protect Nevada and its communities from the high-level nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, which has not been proven to be safe by sound science." Obama may not be completely on board with his party's platform, however, since he has said, "We should explore nuclear as part of the mix."

What about biofuels? The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 mandates that the country use 36 billion gallons of biofuels per year by 2022. Most of the ethanol produced in the United States is currently made from corn. In other words, food and feed are being turned into fuel. A lot of experts believe that the biofuel mandates have contributed substantially to the recent steep run up in global food prices. Rather than turn food into fuel, both parties favor a fast ramp up to cellulosic ethanol. Cellulosic ethanol is produced using feedstocks such as wood, agricultural waste, and switch grass instead of corn. To the party's credit, the Republican platform declares, "The U.S. government should end mandates for ethanol and let the free market work." The Democratic platform is mum on the biofuels mandate.

Will the party platforms actually influence the policies eventually adopted by the victors in the presidential contest? There are reasons to doubt that. For example, last time around both major parties strongly promoted the "hydrogen economy" as the solution to our energy woes. The 2004 Republican platform declared, "The Republican Party supports research and investment designed to realize the enormous benefits of a hydrogen economy and put the United States on the cutting edge of energy technology." The 2004 Democratic platform asserted, "We are also committed to developing hydrogen as a clean, reliable domestic source of energy." In 2008, the hydrogen economy fad is completely passé, with neither party platform so much as mentioning it. Finally, while the two major parties may have big differences in their proposed energy and climate change policies, they are completely bipartisan when it comes to touting the benefits of their proposals while ignoring the costs.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.