Tuesday, September 16, 2008

McCain and Obama positions on climate change

Science Debate 2008 - the proposed televised presidential debate on science and science policy - will not actually happen this election season. The candidates have now both responded to the organizers list of 14 questions about science and science policy.

This written Q&A lacks the unscripted exchange that could, although often does not, occur during an actual live debate. It does at least provide voters with an outline on each campaign`s position on range of important issues related to science, something not happening in the Canadian election. It also spares us the possible spectacle of interviewers testing the candidates knowledge of science; the Palin interview on ABC was like watching a stern high school teacher conduct an oral exam and the student repeat everything memorized during a recent cram session (that should not be necessary, nor is it terribly useful for anyone involved).

The NY Time`s DotEarth suggests we can at least cheer the responses to the question about climate change. Both McCain and Obama both support cuts in steep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change.

I was struck by the difference between the opening sentences. The McCain line is particularly disappointing.


We know that greenhouse gas emissions, by retaining heat within the atmosphere, threaten disastrous changes in the climate.

What is striking here is the choice to open with threaten disastrous changes in the climate. Why not open with what the science states: that greenhouse gas emissions are changing the climate, and the changes could become disastrous if left unchecked? The omission of the first clause is very curious. McCain`s opening line fails to recognize that the climate is currently changing, only that it might some day. That is a big difference.

Obsessive nitpicking? Possibly. However, we should keep in mind the words in these prepared statements are chosen very carefully.

For comparison, Obama:

There can no longer be any doubt that human activities are influencing the global climate and we must react quickly and effectively.

This statement is far more direct. Influencing is a bit more subtle than the preferred word changing but not unusual for statements about climate change (perhaps Obama is worried about the issue stealing the change mantle?)

The differences in wording are small, and appear unimportant. But they matter when it comes to federal and international climate policy. Look at the mess made by the Bush Administration`s continued use of aspirational goals rather than targets.

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