Presidential candidates Barack Obama’s and John McCain’s responses to 14 questions about science policy provide insights into similarities and differences they might take in office.

The candidates responded to questions posed by Science Debate 2008, a grassroots alliance supported by 38,000 scientists and citizens who initially had submitted more than 3,000 questions for the candidates. Their positions on climate change, ocean health, energy, and innovation are superficially similar, but reading between the lines reveals unequivocal differences.

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Science Debate 2008 earlier had hoped the presidential candidates would hold a debate focused solely on science. That proved a non-starter from both candidates’ perspectives.

The New York Times and Physics Today provide comparisons of the two candidates’ positions on all 14 topics.

Similarities, Differences Emerge

Obama, who first spelled out an energy and climate plan in October 2007, embraces more specific targets than does McCain, whose replies repeatedly invoke market forces and cite McCain’s experience as a technology-user in the Navy, and his time as chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. McCain’s climate change speech from May 2008 provides more detail about his position. (see an analyses of Obama’s environmental record by Grist, the online environmental publication; and an analysis of McCain’s environmental record in The New Republic).

In response to the Science Debate 2008 prompts, the candidates agree that anthropogenic climate change is happening, and each supports cap-and-trade mechanisms for reducing carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Obama favors auctioning off pollution permits, and McCain does not explain how his administration would allocate the permits.

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Democratic nominee Barack Obama.

Obama repeatedly emphasizes a need to work with other major CO2-emitting countries and to implement technology-transfer programs to poorer countries in order to bring emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 (the goal recommended by the IPCC). McCain does not mention international cooperation, and advocates reducing emissions to 60 percent over the same period of time. Neither does he mention adaptation at the local level, which he has stressed before.

Obama and McCain recognize the impacts of climate change on oceans, and each cites a grave threat to fisheries. Neither, however, explicitly mentions imminent risks to or destruction of coral reefs. Obama advocates strengthening the Coastal Zone Management Act and the National Marine Sanctuaries and Oceans and Human Health Acts. He also pushes for signing the Law of the Sea Convention, an international agreement among 150 countries. McCain favorably cites the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy’s blueprint for the future, and stresses the complexity of ocean management.

Candidates Spell Out Energy Positions

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Republican nominee
John McCain.

McCain’s energy platform favors incentives for environmental entrepreneurship, including a $300 million prize for developing a better battery for electric cars; he also supports strengthening CAFÉ standards governing automobile fuel economy, and he says he would penalize automakers for ignoring them. The Republican candidate champions “clean coal,” and also proposes building 45 nuclear plants by 2030. He does not mention drilling in Alaska, an issue on which he and his running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, appear to have differences.

Obama too supports CAFÉ, but he offers more specifics: he suggests increasing fuel economy standards by 4 percent each year, and providing loans to U.S. automakers to help them manufacture competitive vehicles domestically. Additionally, Obama wants to increase new building efficiency by 50 percent and existing building efficiency by 25 percent by 2020. He promises $150 billion for research into safer nuclear technologies, more fuel-efficient cars, more energy efficiency, and cleaner coal.

Acknowledging his past votes against tax credits for renewable energy, McCain promises to encourage market-based approaches. In contrast, Obama proposes a multi-step plan to popularize renewable energy. He suggests a five-year extension on the production tax credit, and promises to require that 10 percent of electricity will be sourced from renewables by 2012 and 25 percent by 2025.

Obama Campaign Identifies Science Brain Trust

Wired magazine’s blog notes that the Obama campaign has publically disclosed its team of science advisors, but that the McCain campaign has remained silent. The post is worth reading for its brief profiles of the Obama advisors. The group includes Nobel Prize winners, former presidential advisors, a former member of Monsanto’s Board of Directors, the head of a biotechnology company, and the former head of the National Institutes of Health (who has been criticized for accepting significant amounts of money from pharmaceutical companies).

The New Scientist suggests that McCain primarily relies on people with a background in economics and industry when he looks for scientific advice.

Although the candidates’ responses are non-binding, an examination of keyword frequency may reveal some campaign priorities.

Keyword Frequency in the Science Debate questions*:

McCain Obama
Global warming 2 0
Climate change 5 9
Market 7 3
Government 15 13
Adaptation 0 0
Fuel/energy efficiency 1 3
Building efficiency 0 5
Mass transit/walking 0 1
Clean coal 1 2
Renewables 2 3
Nuclear power 5 1
Solar power 2 0
Wind power 2 0
Hydro power 1 0
Technology transfer 0 1
Ratifying Law of the Sea 0 1
Low-income/poor 3 0
Traditionally under-represented / most at risk 0 2

Based on the above breakdown, both candidates stress “government” and “climate change.” (Obama does not use the word “government” when talking about climate change, energy or oceans; McCain uses the word seven times when referring to these topics.) McCain appears to stress markets over international frameworks. While both candidates tout cap-and-trade mechanisms as an antidote to ever-increasing CO2 emissions, Obama is alone in mentioning an arsenal of other solutions – better building efficiency, improved mass transit and walkable communities, and technology transfer to poorer countries. McCain emphasizes construction of domestic nuclear power plants but combines that with referrals to more and different kinds of renewable energy than Obama. Obama has more step-by-step details about how he would make his vision concrete.

The Science Debate 2008 questioning does not address the approaches the candidates’ vice presidential running mates, Governor Palin and Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, might favor. Biden generally has been out front in support of aggressively tackling climate change problems, and Palin appears generally to have been ambivalent about the subject.

*The candidates’ responses to all 14 questions were considered in measuring keyword frequency.

Also see:
Candidates’ Convention Speeches Leave Vacuum; Cloudy Priorities for Whomever Succeeds Bush?


Bidisha Banerjee is in her first year as a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.