John Edwards embraces enviro politics, a little too warmly

Every campaign it's the same thing. The editors and their reporting staff vow to pay more attention to the issues and focus less on the horse race. And every campaign that promise turns out to be as hollow as the campaign promises of the candidates the journalists are covering. So it is with the mountains of attention paid to the fundraising efforts of the presidential contenders. The latest has Barack Obama pulling in a mind-boggling amount of... but there I go, sucked into the vortex of distraction. What I want to explore is John Edwards' environmental platform, which I think is remarkable in a couple of ways.

A few posts back, I suggested that Edwards' embrace of the idea of carbon offsets was a bit on the naive side. An anonymous poster responded with this challenge:

Gee, thanks. After several paragraphs of typical ScienceBlogs pissing, moaning, and put-downs, we get around to a milquetoast comment about someone'smilquetoast comment.

Here's an idea: Suppose this is a first draft. Now that you've vented the rant from your system, can you show off your journalism mad skillz and write another piece that persuades without resorting to pissing and put-downs? Cuz that's something I'd like to read.

All right then. Let's take a close look at Edwards' platform on climate change, which was released just about the same hour I posted my thoughts on carbon offsets (which are still only good in theory, by the way).

From the candidate's web site, here's the broad vision:

* Halt global warming by capping and reducing greenhouse gas pollution and leading the world to a new global climate change treaty.
* Create a new energy economy and 1 million new jobs by investing in clean, renewable energy, sparking innovation, a new era in American industry, and life in family farms.
* Meet the demand for new electricity through efficiency for the next decade, instead of producing more power.

Can't argue with that, although I might have called for 2 million jobs, that's arbitrary and quibbling. I do like this line: "It won't be easy, but it is time to ask the American people to be patriotic about something other than war."

This is all very well and good, but pretty much what you'd expect from a 21st century Democrat who doesn't have his head buried in the oil sands. Now to the details:

Use Science to Set the Caps: Edwards will cap greenhouse gases at levels that the latest climate science has determined to be necessary to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. He will cap greenhouse pollution starting in 2010, reduce it by 15 percent by 2020, and reduce it by 80 percent by 2050, consistent with the most aggressive plans under consideration in Washington.

Sounds pretty ambitious. In fact, the only mainstream call that trumps this one comes from Al Gore, who would cut emission by 90 percent by 2050. I might argue that 2050 may be too late. By then we may well have passed one or more tipping points and found ourselves subject to irreversible positive feedbacks from melting polar caps and methane releases from the Arctic tundra, but I suppose any proposal to chop fossil fuel use any faster might be dismissed as beyond practical. Not that the the laws of physics are interested in compromise, but I suppose we should be happy with an 80 percent cut by 2050. And none of the other candidates is anywhere near as aggressive, so score 1 for the former senator from North Carolina.

Involve Developing Economies: Any climate change treaty must include developing countries, which emit significant amounts of carbon and could otherwise serve as a haven for polluters. However, these nations are poorer than the U.S. and emit far less carbon per capita. To bring them to the table, Edwards will share America's clean energy technology in exchange for binding greenhouse reduction commitments. If necessary, he will insist that strong labor and environmental standards in our trade deals include commitments on climate change.

This may be the most radical idea in the package. The left has been trying to get labor and environmental standards added to NAFTA and other trade deals for ages. A promise to do just that was a big reason why Jean Chretien became prime minister of Canada in 1993. Of course, after posing for the cameras tearing up a piece of paper to demonstrate what he'd do to NAFTA if he didn't get those standards added, Chretien never got around to convincing Bill Clinton (and Al Gore, remember) to agree to anything like serious labor and environmental standards, which are basically antithetical to the whole notion of free trade in the first place.

To jumpstart our investment in the future, Edwards will create the $13 billion-a-year New Energy Economy Fund. The fund will ... double the Department of Energy's budget for efficiency and renewable energy, accelerate new energy technologies to market and help new businesses get started, encourage consumers to buy efficient products, and provide transition assistance to workers in carbon-intensive industries.

Doubling is a nice start, but increasing it by an order of magnitude is more like what's required. Bush is already spending $2 billion on fuel cells, which isn't much more than 10 percent of the $37 billion in tax relief subsidies awarded to the petroleum industry each year. So I think we can do much better than that.

Make 25 Percent of Our Energy Renewable: Edwards will require power companies to generate 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2025.

Again, sounds ambitious. But what we need is a more aggressive long-term schedule. What about 50 per cent by 2035 and 75 percent by 2045? And so on. And what if they don't meet the targets? Financial penalties? Edwards doesn't say. You can't just ask industry to do something. Volunteerism isn't all that big in the energy sector.

Maximize the Potential of Cleaner, Safer Coal: Coal will be an important source of U.S. and global electricity for decades, but it is responsible for more than 30 percent of America's carbon dioxide emissions. Edwards will invest $1 billion a year to research ways to burn coal cleanly and recycle its carbon underground permanently. He will also strengthen mine safety laws to ensure it is mined safely.

Here we start to run into trouble. The idea of "clean coal" sounds like a great idea, and it's becoming one of those hot-button topics among recent converts to environmentalism. But there are two things wrong with it. First, there's no such thing. Coal is dirty. Always has been, always will be. Yes, it is theoretically possible to strip all the bad stuff (sulphur and other forms of aerosol pollution, along with carbon dioxide), but it's very expensive, and no one has figured out how to do that without making the process more expensive than the truly clean alternatives like photovoltaics. Plus we still haven't found a good way to permanently dispose of and sequester the CO2 once it's removed from any fossil fuel. Someday, I'm sure we will, but at the moment, you might as well invest in fusion power, which is, as they say, 40 years away and always will be.

Second, there's the not inconsequential problem of digging up the coal. Edward wants to make coal mining safe. That's tough enough. But most of that coal is mined by stripping the tops of mountains, and anyone who's seen what that does to-places like Appalachia, for example, knows coal is bad to the bone. A responsible approach would be a moratorium on all new coal mining projects and a sunset schedule for the existing ones.

Transform the Auto Industry to Lead the World in Cars of the Future: Edwards believes that everyone should be able to drive the car, truck or SUV of their choice and still enjoy high fuel economy. American automakers have the ingenuity to lead the world in building the clean, safe, economical cars of the future.

No, no, no. Sure everyone loves to drive, and it would be political suicide to say what really needs to be done -- bring an end to the automobile's dominance of transportation. But at least Edwards could avoid singing the praises of the SUV, if not the car itself. Why can't someone call for a resurrection of passenger rail in this country. James Kunstler suggests that restoring America's once glorious rail era ("we used to have a passenger rail network that was the envy of the world, now it would shame Bulgaria") would go a long way toward boosting the nation's confidence in our ability to reshape the country along environmental lines. And he's right. "A Better Amtrak" isn't exactly a winner of a campaign slogan, but I'm sure Edwards' people could come up with something.

Produce 65 Billion Gallons of Ethanol a Year by 2025

That would be catastrophic. Now it's becoming clear that Edwards is simply embracing every popular idea in the environmental catalog without thinking them through. Ethanol is not the answer. It's not even a serious part of the solution. Sure, in a few small areas, a few people could run a few vehicles on ethanol. But for every acre of corn devoted to ethanol, another acre is lost for food and feed. George Monbiot summarizes the problem well. Already we've seen Mexicans hit with high cornflour prices, and now egg producers are expecting to have to raise their prices because of the cost of corn feed is rising, all thanks to increased demand from ethanol plants. Biodiesel is similarly restricted to small-scale local operations for those and other reasons, including disastrous land-management problems in southeast Asia.

Create Millions of Local Sources of Renewable Energy


Encourage Distributed Generation; Research the Next Generation of Small Scale Renewable Energy

Good and good.

Meet New Demand for Electricity through Efficiency for the Next Decade: Electricity demand is projected to increase by 1.5 percent a year between 2008 and 2018, on average.

Not bad. But again, not ambitious enough.

Then we have:

Make Efficiency Profitable for Utilities; Expand Smart Meters and Smart Grids to Use Energy More Wisely; Invest in Weatherized Homes and More Efficient Buildings and Appliances


Reduce the U.S. Government's Energy Use by 20 Percent and Make the White House Carbon Neutral

and finally

Create GreenCorps.

All of which is fine, but hardly new and exciting.

In the final analysis, Edwards is still the leading environmental candidate. But he has to examine some elements of his platform more carefully before jumping on board every green bandwagon. What we need is not someone who just supports environmental causes, but someone who understands them. Is that asking too much? Probably. And in the absence of another serious contender with enviro cred, Edwards will likely end up getting the community's vote. That wouldn't be a bad thing, but a scientifically sound environmental campaign would be better.


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