Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Is Obama, or would McCain, be better for the environment?

(Is the jackalope a product of the law of unintended consequences?)

It is nearly impossible to be a blogger and not comment at least once on the presidential race of 2008. For starters, I will put my cards on the table and tell you that I was for Barack Obama all the way. My wife and I first got excited about Obama when we heard him give a speech in the Jewish synagogue in downtown Denver, Colorado in March 2007; later that month my wife and I put “Obama for President” bumper stickers on our car. By the way, that car is a SUV, so you now see all my cards.

But the question here is which man as President, McCain or Obama, would be better for the environment. The answer to that important question is not abundantly clear to me, and in thinking about it, I realize how complicated and convoluted the answer could be. Traditionally, we environmentalists tend to think that Democrats are more favorable for the environment than Republicans. However, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the conservation legislation that many tout as the single most important environmental law ever written, was enacted under the Republican Richard Nixon. On the other hand, President Reagan (a Republican, who is quoted as saying “If you’ve seen one redwood tree, you’ve seen them all”) appointed James Watt as Secretary of the Interior, which most environmentalists considered a disastrous choice for such an important position as the manager of the nation’s natural resources. Generalizations seem to have low predictive power in this kind of analysis.

Here is a brief and highly simplistic analogy to demonstrate how there can be both intended and unintended effects on the environment. Let’s consider two families in the U.S., the Greens and the Slobs. Mr. and Mrs. Green read Al Gore’s book on global warming and they took it seriously. They turn off the lights when they leave one of the rooms in their house, they run their major appliances at off-peak hours, and they bought a small car (their second car) that gets 35 mpg. They built their 3,500 square foot house, well-insulated, in the woods from which they drive 10 miles to get to work everyday. They take a winter skiing vacation in Colorado and a summer vacation to Europe or Costa Rica most years that, of course, involves flying. Did I mention that the Greens have three children and two cats?

The Slobs haven’t read a book in a decade (the last was a Danielle Steele romance novel), they keep their electric home really warm in the winter and really cool in the summer, and they even throw trash out of their car when driving down the road. The Slobs live in a 1,500 square foot house in a run-down suburb of a major city. The Slobs drive an SUV, but they live only about 1 mile from their jobs. Their vacation in the summer involves driving to the beach about 50 miles away and staying in a cheap rental for a week with their only child.

If we were to do a carbon footprint analysis of these two families, it would surprise no one here that the Greens contribute much more to climate change than the Slobs, even though the Greens are trying to do their best. In fact, the two additional children that the Greens have will, alone, result in a much greater impact on the environment over the roughly 75-year years in which those two humans live in the U.S. than any energy the Greens could possibly save while those children are still living in their home. During those 7-8 decades, those two additional humans will consume tons of raw materials in the products they buy, use millions of joules of energy, and generate hundreds of tons of waste. In the short run, the Greens are also responsible for permanently eliminating a chunk of habitat from the forest in which they built their house, reducing and/or degrading biodiversity in the process. In short, although the Greens “intend” to reduce their impact by watching their energy consumption and their waste generation, their “unintended” impact is much greater than the Slobs, who are basically clueless about the whole issue. And if we compare the Greens to almost any of the 4-5 billion people living in developing countries, their relative impact is enormous.

Obama and McCain both intend to cut carbon emissions by 2050: Obama wants an 80% reduction over 1990 levels and McCain wanted a 60% reduction. Both of them have opposed drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The League of Conservation Voters graded each senator’s lifetime voting record in 2008 with regard to environmental issues—McCain got 24%, Obama got 86%. Overall, Obama seems to be the candidate likely to be better for the planet, a conclusion also reached by others who are examining this issue (http://www.observer.com/2008/obama-vs-mccain-environment-opening-bell).

What about the unintended consequences? What if Obama, who has written a book about being hopeful, engenders enough optimistic feeling in the U.S., or even the world, that the birth rate ticks up .1%-.2%? Sounds far-fetched, but birth rates historically increase when people feel the future is going to be bright. Or, what if McCain had been able to stimulate the housing market to the extent that several million more houses were built than would otherwise have been the case? All economists think this would be a good thing, but try to estimate the increase in energy consumed, habitat lost, and materials used. Both candidates promise to stimulate economic growth and lower gas prices, but this tactic is almost certainly bad for the environment. For example, lower gas prices stimulate greater use of that resource and contribute more to climate change. These are enhancements that might be “good” for most of us in the short term, but be “bad” for us all in the long term. Isn’t this the classic dilemma?

Most of us do not engage in very deep analysis of these environmental issues, even when a general election is at stake. We take at face value what each candidate says they are going to do, compare what they say, and make a decision. My argument here is not that they may be lying, or na├»ve, or simply misinformed about what is possible to accomplish. That may be true. I am arguing that evaluating the consequences of having one man as President over another is pretty complicated because of the probable chain of interactions and unintended consequences of policies that may have nothing directly to do with the environment. But, then, isn’t that an incorrect statement? Doesn’t everything we do have an effect on the environment?