McCain answers science questions

McCain has answered the 14 questions on science and technology posed by Sciencedebate 2008. (Obama answered two weeks ago, and you can see the answers side by side.). Here’s what McCain thinks of the problems facing the ocean, interspersed with my commentary. See my take on Obama’s answer here.

The question:

9. Ocean Health. Scientists estimate that some 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are in serious decline and habitats around the world like coral reefs are seriously threatened. What steps, if any, should the United States take during your presidency to protect ocean health?

Excerpts from McCain’s reply. To see the whole thing, go here, and scroll down to #9.

The environmental health of the oceans and the Great Lakes is a complex, multi-faceted issue requiring attention and action from numerous perspectives.  It requires effective coastal zone and watershed management, both point and non-point water pollution management, and more effective fisheries management.  It requires coordination and action by local, state and federal government agencies, by addressing issues like invasive aquatic species to agricultural runoff.

This is vague. I agree with all of it – who would disagree with “more effective fisheries management”? – but there is no indication of how McCain would address these problems.

It is one of the more complex management challenges facing the environment because the ocean ecosystem is affected by so many different activities and sources under so many different management jurisdictions – from sewage discharge treatment facilities, to air pollution depositions, to climate change.  For example, the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico which appears every summer does not result from human activities in the Gulf of Mexico, but from human activities across the Mid-West.

It’s good that McCain can name a specific problem, the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, but what is he going to do about it? Would a McCain presidency regulate fertilizer input into the Mississippi?

The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy has provided government leaders with an “Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century” that has many good ideas; however, even it struggled with the enormity of the management challenge that lies before us, and recognized that there are no easy answers.  This is at least partly due to the fact that so many of the human activities that adversely affect ocean health are not “ocean activities”, but are landside activities.  Regional and ecosystem management concepts are easy to talk about, but are complicated to implement effectively, and they depend of obtaining a commitment from various necessary stakeholders.

Wow – it sounds like McCain doesn’t think that ocean problems can be solved! Of course there are no easy answers, but relatively straightforward steps to help the ocean do exist, such as buyback programs for fishing vessels and permits, the creation of marine protected areas, and eliminating obsolete dams to allow fish to migrate upriver.

Ocean health and policy requires better management focus; however, we also need a better scientific understanding of the oceans.  In no area is this truer than in obtaining a better understanding of the interaction of climate change and the oceans.  We need to better understand the ocean’s role in the carbon cycle, in the effects of the massive amount of fresh water resulting from the melting of polar ice, which could dramatically affect global weather patterns, and in the effects of warmer ocean waters on weather – especially coastal storms – and on marine life.  Ocean science and engineering is a field that deserves greater attention and focus.

Both McCain and Obama discussed the effects of climate change on the ocean. Obama mentioned acidification, while McCain talks more about the effect of warming oceans on climate. (Particularly the bit about the dramatic effect of freshwater input on thermohaline circulation – did the staffer who wrote this enjoy Day After Tomorrow a little too much?) I was skeptical of Obama’s promises of more funding, but McCain only promises “greater attention and focus.”

All in all, McCain’s answer was mostly boilerplate. There’s a lot of words but little content. To get a handle on this, I’ve listed all the specific things – whether laws, agencies, problems, or proposed solutions –  that McCain mentions, while leaving out meaningless sentences like “The environmental health of the oceans and the Great Lakes is a complex, multi-faceted issue requiring attention and action from numerous perspectives.”


  • Dead zone in Gulf of Mexico
  • U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy’s report entitled “Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century”
  • Ocean’s role in the carbon cycle
  • Effect of melting glaciers on thermohaline circulation
  • Effects of warmer ocean waters weather and marine life

In contrast, here’s the specific things that Obama mentions.

  • Ocean acidification
  • Awareness that NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) all do ocean-related research
  • Awareness that more cross-agency collaboration is needed
  • Law of the Sea, and the need to ratify it
  • Coordination between Gulf Coast nations and states
  • Coastal Zone Management Act
  • National Marine Sanctuaries and the Oceans and Human Health Acts

Obama is clearly either more aware of ocean issues, and/or getting much better ocean-related advice. If you’re a single-issue oceans voter (and a rare beast you would be!), Obama is clearly the better choice.


5 Responses to McCain answers science questions

  1. Sam says:

    I read both candidates’ responses to many of the questions. I’m not qualified to judge the content of many of the answers — I just don’t know the issues involved well enough. But I was struck over and over by how much better a writer Obama (or his staff) is.

    Most of McCain’s responses begin with some version of a standard high school introductory paragraph: “As a former Navy officer I was constantly reminded of the power, wonder and complexity of our world’s oceans. As Americans we are blessed by our location, surrounded by two of the world’s great Oceans, along with the magnificent Great Lakes along our Northern border.”

    In other words, “America is bordered by several bodies of water. Water is a very important resource for many reasons. Allow me to elucidate them in 5-paragraph format.” (And in case you forgot, I was a POW!)

    Whereas Obama usually gets right to it. He actually uses a high-school-y intro for the ocean question, sadly, but introduces most of his other responses with historical background or relevant, concrete facts (see Education, Genetics Research, or Stem Cells, for instance), and then (again, usually — Obama’s responses are by no means perfect) continues with clear specifics.

    The worst example of McCain’s tendency toward meaningless babble is in question 1, Innovation, in which he claims to be “uniquely qualified to lead our nation during this technical revolution” because, basically, he used technology in the Navy. (I was a POW!) Oh, and I think he’s claiming to have invented wi-fi, in the same way Al Gore invented the internet. *sigh*

    Speaking of meaningless babble, I’ll stop with the overanalysis now. 🙂

  2. Jives says:

    Thanks for breaking down the issues here Miriam! I’m glad DSN endorsed your assessment.

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