McCain's climate triangulation

Blogger for The Christian Science Monitor
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, speaks at Vestas Wind Energy Training Facility in Portland, Ore.

Republican presidential contender John McCain is attempting to distance himself from President Bush's climate policies by calling for mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions. He is also distinguishing himself from his Democratic opponents by calling for smaller reductions.

In a speech Monday at a wind turbine plant in Portland, Ore., the Republican presidential contender said that the "facts of global warming demand our urgent attention."

We have many advantages in the fight against global warming, but time is not one of them. Instead of idly debating the precise extent of global warming, or the precise timeline of global warming, we need to deal with the central facts of rising temperatures, rising waters, and all the endless troubles that global warming will bring. We stand warned by serious and credible scientists across the world that time is short and the dangers are great. The most relevant question now is whether our own government is equal to the challenge.

Meeting this challenge, says McCain, will require a "decisive shift away from fossil fuels." And the best way to achieve that shift, he said, is "a cap-and-trade system to change the dynamic of our energy economy."

As a program under the Clean Air Act, the cap-and-trade system achieved enormous success in ridding the air of acid rain. And the same approach that brought a decline in sulfur dioxide emissions can have an equally dramatic and permanent effect on carbon emissions. Instantly, automakers, coal companies, power plants, and every other enterprise in America would have an incentive to reduce carbon emissions, because when they go under those limits they can sell the balance of permitted emissions for cash. As never before, the market would reward any person or company that seeks to invent, improve, or acquire alternatives to carbon-based energy. It is very hard to picture venture capitalists, corporate planners, small businesses and environmentalists all working to the same good purpose. But such cooperation is actually possible in the case of climate change, and this reform will set it in motion.

The Arizona Senator also took the opportunity to swipe at President Bush, who questioned the scientific basis of human-caused climate change through much of his first term, and has consistently opposed any emissions caps.

As president, I will have to deal with the same set of facts. I will not shirk the mantle of leadership that the United States bears. I will not permit eight long years to pass without serious action on serious challenges. I will not accept the same dead-end of failed diplomacy that claimed Kyoto. The United States will lead and will lead with a different approach – an approach that speaks to the interests and obligations of every nation.

Both Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama also propose cap-and-trade systems (as opposed to the carbon tax advocated by Al Gore and others). But McCain's proposal would cut emissions by only 60 percent below 1990 levels by 2025; whereas Clinton and Obama propose cutting emissions by 80 percent over the same period. Bush has called only for emissions to stabilize by 2025.

With this proposal, McCain is clearly attempting to stake out a middle ground. This goal is even clearer in a McCain ad about climate change that is currently airing in Oregon.

"One extreme thinks high taxes and crippling regulation is the solution," says the voiceover. "Another denies the problem even exists. There's a better way."

Will this triangulation work? Martha Marks, the president of Republicans for Environmental Protection, is clearly impressed. In a press release, she praised McCain's call to action.

"Senator McCain's resounding call for strong action on climate change underscores his longstanding commitment to solving this problem," said REP President Martha Marks. "His insightful remarks, along with his long record of climate leadership in the Senate, make it clear that he is the presidential candidate most dedicated and best prepared to fight global warming."
"His grasp of the problem and his firm resolve to deal with it shows that he means what he says about bringing back the Republican Party's 'Teddy Roosevelt tradition' of responsible stewardship," Marks added.

Grist's David Roberts, by contrast, is underwhelmed.

[M]y initial reaction is that it's better than expected, somewhat short of Lieberman-Warner, and far short of what Obama has proposed. It should comfort us that a McCain presidency will mean real action on climate change, not the shell game Bush is engaged in. But it's hard to see how McCain can claim the allegiance of voters who rank climate change as a top concern. He's still behind the curve.
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