McCain: The New 'Captain Climate'?

The likely Republican Presidential nominee offered a climate-change proposal that opponents, including Obama, say is too little, too late

John McCain's global warming journey started back in 2000, when a strange apparition named "Captain Climate" began to turn up at Presidential campaign events. Captain Climate was Dartmouth grad Matthew Stembridge, who wore red tights over orange long johns, a red knit stocking cap, yellow-painted galoshes, and a red cape. "What's your position on climate?" Stembridge would yell at event after event.

McCain was intrigued. The Arizona senator called up Captain Climate for a chat. After he lost his bid for the Republican Presidential nomination to George W. Bush, McCain probed further. He held hearings. He talked to scientists. And in a stark break with the Bush Administration, which quickly joined the ranks of climate-change deniers, McCain began to call for action. With his friend and fellow Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), he even drafted the pioneering McCain-Lieberman climate bill, which would have put caps on the emissions of global-warming-causing greenhouse gases in the U.S.

Now the likely Republican nominee for President, McCain is using his bona fide climate credentials to help set himself up as a viable choice for independents—and Republicans—who want a change from the Bush years. In a May 12 speech at a wind power plant in Portland, Ore., McCain called climate "surely the most serious of all…environmental dangers.… The facts of global warming demand our urgent attention, especially in Washington."

"An Obligation to Act"

In his speech, McCain described the scientific evidence and his own reaction to seeing retreating glaciers in Norway and Alaska. "Instead of idly debating the precise extent of global warming, or the precise time line 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," McCain said. "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."

McCain's plan? As in his original bill, he proposes a government-imposed cap on greenhouse gas emissions, with allowable levels reduced over time. The main effect of such a cap would be to increase the price of emitting carbon, thus raising the price of using fossil fuel. "By the year 2012, we will seek a return to 2005 levels of emission, by 2020, a return to 1990 levels, and so on until we have achieved at least a reduction of 60% below 1990 levels by the year 2050," he explained.

Most Republicans have also said the U.S. should only move forward if developing nations like China and India do as well. Not McCain: "If the efforts to negotiate an international solution that includes China and India do not succeed, we still have an obligation to act," he said.

Enough Action?

The plan isn't as bold as the leading bill that Congress is now considering, a successor to McCain-Lieberman that goes by the name Warner-Lieberman, after Senator John Warner (R-Va.). That bill would reduce emissions a bit quicker. But the overall approach is pretty much the same. And as one of the few Republicans in Washington who backs climate-change regulations, McCain has a devoted following among the community of people pushing for action on the issue.

It also helps that his leading environmental adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, is seen as substantive and credible. An economist, Holtz-Eakin is a former director of the Congressional Budget Office. And while he served in the Bush Administration, as chief economist for the President's Council of Economic Advisors, Holtz-Eakin does not agree with the other White House advisers, from Vice-President Dick Cheney on down, who steered the President away from his own campaign promises to tackle the issue.

Still, environmental groups are split on McCain. Some give him credit for bringing this issue to the fore. "He's saying the right things, and talking about it more than the Democrats are," says one climate advocate.

But others point to McCain's poor overall environmental record. "To his credit, he understands that global warming is serious, but his details fall short," says Gene Karpinski, head of the League of Conservation Voters.

Lack of Support

Worse, from the standpoint of the environmental groups, is that McCain has failed to support a variety of actions—from renewable fuels to tax credits for wind and solar power—that are widely seen as helping the fight against global warming. There is still palatable anger among the environmental community at McCain for failing to show up for a vote last year that would have extended the tax incentives for wind and solar, paying for them by taking away subsidies to the oil and gas industry. The measure failed by one vote—McCain's—leading to fears that he might both block progress on alternative energy and be swayed by oil and gas interests.

"It is truly breathtaking for John McCain to talk about combating climate change while voting against virtually every recent effort to actually invest in clean energy," said Senator and Presidential candidate Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in a press release.

Joe Romm, a former Energy Dept. official under the Clinton Administration, faults McCain for lack of support of new technologies, and for emissions targets that he says "are not sufficient to avoid catastrophic warming." The only technology that McCain wants to subsidize is nuclear power, which many environmental groups oppose.

Market Orientation

What is clear is that, even while McCain and Democratic candidates Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) support caps on greenhouse gas emissions, there are philosophical differences to their approaches. McCain's approach is more market-oriented. The main effect of a cap on emissions is to increase the price of emitting carbon, thus raising the price of using fossil fuel. Holtz-Eakin argues the rise in energy prices that would result from an emissions cap will stimulate both efficiency measures and the development of alternative technologies.

But Romm and many others believe this isn't enough. "McCain seems to think putting a price on carbon dioxide and pushing nukes is really all you need to do," he explains. "I think that is doomed to failure." A price on carbon high enough to force a massive switch to, say, plug-in cars, would be crippling to the economy. That's why most environmental groups favor incentives for energy efficiency and alternative power sources, along with mandates on auto mileage and appliance efficiency, to help push the economy faster toward a cleaner world.

Holtz-Eakin responds that government should not be picking winners and losers by offering incentives for specific technologies. For instance, "ethanol is bad policy and has harmed us," he says. "We should have an equal approach for all technologies." McCain's approach "may not meet any narrow litmus test constructed by Democrats," he says. But by simply putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions, "it will incentivize innovation and growth."

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