McCain's Gift to the Green Movement

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

Senator John McCain tours the Cedar River watershed near North Bend, Washington.

On the rain-swept balcony of a nature center perched high above Rattlesnake Lake in the Cascade Mountains of Washington, John McCain is describing the chasm that separates him from George W. Bush on global warming. "The President and I have disagreed on this issue for many years," he says, glancing right and left in search of the most expressive word he can find. "There's a longstanding... significant... deep... and strong difference on this issue."

McCain has a predicament. Though his candidacy has gotten a boost from the endless Obama v. Clinton grudge match, McCain knows that Democratic strife alone won't get him to the White House. To win, he must reel in independent voters, and to do that he has to distance himself from one of the least popular Presidents in American history at a time when 80 percent of voters say the country is heading down the wrong track. So while the Democrats are busy finishing up their fight, McCain has been looking for ways to prove that his first term wouldn't be tantamount to George W. Bush's third. The trouble is, there isn't a great deal of hard evidence for this proposition. McCain supports Bush's war in Iraq (though he criticized its execution) and Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy (though he previously opposed them). He has spoken passionately against Bush's policy on torture, and condemned the record-breaking growth in government spending that has taken place on Bush's watch. But that fiscal restraint also limits McCain's policy options, which may be why his approaches to health care and the economy don't differ a great deal from the President's. When you boil it all down, global warming is the issue that sets McCain furthest apart from Bush.

The denial-and-delay wing of the Republican Party didn't like it, but as McCain hopscotched from New Jersey to Oregon to Washington to Ohio, the climate crisis dominated each of his days. "We need to deal with the central facts of rising temperatures, rising waters, and all the endless troubles that global warming will bring," he said on May 12, jabbing the air at a Portland, Oregon, wind-turbine facility. "Time is short and the dangers are great. The most relevant question now is whether our own government is equal to the challenge." In case anyone missed the message, he added, "I will not shirk the mantle of leadership the United States bears. I will not permit eight long years to pass without serious action."

Environmental activists have been complaining for a year that the climate crisis has gotten short shrift in this election. McCain's speech in Portland put it back on the agenda. The sight of a Republican standard-bearer stepping up with a solid plan for mandatory greenhouse gas reductions — the kind of plan Bush and the G.O.P. congressional leaders vociferously oppose — was heartening, even if McCain's policy is less than perfect. And when Obama and Clinton pounced on the plan (Obama called it "breathtaking" in its hypocrisy, since McCain has voted against alternative energy subsidies; Clinton dismissed it as a compendium of "halfway measures"), it signaled that global warming would be a serious debating issue in the general election. That's more good news — and if it happened because it's smart politics for McCain, so be it.

Climate policy wonks — who try to explain this complex stuff for a living — admired the clarity and power with which McCain described the cap-and-trade system, which would set a declining limit on global warming pollution, then let companies sell their excess pollution permits for a profit. "For all of the last century," he said, "the profit motive basically led in one direction — toward machines, methods and industries that used oil and gas." He praised the good that came from that growth but pointed out that there were "costs we weren’t counting. And these terrible costs have added up." Now, he said, a cap-and-trade system would harness the profit motive to reverse that trend and usher in a cleaner, more vibrant economy. "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."

Heady stuff. Too bad the details of McCain's policy don't quite match his soaring vision. His plan is designed to be the climate policy that business can live with — to be pragmatic and "doable," as he says — so his targets for greenhouse gas reduction fall short of Clinton's, Obama's and those in the leading Senate climate bill, sponsored by Independent Joe Lieberman and Republican John Warner. (McCain would seek to reduce carbon emissions to 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 66 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.) All of the proposals amount to less than what the latest science says needs to be done to avert catastrophic warming, because there's a huge gap between what's scientifically necessary and what's remotely achievable in Washington now. Which is why Al Gore talks about expanding the limits of the possible.

After targets, the big issue is cost. Where the Democrats want to make major emitters buy all their pollution permits at auction, McCain wants to give many of those permits away in the early years of the program. (So do Lieberman and Warner.) The idea is to reduce compliance costs for business, which is not a crazy idea for two reasons. First, the threat of huge new costs is one reason heavy industries don't support climate legislation. Second, those costs would inevitably be passed on to consumers. But despite generous use of free transitional permits, Lieberman-Warner hasn't drawn much industry support. So McCain went back to the goodie bag.

To drive down costs even further, he proposes an even more controversial cost-containment idea. His plan would allow the unlimited use of so-called offsets, or pollution credits purchased from carbon-reduction projects outside the cap-and-trade system. In other words, a coal-fired utility in Ohio wouldn't have to reduce its carbon emissions if it bought enough offsets from, say, a forest preserve that promised not to clear-cut its timber. A certain number of offsets make sense — as long as they are real and verified (which is hard to ensure). But many policy analysts fear that unlimited offsets in the fragile early years of the system would invite wholesale gaming (destroying the market's credibility) and keep the price of carbon pollution permits so low that coal plants would just keep spewing, destroying the market signal that's needed to usher in the new low-carbon economy McCain described so well in Portland.

These are important details, but here's the more important big picture: McCain isn't posturing on this issue. He really wants to fix the problem. He broke with his party on climate change after the 2000 election, when the Republican mainstream, including Bush, was still in full-blown denial mode. Pestered during the New Hampshire primary by a global warming activist who called himself Captain Climate and dressed in a red cape and superhero tights, McCain soon began holding hearings on climate science and traveling to the Arctic to see the damage for himself. "It was a period of real self-education, and John came away convinced," says Lieberman. McCain and Lieberman co-authored the Climate Stewardship Act of 2003, the first serious attempt at climate legislation, and pulled some nifty legislative tricks to force up-or-down votes in the full Senate in 2003 and 2005. Their bill was defeated both times, but the second version attracted co-sponsors named Clinton and Obama.

This year, both Clinton and Obama released strong climate proposals that build on the cap-and-trade idea. But as McCain girded for primary battles against skeptics like Mitt Romney, he throttled back his leadership on the issue, missing every environmental vote of the year. Lieberman teamed up with Virginia Republican John Warner to produce a bill that is more detailed and ambitious than the ones Lieberman and McCain worked on. With the backing of California Democrat Barbara Boxer, the fierce, deep-green chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Lieberman and Warner added provisions to protect low-income consumers and managed to get the bill voted out of committee; it is scheduled for a Senate floor debate early next month, but its chances of passage are next to nil. As G.O.P. opposition to the bill hardened — the business lobby argued that it would cripple the U.S. economy by raising electric rates and damaging America's ability to compete with China — McCain was cagey about whether he would support it. Most coal-state Democrats and all but a handful of Republicans are shunning the bill, but McCain recently took a stand in favor of it. He rejected those dire economic predictions from the business lobby, and said, "I hope the entire Congress will join in supporting it and the President of the United States would sign it."

That took some guts, but this issue may soon test the limits of his courage. McCain hasn't yet promised to vote for the Lieberman-Warner bill. (He's holding out for a package of nuclear incentives — even though cap-and-trade is a built-in incentive for all low-carbon energy, including nuclear.) And in his big Portland speech, he ducked one of the central issues of the entire climate debate: how to get China on board. There are really only three options for this. First, the U.S. commits to emission reductions and figures out China later. That's the Kyoto option, and it was dead on arrival a decade ago. Second, there's the China trapdoor: America refuses to have a carbon cap unless China does too. That's a non-starter for China, since the U.S. has been spewing C02 for more than a century, and virtually all of those emissions are still in the atmosphere. China will follow us but not match us step for step, so the trapdoor would basically kill the deal. McCain economic adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin recently floated the trapdoor position in an interview with the online environmental magazine Grist, but McCain quashed it in his Portland speech, promising action no matter what China does. "If the efforts to negotiate an international solution that includes China and India do not succeed," he said, "we still have an obligation to act."

The third option argues that China's entry into a global climate regime is an important part of America's fair trade agenda. The U.S. will give China breathing room, for a few years if necessary, but eventually it has to join — and there will be trade sanctions if it doesn't. That's where Obama stands, and it's where McCain was going this week until he ducked. The official text of his Portland speech contained a reference to a "cost equalization mechanism" — the trade-sanctions stick if China balks — but McCain edited it out before show time, replacing the mechanism with the phrase "effective diplomacy" — which sounds like jawboning that's all carrot, no stick. In other words, McCain hasn't decided where he stands on this all-important issue. But maybe that's OK. Obama or Clinton will be sure to explore it with him—in the campaign and perhaps as early as next month, when Lieberman-Warner hits the Senate floor. Both the country and, eventually, the climate itself will benefit from this crucial debate, made possible because, on global warming at least, John McCain really isn't George W. Bush.