Should We Still Trust John McCain on Global Warming?

In environmental circles, there's definitely some discomfort with leading GOP contender John McCain on the subject of global warming.

Granted, we all know McCain has a strong history on the issue.

He was co-sponsor of the 2003 McCain-Lieberman legislation, a failed attempt to achieve a cap on U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. And there's no doubt that McCain is much more serious about taking mandatory action than other Republican hopefuls, like Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney–who has been bashing the Arizona senator repeatedly for being too strong on the climate issue.

But at the same time, while Democratic candidates like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have released detailed energy and climate policy proposals, you'll find nothing of the sort on McCain's official campaign website.

Instead there's just a brief snippet of text explaining how McCain is the next Teddy Roosevelt, a green Republican, and saying of the Arizona senator, “He has offered common sense approaches to limit carbon emissions by harnessing market forces that will bring advanced technologies, such as nuclear energy, to the market faster, reduce our dependence on foreign supplies of energy, and see to it that America leads in a way that ensures all nations do their rightful share.”

McCain's campaign website then goes on to talk about how we can “meet our obligation to be proper caretakers of creation.” This is clearly a presentation geared towards Republican voters—rather than wonks who want to know precisely what a McCain presidency would mean for our most pressing environmental challenge.

Indeed, recently McCain got caught egregiously spinning during the January 24 GOP debate. No kidding: He dared to suggest that a cap on emissions (which he supports) is something other than precisely that–a cap. The Straight Talk express crashed and burned that evening, and that's dismaying.

Nevertheless, if you look through the full record–and past the present, high-stakes political moment–it's still possible to reach a much more optimistic outlook about how a President McCain would presumably handle climate change.

Arguably the chief document in this regard (at least if we seek something recent–and before the political pressure of the primaries) is McCain's January 30, 2007 testimony to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on the subject.

In his Senate testimony, McCain outlined five broad principles that must characterize any policy to address global warming:

1. “rational, mandatory emission reduction targets and timetables”
2. “a market-based, economy wide 'cap and trade' system”
3. “mechanisms to minimize costs and work effectively with other markets”
4. “it must spur the development and deployment of advanced technology”
5. “it must facilitate international efforts to solve the problem”
McCain is strongly opposed to the “carbon tax” route. He's also a big supporter of nuclear energy—he thinks that given how much power it provides today it has to be part of any solution, though he acknowledges outstanding waste disposal issues. In fact, according to the Washington Post, the failure to embrace nuclear power explicitly was a chief reason McCain did not add his name officially to the current, moderate and bipartisan Lieberman-Warner climate bill.

Nevertheless, McCain's outlook very much shares the spirit of that bill—he wants compromise, rather than trying to ram through a very ambitious policy very quickly. Above all, McCain preaches pragmatism on climate policy.

As he put it in another speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:

The policy must include mechanisms to control costs and protect the economy. Just as there is danger in doing too little, there is peril in going too far, too fast, in a way that imposes unsustainable costs on the economy. I believe “cap and trade” is the best way to manage cost and maximize benefits, but we must look at other market-based means to give added assurance that our policies are an instrument of job creation, economic progress, and environmental problem solving.

So what's the upshot here? What would a McCain presidency really mean for our planet?

First, it's too bad that McCain has been spinning lately (presumably to protect himself from Romney), and that he hasn't laid out more explicitly a policy plan for addressing climate change if elected president. However, McCain's history on the issue ought to convince anyone that he's serious about taking action—and anyway, a policy plan outlined now may not be the best approach for the very different political context that will most assuredly exist in 2009.

Second, it seems unlikely that a McCain policy on climate will go as far as the policies proposed by the leading Democratic contenders, which call foran 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050. Given his focus on cost containment and pragmatism, and his history of working with the very moderate (or even conservative) Joe Lieberman, we should expect that McCain would shy from so ambitious a target. And that's something that will make environmental groups somewhat less than ecstatic of his approach (although of course they'll still recognize that he's vastly better than Romney or Giuliani).

So where does that leave us?

There seem to me to be two fundamental points. One: Anyone who cares about global warming should want McCain to vanquish his Republican opponents in the primaries. If we get McCain versus one of the Democrats in the general election, we'll have two candidates who want strong action (even if their precise stances may differ). Whoever wins in that scenario, we'll be better off in the climate arena than ever before—and we can count on action finally happening.

The other fundamental point is this. While McCain's support of nuclear power and his more cautious approach to greenhouse gas regulation each can be criticized, neither rates, in my view, as an irredeemable flaw. Politics is too messy for purism on these matters—and the climate problem too urgent.

A McCain presidency would certainly be a great step forward on climate, and given our nation's past history on this issue, well…that's more than a start.


U.S. Senate Report: Over 400 Prominent Scientists Disputed Man-Made Global Warming Claims in 2007
Senate Report Debunks “Consensus”

Report Released on December 20, 2007

This so-called “debunking” has been picked apart right down the molecular level for AGES. See:

Fern Mackenzie

Praising McCain as the lesser of several evils is all very well. But given that his sincerity on climate change is in doubt, why bother with him at all? Given that the likely Democratic nominees are all far more progressive on the subject, why not simply remind voters that if they care about climate change, they should vote for someone who shares their concerns?

Of course, there are hard-core Republicans who will never consider voting for a Democrat, and I presume that’s who this piece is aimed at. But I suggest that that particular audience has no interest in climate change anyway.

They should be, and we should be making it easier for them to start supporting solutions.

It’s worth noting, too, that the best current climate change policy in America has come from a Republican Governator. In fact, by his actions, Arnie Schwarzenegger has drained a huge amount of the partisan poison out of this issue. That’s a good path, and it’s appropriate to support McCain’s efforts to make it wider.

I’ve never voted Republican and, given my concerns with McCain’s changes of stance (as opposed to flip-flops), I won’t this time either. However, there are a lot of things about McCain that wouldn’t be too horrible… definitely the lesser of all Repub evils this year.

So, yeah, from an environmental perspective, an Obama/Edwards vs. McCain race might be a best-case-scenario.

First, we should never trust politicians, regardless of party. Second, it’s likely that McCain would launch more wars and exempt the military from any restrictions on emissions. Third, though, your point about having a republican there who would push the democrat toward more than just nice sounding words regarding climate is well-taken.

As a ecologically minded Republican I resent the notion that no one who cares about the environment could be Republican. Democrats do not have a strangle hold on answers to environmental problems. It worries me that most Republicans are ambivalent or even hostile towards the environment, because Democrats see this as another way to expand the role of government.

Free market thinkers have proposed a number of inventive solutions to ecological problems that minimize the role of government. Just as Roosevelt’s imposition of price controls and regulations prolonged the depression, an irresponsible response to this current dilemma could prove disastrous.

For those of you who don’t think he is sincere about his environmental concerns, just wait until he wins the nomination. Republican primary voters are not very concerned about the environment, that’s why McCain hasn’t made an issue of the environment. The first step for a Republican to institute environmental change is to win the nomination, you have to give him some slack at this point.

I agree, Marshall. McCain showed good judgment in discussing issues Republicans tend to be more interested in, though I think this is unfortunate, as more Republicans should be getting on the environmentally-conscious bandwagon as it is a moral issue and not a political one as Al Gore said previously (as Republicans claim their party is the party of moral values).

However, the only point I disagree with you on is your assertion that Roosevelt’s New Deal prolonged the depression. On the contrary, FDR’s policies helped bring about greater confidence in the American people, who were incredibly weakened by the poor state of the economy. (The increased manufacturing that WWII brought on also contributed to a higher standard of living, but that came after the economy stabilized itself.)

Many presumed Republicans are environmentally-friendly. Revs. Richard Cizik and Rick Warren are two who come to mind, Evangelical Christian conservatives who embraced the “Creation Care” doctrine. I hope more join this group.

HAA-HAA… So we should trust a market driven by profit, populated by corporate interests, to “do the right thing”??? Man, thats worth a laugh. When was the last time you remember hearing about a corporation giving away money for the purposes of the public good? Charitable donations don’t count b/c the tax code is rigged so that counts against tax obligation. I don’t have an example that wasn’t the result of enforcement.

While it is nice to see some evangelicals taking environmental concerns on as moral issues, the Cult of the Free Market (or should I call it the Cult of Reagan?) is the last place to look for ecological or environmental justice.

If you set up a system so that people can make a profit doing the right thing, then you’ll get from A to B a lot quicker and with less effort, cost, and resentment than if you try to regulate it only and hope for compliance. People often respond better to the carrot than the stick.

Thats all well and good, and I agree with you in spirit, but corporations are not people. A corporation exists for the sole purpose of making money for its shareholders. If we were talking about small business people, incentives w/o regulation might have a prayer, but thats not who generally buys Republicans.

In a corporate society, capitalism left unregulated will destroy itself because individual morality is removed from the equation. Happened in the 1920s and it could happen today without a reality check.

I’d argue the stick would be sufficiently effective, but the stick plus the carrot would be quicker and more agreeable. The thing that really kills me about this myth of the free market is that it lends itself to a sort of speculative hysteria/hype that can cause a lot of harm to actual people and actual economies in the long run.

Okay, but your example of how politicians can be bought is one reason that some people dislike regulation. They resent unfair regulations and see the ‘free market’ as the fairest system, though others may disagree. But this is too theoretical… let’s have another example, like some guy who promotes carbon legislation that helps the climate in rhetoric but in fact supports, subsidizes, or exempts nuclear or ethanol because that’s what his local constituents can benefit from (and who lines his pocket). That’s not the way to inspire improvements.

I think you would have to be naive to question why McCain is soft-selling his position and, as you put it, appealing to Republican votes. Exactly whom should he be appealing to in trying to win the Republican nomination? For that objective, his laudable record is a potential liability.

I also think it is stretching reality, or at least oversimplifying, to call Lieberman-Warner moderate and bipartisan. It has one Republican supporter, Warner himself, and Warner is not planning to run for re-election. The entire dynamic in the committee was a vigorous tacking away from moderate in order to obtain the extreme left vote from Bernie Sanders.