This week John McCain delivered a speech (full text here) on his long-awaited climate plan, the first of a series of talks on energy policy. The highlights:
* McCain favors a cap-and-trade program with roughly 15% reductions by 2020 and “at least” 60% by 2050.
* McCain will proposed giving allowances away for free, but over time an “increasing fraction” could be auctioned to raise revenue for infrastructure in the post-carbon economy.
* Regardless of what China and India do, “we still have an obligation to act.” McCain hopes to use “effective diplomacy” and technology transfer to motivate developing countries. (In the published version of the speech, McCain also alluded to trade restrictions on uncooperative countries, but he dropped those comments from the delivered version.)
* Heavy plug for nuclear energy, although — at least in this speech — no mention of subsidies. Instead, McCain just mentioned that carbon pricing will make the economics of nuclear energy more favorable. It’s unclear whether this represents a policy shift.
So, what to make of this? There are two very different ways to look at the speech: as a statement of principle or as a statement of policy.
As a statement of principle, the speech is watershed moment. McCain’s language was unequivocal:
> 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.
The speech provided an urgent enumeration of the dangers of global warming and mapped out a clear and credible set of principles for addressing the problem. In both tone and content, it marked dramatic departure with the current administration, and signaled that our next president, whoever that might be, will take the issue seriously.
As policy, the proposal is…OK. Decent, but not in any way bold, and certainly not as good as Clinton or Obama’s plan:
* McCain’s long-term reduction target of at least 60% is well below the level scientists deem necessary, and also below his rivals’ proposed cuts of 80%. It bears mentioning, though, that this long-term target isn’t really the most important element of a climate plan. Over the next forty years, more data about the pace and consequences of global warming will come to light, and these long-term targets will undoubtedly be adjusted many times.
* The short term targets are roughly in line with what the other candidates have proposed. This is a much more important figure, because it affects near term infrastructure decisions.
* Clinton and Obama both propose auctioning 100% of allowances, which is quite a bit better than McCain’s 0% auction. This issue doesn’t effect the stringency of the cap, but it does mean that McCain is giving away a large pot of money to polluters that could be put to much better uses.
We’ll have more to say about all of this over the coming days.
Update: Much more policy detail here. Not all of this stuff is easy to decipher (there’s a lot of politician-speak), but two points of clarification: 1) McCain does like subsidies for nukes, he just opposes calling them subsidies; 2) the plan is actually very vague on the question of auctioning allowances. It clearly indicates that some auctioning will take place, but places final allocation decisions in the hands of a future commission.