McCain on climate and energy

Barack Obama was the first to answer the questions put to the candidates by the Science Debate 2008 team, and now McCain has responded. As I did with Obama's, I will here deconstruct McCain's answers on climate and energy policy. My comments are italicized.

2. Climate Change. The Earth's climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on the following measures that have been proposed to address global climate change--a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax, increased fuel-economy standards, or research? Are there other policies you would support?

McCain: We know that greenhouse gas emissions, by retaining heat within the atmosphere, threaten disastrous changes in the climate. The same fossil-fuels that power our economic engine also produced greenhouse gases that retain heat and thus threaten to alter the global climate. No challenge of energy is to be taken lightly, and least of all, the need to avoid the consequences of global warming. The facts of global warming demand our urgent attention, especially in Washington. Good stewardship, prudence, and simple common sense demand that we act to meet the challenge, and act quickly.

An impressive opening statement, talking about what we know, the facts, and the need for common sense. Words like "disastrous," "urgent" and "quickly" suggest the man recognizes the scope of the challenge and, unlike his running mate, he also acknowledges the anthropogenic cause of the threat. Full points.

To dramatically reduce carbon emissions, I will institute a new cap-and-trade system that over time will change the dynamic of our energy economy.

But it doesn't take long to introduce some hedge phraseology. "Over time" will a cap-and-trade system reduce emissions. Not that anyone expects him to instantaneously solve the problem. But it's words like those that will reassure the powers that be that radical change won't be coming as fast as some want.

By the year 2012, we will seek a return to 2005 levels of emissions, by 2020, a return to 1990 levels, and so on until we have achieved at least a reduction of sixty percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050.

And the numbers back up that suspicion. Given the fact that emissions haven't actually risen much since 2005, thanks to improved efficiencies and a slow economy, it should be possible to bring them down to 2005 levels before 2012. But to be fair, the UN and many a climatologist are talking about letting emissions worldwide peak as late as 2015 before bring them down. So here McCain manages to stay ahead of the curve. But then he goes and sets an insufficient target of just 60% by 2050, even though 80, 90 or even 100% is closer to what's actually needed. Indeed, if we delay as long as some would suggest to get the ball rolling, we'll probabably need to embrace technologies that suck carbon out of the air even after we've stopped adding more, in order to avoid some the climate tipping points.

In doing this, we will transition into a low carbon energy future while promoting the technological innovations that keep us on a course of economic growth. The purpose of this approach is to give American businesses new incentives and rewards to seek cheaper emission reductions, instead of just new taxes to pay and new regulations to follow. This approach gives people time to adapt, instead of causing a sudden jolt to electricity bills and potential shutdowns of tradition (sic) coal-fired plants.

Again, more reassurance, but at the cost of consistency. A cap-and-trade system that actually works to bring down emissions will be one of the most burdensome regulatory frameworks ever introduced in the U.S., and yet McCain implies it will be an alternative to "new regulations." And it doesn't really matter how you crunch the numbers, there's no way to meet McCain's schedule without shutting down tradition(al) coal-fired plants.

I have long supported CAFE standards - the mileage requirements that automobile manufacturers' cars must meet. Some carmakers ignore these standards, pay a small financial penalty, and add it to the price of their cars. But I believe that the penalties for not following these standards must be effective enough to compel all carmakers to promote the development of fuel-efficient vehicles. I will strengthen the penalties for violating CAFE standards, and make certain they are effectively enforced.

Excellent. It would have been nice to give us an idea of just how strong his penalties would be, but it's the right idea.

To bolster research efforts, government must do more by opening new paths of invention and ingenuity. A McCain administration would establish a permanent research and development tax credit equal to ten percent of wages spent on R&D, to open the door to a new generation of environmental entrepreneurs. I am also committed to investing two billion dollars every year for the next 15 years on clean coal technologies, to unlock the potential of America's oldest and most abundant resource.

$30 billion on clean coal might actually do something. If it wasn't for the fact that there is no such thing as clean coal and never will be. Still got that pesky business with mountain-top removal to worry about. And the money could be much better spent on genuinely clean renewables. Obama's plan for $150 billion on clean renewables makes infinitely more sense.

And we will issue a Clean Car Challenge to automakers, in the form of a tax credit to the American people, for every automaker who can sell a zero-emission vehicle. We will commit up to a 5,000 dollar tax credit to each and every customer who buys that car.

Sounds great. But what about low-emissions cars like hybrids that are actually on the market? We had such credits, but Congress let them lapse. And McCain failed to vote to renew them eight times.

In the quest for alternatives to oil, our government has thrown around enough money subsidizing special interests and excusing failure. From now on, we will encourage heroic efforts in engineering, and we will reward the greatest success.

I have no idea what that means.

I further propose we inspire the ingenuity and resolve of the American people by offering a $300 million prize for the development of a battery package that has the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars. This is one dollar for every man, woman and child in the U.S. -- a small price to pay for helping to break the back of our oil dependency - and curb the dangerous effects of global climate change.

There's already an Automotive X Prize that will award millions for the first commercial car to break 100 mpg. Some have criticized these kinds of things, but I can't really see a problem. $300 million isn't all that much and the batteries are the Achilles heel of electric cars, so I see no reason not to hail this as a good idea. Except that batteries aren't a source of power, just a way to store it. Perhaps he should be offering $1 billion for the first solar PV array to break 30% efficiency, or something like that.

I will continue to support the US Global Change Research Program and ensure that the program's activities support the Nation's needs for climate related information to help it prepare for the future.

Well, one would hope so.

3. Energy. Many policymakers and scientists say energy security and sustainability are major problems facing the United States this century. What policies would you support to meet demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?

McCain: Over time, [there's that phrase again] I believe that we must reform our entire energy economy toward a sustainable mix of new and cleaner power sources that meet the multiple shared objective of promoting environmental, economic and national security. One of the prevailing issues of our time and the next presidency will be how to deal with the issues of energy security and sustainability. It is important that we shift to sustainable, clean burning energy sources or advance to technologies that make our more traditional resources cleaner burning.

Here, here.

As President, I will put the country on track to building 45 new reactors by 2030 so that we can meet our growing energy demand and reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases. Nuclear power is a proven, domestic, zero-emission source of energy and it is time to recommit to advancing our use of nuclear energy.

Well, not exactly zero-emissions. There's still emissions associated with mining, refining and shipping uranium, and then building the reactors. But it is lower than fossil-fuels. Forty-five reactors in 22 years is probably as fast as the world's industry can build them. Some estimates say there's only sufficient capacity for two a year, so this is theoretically possible, but at $5 billion to $7 billion reactor, that's a lot of money up front for a technology that still requires government subsidies and insurance. Can we really afford such an expensive plan?

The U.S. has not started construction on a new nuclear power plant in over 30 years. Currently, nuclear power provides 20 percent of our overall energy portfolio. Other countries such as China, India and Russia are looking to increase the role of nuclear power in their energy portfolio and the U.S. should not just look to maintain, but increase its own use.

I can't think why what other countries like China, India and Russia are doing is a good reason to follow in their footsteps.

In the progress of other alternative energy sources -- such as wind, solar, geothermal, tide, and hydroelectric --government must be an ally but not an arbiter. In less than a generation, wind power alone could account for a fifth or more of all our electricity. And just in recent memory, solar energy has gone from a novelty to a fast-growing industry.

Yes, in spite of your efforts to oppose them.

I've voted against the current patchwork of tax credits for renewable power because they were temporary, and often the result of who had the best lobbyist instead of who had the best ideas. But the objective itself was right and urgent. And when I'm signing laws, instead of casting one of a hundred votes, I intend to see that objective better served. We will reform this effort so that it is fair, rational, and permanent, letting the market decide which ideas can move us toward clean and renewable energy.

So the problem isn't the technology, it's the economic philosophy? Let the market decide? Because that's worked so well so far, hasn't it?

I will also commit the federal government to a prosperous clean technology agenda and to becoming the world leader in green technologies. Americans have always been the world's leaders in innovation, and it's time for our economy to adapt and take an active role in the new green international economy.

Umm, no we haven't. Japan and Germany long ago surpassed the U.S. for solar panel use. The world's largest wind turbine maker is Danish. And we've got the lowest fuel-efficiency standards for our auto fleet in the industrialized world. So, by all means, let's become leaders, but we won't do it without recognizing the mistakes of the past.

These investments by government into basic research along with aggressive and realistic targets for greenhouse gas emissions will be critical in spurring revolutionary innovations in energy that will, over the long term, reduce energy costs and increase economic growth.

Yadda yadda yadda. Bottom line: If you believe, the evidence of history to the contrary, that the free market can tap into the ingenuity and drive of the American people to solve the climate and energy crises, then you should vote for John McCain. If you believe government should play a stronger role, vote for the other guy.


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I read the McCain response just after it was issued. I doubt that he had anything to do with writing those answers -- it was probably produced by a cadre of campaign writers. Palliative political phoniness, but that's something we'll just have to get used to, I suppose...

McCain's 'support' for CAFE standards is quite debatable. He's been supportive enough to piss off Detroit but hardly 'consistent', especially in recent years.

Thanks for the post. I find it much easier to read the responses with your comments interlaced... Otherwise my eyes really start to glaze over and my BS detector rapidly gets stuck.

Thanks for this. I will post a link on my blog. Now lets see how Palin answers these questions, I am especially interested in the one about the role of religion in science classes