Green Room

Ducking the Climate Debate

Are McCain and Obama serious about global warming?

Barack Obama and John McCain. Click image to expand
Barack Obama and John McCain

Late in the afternoon of June 5, the Senate was debating the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, which is to say the Senate chamber was almost empty, and the strongest global-warming bill ever to move in Congress was almost dead. Both sides were trying to whip the vote for a make-or-break procedural motion while the bill’s leading opponent, James “Global Warming Is a Hoax” Inhofe, was rasping out a floor speech full of arguments for inaction. Across the aisle, the bill’s floor manager, Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., shuffled papers at her desk, doing her best to ignore Inhofe.

That’s when Boxer’s chief of staff hurried over and whispered in her ear. Boxer ducked into the cloakroom, picked up a phone, and had a quick talk with Sen. Barack Obama. When Boxer returned to the floor, she announced that Obama would enter a statement saying that “if he were able to be present,” he would be voting in support of the bill.

For those who have been waiting anxiously for Washington to take action on the climate crisis, this is what passes for presidential leadership these days: a candidate phoning it in on the most important global-warming vote of the year. (The sitting president, of course, was doing everything he could to kill the climate bill, issuing a veto threat that helped galvanize Republican opposition.) A similar proto-presidential moment came the next day, just before the big vote, when Joe Lieberman, the lapsed Democrat from Connecticut, announced that Sen. John McCain wouldn’t be showing up, either, but that he, too, would have voted to move the bill forward.

Lieberman-Warner is dead now—defeated by a wide margin in the vote Obama and McCain missed—but its approach to controlling global-warming pollution, known as “cap and trade,” lives on. Both candidates support cap and trade, which would set mandatory carbon reductions and create a market for carbon permits, making companies pay for the right to pollute. McCain sponsored two important early cap-and-trade bills, in 2003 and 2005; Obama joined him as a co-sponsor of the latter. Both have reason to campaign on the issue because it matters to the independent voters whose support they need to get elected. And for McCain, climate change is especially good politics: Bucking his party on the issue appeals to his sense of personal drama and offers his best evidence that he’s not Just Like Bush. “I will not shirk the mantle of leadership,” he vowed in a climate speech last month in Oregon. “I will not permit eight long years to pass without serious action.”

So, how come neither he nor Obama showed up for the big debate?

McCain was under massive pressure from party leaders not to appear. The Republicans were using delay tactics to obstruct Lieberman-Warner, calling it the “Boxer Climate Tax Bill” and claiming it would wreck the economy; the last thing Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted to see was McCain riding in on a white horse to step on their story line. For McCain, that meant passing up an opportunity to burnish his maverick brand with climate-sensitive swing voters. But since large swaths of the GOP base are climate skeptics and this bill wasn’t getting a serious debate anyway, being a no-show was the low-risk option. So, brave Sir John left his gallant steed in the stable and went to some fundraisers instead.

Obama had other reasons to duck the debate. After pleasing the environmental left in the primaries with his strong, detailed climate policy, he is showing signs of regarding the issue as a liability for the general election. As America’s economic troubles mount, the stump time he devotes to climate change dwindles. Maybe that’s because cap and trade will boost energy prices over the short term, at a time when voters are in deep economic distress and apoplectic about the price of gasoline.

But for Obama, cap and trade is the best way to reduce dependence on foreign oil and lower energy prices over the long term. (By putting a price on carbon, cap and trade offers built-in incentives to all clean energy sources.) It would impose a relatively modest upfront cost to get that done—2 cents per gallon of gas per year between now and 2030, according to the EPA—and that’s a deal worth taking. Will Obama have the guts to make the argument? He has stood up to political posturing over energy prices before. In April, when McCain announced his gas-tax holiday and Clinton rushed to embrace it, Obama called it what it was: an empty pander that would do nothing to solve the problem.

Cap and trade isn’t just the key to Obama’s climate and energy policy; it’s a crucial plank in his economic policy as well. When he talks about investing “in the research and innovation necessary to create the jobs and industries of the future right here in America,” as he did in his economic address this week in Raleigh, N.C., cap and trade is his unspoken vehicle—the unmarked armored car that delivers the cash. It is by auctioning pollution credits that Obama would raise most of the $150 billion he proposes to invest in alternative energy over the next 10 years, a policy that he said would “end our addiction on foreign oil, provide real long-term relief from high fuel costs, and build a green economy that could create up to five million well-paying jobs that can’t be outsourced.” But in the Raleigh speech, these worthy and crowd-pleasing goals were divorced from cap and trade, which was never mentioned, and from the climate crisis, which merited only a brief nod.

Obama will get another crack at the subject June 16, when he delivers a speech on his long-term economic agenda. He’ll have a chance to frame the debate on his terms, linking high energy costs and dependence on foreign oil to the climate crisis and its cap-and-trade solution. If he leaves climate and cap and trade out of the equation again, it will be a signal that his campaign has decided the issue hurts him more than it helps. If that happens, it may mean that economic distress has driven climate off the agenda entirely. And that would be terrible news—because if Obama or McCain intend to take quick action upon entering the White House, they need to lay the groundwork now.

Two things could put climate back on the agenda by fall. One would be a run of heavy weather—the heat waves, droughts, and hurricanes that argue eloquently to Americans that the climate problem is real and that inaction will cost far more than action. And the other would be McCain. He’s planning to talk about energy issues next week, and whenever he needs to put more daylight between himself and Bush, you can be sure he will turn to the climate—and Obama will reflexively move to block him. (“Global warming?” Obama said the other day. “I don’t care what he says, John McCain is not going to push that agenda hard.”) That might just lead to real debate since there are important differences between the two candidates when it comes to climate solutions.

While Obama sees a role for nuclear power if the safety and waste-disposal issues can be solved, for example, McCain has an extravagant belief in its ability to deliver us from climate catastrophe. “If France can produce 80 percent of its electricity with nuclear power,” he has said, “why can’t we?” The reason, as influential climate blogger Joseph Romm has pointed out, is that getting there would require the United States to build 500 nuclear power stations between now and 2050—one a month!—and that’s assuming no increase in electricity demand.

When McCain isn’t indulging his nuclear fantasies, he favors—as does Obama—a balanced approach that would make use of all the low-carbon energy technologies. But McCain says he is “a little wary” of additional government programs to subsidize them (except for nuclear) because they can have “unintended consequences.” He has voted against requiring electric utilities to generate a percentage of their power from alternative energy sources, and last winter he sat on his campaign plane at Dulles Airport rather than cast a deciding vote in favor of clean-energy tax incentives.

McCain wants to be a free-market climate doctor: create a market for carbon pollution through cap and trade and then let it work its magic, using the profit motive to drive clean-energy technology. But markets aren’t perfect, and McCain has already carved out a nuclear caveat, and it’s likely he will add others over time. He favors tax incentives for R&D on the capture and storage of CO2 from coal-fired power plants, for example, and this technology needs to be fast-tracked since half our electricity comes from coal. So look for McCain to come out for advanced coal subsidies before the fall.

Obama is already there. He believes that to accelerate the transition to a clean-energy economy, we’ll need both cap and trade and an aggressive package of federal investments, targets, and performance mandates, including big spending on carbon capture and storage. And even on cap and trade itself, there are important differences between the candidates. Obama is for tougher emissions-reduction targets than McCain, and he would auction off the system’s pollution credits where McCain would give many of them away, which his critics call a windfall for polluters. Unlike Obama, McCain would also let polluters meet their emission-reduction targets by buying unlimited verified “offsets”—reductions achieved outside the cap-and-trade system. That’s controversial—the international offset system has been rife with corruption—but it’s worth debating. All of these distinctions matter; here’s hoping the candidates argue about them vociferously in the months ahead. Because the Senate just booted the opportunity for an honest climate debate, and we’re running out of chances.