Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Climate change, election change

McCain thinks a cap-and-trade market would improve the economics of nuclear power.


It's been a swell few months for the Republican base since John McCain wrapped up the nomination. Democrats have disemboweled themselves in a titanic clash that pits Barack Obama's hope against Hillary Clinton's history. The Clintons have shown their true colors in helping voters to see Obama's. Republicans have reunited in a way that was unthinkable just months ago, although, as McCain told me this week, there's still "re-energizing to do."

Monday's global warming speech at Vestas Wind Technology likely won't help. Then again, it probably wasn't supposed to. Re-energizing the base is so primary season. Monday was the start of the general election campaign for McCain. That means courting moderates, independents and Democrats—appealing to the center—which has been McCain's strength.

And this will drive the GOP's conservative base bonkers—even as it also makes McCain the most electable Republican presidential candidate in this most un-Republican of years.

"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."

I could have been at an Obama or Clinton speech or an Al Gore PowerPoint presentation. But, no, there was the presumptive GOP nominee, declaring the climate-change debate over and environmental doom on the way unless we act now.

Yes, it takes getting used to if you're skeptical about (a) man-made global warming or (b) man's ability to reverse global warming in any real way without job-killing, GDP-reducing, income-lowering government mandates.

But then, this speech wasn't for the skeptics, and it was only partially for those worried about pesky costs and benefits. It was for voters in the middle of the climate-change debate—voters who want action but may not be comfortable with the stands of Obama or Clinton and their allies among the extreme-green environmental groups.

McCain talks up his plan to cap and trade greenhouse gas emissions as a market-oriented approach, but it would still involve the government's giving companies allowances (caps) for carbon emissions. The companies could trade unused allowances with other companies that need more allowances. Extra allowances would also be available through government auction.

Yes, as McCain says, this would unleash the forces of American innovation, since companies would have extra incentives to move away from carbon-based fuels. But this new market would still involve a heavy government presence in our energy economy and cost industry and consumers big bucks.

McCain believes his plan differs from Obama's and Clinton's in key respects. They "want to mandate certain winners and losers," and this "clearly means more big government." Also, he wants nuclear power to be part of the answer to reducing greenhouse gases: "I don't see how you get there without nuclear."

It's easy to see why. As he pointed out, our 104 nuclear reactors produce about 20 percent of our electricity, and no greenhouse gas emissions. Without them, another 700 million tons of carbon dioxide would go up into the sky each year. That equals almost all emissions from U.S. cars. Imagine if nuclear energy produced more than half of our electricity, as it does in France. McCain thinks a cap-and-trade market would improve the economics of nuclear power.

He understands conservative discomfort with him on whether man-made global warming is a reality, but he asks this question: Even if I'm wrong, what do we lose by going in this direction? His answer: We'll still have cut our dependence on foreign oil, which is "a national security issue." Beyond this, he says, "I hope they will look at what is fundamentally a market approach."

If none of this proves satisfying, GOP conservatives may have to find other reasons to perk up in the general election campaign. One, this is the kind of bipartisan centrism that comes naturally to McCain and that voters find appealing. Two, there's this other inconvenient truth: McCain will be the GOP presidential nominee and his global warming policy—much like his larger presidential candidacy—beats the Democratic alternative.

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