Politics & Government

McCain on global warming: Strong warnings, few details

The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in Avian Beach, California in 2001.
The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in Avian Beach, California in 2001. David Middlecamp / San Jose Mercury News

WASHINGTON — Since his last try for the presidency in 2000, John McCain has listened closely to the evidence on global warming, agreed with scientists that pollution is much to blame and concluded that the United States must limit its emissions from fossil fuels.

As he campaigns now as the presumptive Republican nominee, the Arizona senator still warns that climate change could be devastating unless the United States acts — but he isn't spelling out details.

His broad position is clear. In 2003, he sponsored legislation aimed at creating a system to cap the pollution and set up tradable rights to emit it. He pushed for a big role for nuclear energy. He's said that U.S. policy must meet the goals that scientists outline, but also mustn't unduly damage the economy.

However, McCain is staying out of the nitty-gritty of how regulators would cushion shocks to industry and consumers. He hasn't declared support for the highly detailed cap and trade bill sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, an independent Democrat from Connecticut, and John Warner, R-Va., that the Senate will debate in June.

While environmentalists give McCain credit for early leadership in Washington on limiting greenhouse gas emissions, some say that it's impossible to know how he'd lead on global warming if he's elected.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a senior McCain adviser, said the senator was busy campaigning and was no longer the lead sponsor of the legislation, so it wasn't unusual that he hadn't disclosed specific views. He said that McCain's main argument that mandatory limits were needed hadn't changed.

"The important thing to recognize is that he prefers the cap and trade approach because it marries the environmental objective of a cap with the fundamental incentive of the markets to decide the best way to go and meet that cap," Holtz-Eakin said.

When McCain introduced his latest version of a cap and trade plan in January 2007, he warned: "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."

His 2007 bill would reduce U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions by about two-thirds of 2004 levels by 2050. The Lieberman-Warner plan would reduce them by about 70 percent from 2005 levels by 2050. Scientists have said that global emissions must decline sharply for the world to have a chance of avoiding dangerous climate dislocation, including a decline of 80 percent from 2000 levels by midcentury in the United States and other developed countries.

McCain's approach to containing costs would be to allow short-term increases in emissions during periods of economic distress as long as they'd be made up later, Holtz-Eakin said.

McCain also said in 2007 that limiting greenhouse gas emissions must be "based on sound science" and "produce necessary outcomes."

One big change that he'd like to see in the Lieberman-Warner bill is more explicit support for nuclear energy.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who'll oversee the Lieberman-Warner bill as the chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said it was important that McCain and Democratic contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama supported the idea of a cap and trade system to reduce emissions. "This is the wind on our back," Boxer said.

McCain's interest in climate change goes back to the 2000 presidential primary in New Hampshire, when he heard lots of questions about it. He returned to Washington and, as the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, invited scientists to explain how the Earth was warming slowly.

"Most other hearings at the time, under Republican control, were with people who thought there was nothing to climate change. They were stacked with professional skeptics," said Manik Roy, the director of congressional affairs at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, a policy research group that works with businesses.

McCain's push for votes on cap and trade bills was "shockingly bold" at the time, Roy said. The bills failed, twice.

A cap and trade plan puts a limit on overall emissions and lowers it each year. Government regulators give or sell permits to emit set amounts of pollution. Companies that find cleaner energy and emit less pollution can sell their allowances to those that need to emit more.

John Profeta, the director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University, was a key staffer on global warming for Lieberman until 2005. He said that both McCain and Lieberman were closely involved in developing the legislation.

"I feel John McCain genuinely understands the issue and feels it's important," said Chris Miller, a Greenpeace spokesman in Washington. "Where he'd come down as president — 60 percent or 85 percent (decreases by midcentury) — I don't have a sense for that. The scale of what he's talking about is in the right direction, but I also think we need to adjust the targets based on what we learn from science."

Nick Berning, a spokesman for the environmental group Friends of the Earth, said that the cap and trade legislation McCain sponsored last year was too weak because the target by 2050 was too low, pollution from some parts of the economy wasn't covered and too many permits would be given away free to industries.

"He's not supporting the types of solutions we need," Berning said. "He's way behind the curve in providing the leadership that's needed."

Berning also criticized McCain's position on the need for a new global-warming treaty.

McCain put his view this way in a video on his campaign Web site:

"I believe that if we could get China and India into it, then the United States should seriously consider, on our terms, joining with every other nation in the world to try to reduce greenhouse gases. It's got to be a global effort."

That approach makes the United States a follower rather than a leader, Berning said.

Jim DiPeso of Republicans for Environmental Protection, which backs McCain, said the senator would make reducing greenhouse gas emissions a priority if he were elected.

DiPeso said it was savvy of McCain not to pin himself down on specific reduction targets or other measures in the Lieberman-Warner bill. "Things are still very fluid in the Senate," DiPeso said. "It's hard to say what mix of policies will work."

"Climate is much more than just an environmental issue," he said. "Steps taken to address climate change would have the spinoff benefits of reducing our country's dangerous oil dependence and developing new energy industries."

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