No climate for old men

Why John McCain is not the candidate to stop global warming.

Published February 8, 2008 12:04PM (EST)

Sen. John McCain is the only GOP candidate who believes in the science of global warming and who has proposed specific legislation that mandates a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, especially carbon dioxide. That said, a President McCain would not be the climate leader that America and the world requires.

As increasingly desperate climate scientists have been telling us, the effects of global warming are occurring faster than anyone had thought possible.

The next president must make reducing GHG emissions a central focus of his or her administration if we want to avoid the worst impacts of global warming: catastrophic sea level rise, widespread drought and desertification, and loss of up to 70 percent of all species.

While McCain may understand the scale of the climate problem, he does not appear to understand the scale of the solution. He understands the country needs to put in place a mandatory cap on GHG emissions and a trading system to energize American innovation. But in a recent Republican debate, he denied that a cap and trade system is a mandate, even though it would arguably be the most far-reaching government mandate ever legislated.

Moreover, like most conservatives, he doesn't understand or accept the critical role government must play to make that system succeed. Besides initiating a cap-and-trade system, the next president must:

1. Appoint judges who won't gut climate-change efforts.

2. Appoint leaders and staff of key federal agencies who take climate change seriously and believe in the necessary solutions.

3. Embrace an aggressive and broad-based technology deployment strategy to keep the cost of the cap-and-trade system as low as possible.

4. Lead a change in utility regulations to encourage, rather than discourage, energy efficiency and clean energy.

5. Offer strong public advocacy to reverse the years of muzzling and misinformation of the Bush administration.

Let's start with judges. McCain has said that given the chance he will appoint Supreme Court justices like Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and John Roberts. Given that liberal Justice John Paul Stevens is 87 and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 74, he will likely have that chance, especially if he becomes a two-term president.

Yet last year, the conservative justices almost thwarted the majority in the landmark Massachusetts v. EPA case, in which the court decided 5-4 that the EPA has the authority and responsibility to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Justice Scalia, in his dissent (joined by Roberts, Thomas and Alito), argues that carbon dioxide, "which is alleged to be causing global climate change," is in fact not an air pollutant. All four conservative justices accept and repeat almost all of the EPA's laughable arguments. In one example, the conservative justices point out that the majority offers this requirement:

"If," the court says, "the scientific uncertainty is so profound that it precludes EPA from making a reasoned judgment as to whether greenhouse gases contribute to global warming, EPA must say so." Scalia and company continue that the "EPA has said precisely that -- and at great length, based on information contained in a 2001 report by the National Research Council (NRC)."

Although the NRC report -- which is over 6 years old now -- does talk about uncertainties, it opens by saying bluntly:

Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Temperatures are, in fact, rising. The changes observed over the last several decades are likely mostly due to human activities...

The IPCC's conclusion that most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations accurately reflects the current thinking of the scientific community on this issue.

No rational person could possibly cite the NRC report as evidence that "the scientific uncertainty is so profound" that the EPA can't make a "reasoned judgment as to whether greenhouse gases contribute to global warming." The fact that Scalia, Roberts, Thomas and Alito swallow all of the Bush EPA's absurd arguments without question is clear evidence that, like many conservatives, they are not open to rational argument or scientific evidence on matters related to climate change. One more conservative judge, let alone two, and the court will be effectively pro-warming, perhaps for decades.

Avoiding catastrophic climate change will require sweeping legislation that covers every sector of the economy. A McCain-stacked court led by Chief Justice Roberts will rule against any ambiguous or incomplete laws regulating GHG emissions in the commercial, industrial, utility, residential, transportation or agricultural sectors. That in turn will force Congress to write laws that are detailed and specific, but that are also overly intrusive, overly prescriptive, less flexible, less capable of stimulating innovation and hence politically unpopular.

Just as important as judicial appointments is the selection of Cabinet members and staff for federal agencies who execute the laws of the land. Secretaries of energy, treasury, state, agriculture and commerce, the head of the EPA, their senior staff, along with White House senior staff, are key players in the fight against global warming. Can we achieve significant domestic reductions of GHGs, and lead the world to significant production of sustainable energy, if most of those appointees are people who do not believe in the reality of global warming and the central role that government plays in solving the problem? Of course not.

Let me give an example from the Department of Energy, where I once worked. It is the agency most responsible for working with businesses to develop and deploy -- and oversee -- the energy sources and technologies that cause climate change and that are needed to solve global warming. Starting in 2001, the Bush administration appointed typical conservatives to run the agency. What did they do?

Like most conservatives going back to Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, they didn't believe the government had a major role in accelerating the deployment of clean technologies. So they gutted most of the clean tech deployment programs and shut down the partnership with U.S. automakers to develop hybrid cars, leaving the field to the Japanese. They launched a very large, very long-term effort to develop hydrogen fuel cell cars (which had no chance to help the U.S. cost effectively reduce GHG emissions by 2050), and funded it in part by slashing the main federal government effort to work with big energy-using companies to develop and deploy near-term energy-efficient technologies. And recently, we saw that they mismanaged and ultimately shut down their centerpiece clean-coal effort, FutureGen.

The problem for McCain is that the conservative pool of potential appointees who believe in global warming and the government role in its solution is tiny -- perhaps nonexistent. So McCain will either have to appoint moderate Cabinet secretaries and staff like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Christine Todd Whitman, further alienating him from the GOP conservative base, or appoint people who are incapable of overseeing the effort needed to arrest global warming.

That's assuming McCain even understands what is truly needed, which -- based on his recent remarks and legislation -- I doubt. After all, he has a lifetime 26 (out of 100) ranking by the nonpartisan environmental group the League of Conservation Voters. Conspicuously absent from his campaign Web site is any serious explanation of how he would address global warming. In contrast, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have offered specific policies that advance both renewable power and energy efficiency, including a budget for clean technology development and deployment that rivals, appropriately, the Manhattan Project or Apollo program.

The only technological solution to global warming that McCain consistently advocates is nuclear power. In his signature environmental legislation, the 2007 Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act, written with Joe Lieberman, McCain wants to devote a remarkable $3.7 billion in federal subsidies to nuclear power plants. According to an analysis by U.S. PIRG, a federation of public interest groups, the money would go for "engineering and design costs, loans and loan guarantees for building three new plants, and direct financial awards for new projects."

Yet when Grist asked McCain, "What's your position on subsidies for green technologies like wind and solar?" he said:

"I'm not one who believes that we need to subsidize things. The wind industry is doing fine, the solar industry is doing fine. In the '70s, we gave too many subsidies and too much help, and we had substandard products sold to the American people, which then made them disenchanted with solar for a long time."

Incredible. Nuclear power, a mature technology that provides 20 percent of U.S. electricity, must be heavily subsidized -- even after more than $66 billion in federal subsidies since World War II (five times what was spent on renewable and eight times what was spent on efficiency, according to the Congressional Research Service). But subsidize solar photovoltaics, a rapidly evolving technology that comprises 0.1 percent of U.S. electricity? No, we can't help them.

McCain then continues with words that put him right in the Reagan-Gingrich-Bush camp of skeptics of government-led clean technology:

"The government can help with pure research and development, whether it be on climate and greenhouse-gas emissions or development of the Internet. But there's a point where you should let the free-enterprise system take over."

That conservative view, of course, applies only to renewable and energy-efficient technologies. Last year, conservatives in the Senate blocked what might be considered a modest down payment on a serious clean technology effort: increasing funds for energy efficiency and renewables, $22 billion of which would have been paid for by reducing subsidies for oil production. Kind of a no-brainer for someone fighting climate change, especially given that oil prices and oil industry profits are both at record levels. McCain missed the vote, and "a spokesperson said that he would not have supported breaking the filibuster."

That view of clean tech, enforced by conservative presidents and legislators for a quarter-century, is precisely why the U.S. -- the leader in solar and wind technology development and use in 1980 -- has ceded technology and marketplace leadership to Japan, a variety of European countries, and even China in the crucial carbon-reducing, job-creating clean industries of this century.

So what about energy efficiency, probably the most important greenhouse gas reduction strategy? A recent study by McKinsey & Co. found that energy-efficiency measures for buildings and industry could allow this country to achieve deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at a negative cost -- the exact same finding the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made in 2007. McKinsey concluded, however, that achieving such low- and no-cost reductions "will require strong, coordinated, economy-wide action that begins in the near future."

McCain occasionally talks about the benefits of energy efficiency. But he seldom details any specific policies, let alone "strong coordinated, economy-wide action."

His 2007 Climate Stewardship Act includes a section called "Measures to Increase Energy Efficiency." Measures? There is only one:

"The Secretary of Energy shall establish a program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the deployment of energy efficiency measures, including appropriate technologies, by large commercial customers by providing for energy audits. The program shall provide incentives for large users of electricity or natural gas to obtain an energy audit."

Energy audits? He must be joking. Having spent two decades working with businesses to help them adopt energy-efficient technologies, I can state unequivocally that energy audits qualify as a weak, uncoordinated, narrowly targeted action. They will barely have any impact, especially when it comes to large commercial users who can already afford them. And let's hope by "commercial" he means "commercial and industrial," as it's large industrial users that have the largest opportunities for energy savings.

The DOE does have a terrific program that does audits for small and medium-size industrial companies that typically can't afford them. McCain seems unaware of the program, given the obvious thing to do in his legislation would be to expand that successful but underfunded program. But then McCain seems unaware of most elements of a genuine energy-efficiency strategy.

To see what a real, sustained energy-efficiency effort looks like, consider California. In terms of electricity consumption, the average Californian generates less than one-third of the carbon dioxide emissions of the average American, while paying the same annual electricity bill. Where the rest of the U.S. has seen electricity per person rise 60 percent in the past three decades, it has been flat in California. The state accomplished this remarkable achievement through:

  • The strongest building-energy codes in the country.
  • A state energy commission that helps oversee considerable subsidies and deployment programs for energy efficiency and renewable energy.
  • The toughest air pollution regulations in the country.
  • Smart utility regulations.

The companies best suited to accelerate deployment of energy-efficiency technologies are electric utilities. The biggest obstacle to their leadership on efficiency is not lack of energy audits, it is that most utilities in this country make profits only by selling more electricity and building more power plants. So, naturally, that's what they try to do. California, and a few other states, changed the utility regulations to decouple electricity sales from profits. That allows them to make money by saving energy, and do so at a net cost far lower to them and their customers than building new power plants.

The energy plans of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton seek to change electric utility regulations and toughen appliance standards. Both would set standards for renewable power and fuels. Both would spend $150 billion over 10 years on developing and deploying clean technology, green buildings and advanced electric grid infrastructure.

McCain believes the most important strategy is a "cap and trade" system that creates a price for carbon dioxide in the form of a tradable emissions permit, with the goal of mobilizing the marketplace to solve the climate problem. Yet while a cap-and-trade system is necessary to solve the climate problem, it is not sufficient. Indeed, if you adopt a cap-and-trade system without an aggressive federal effort to encourage the deployment of clean technologies, you are almost sure to fail politically, probably sooner than later.

A price for carbon does encourage switching fuel from traditional coal to nuclear power, renewables and advanced coal with carbon capture and storage. But it is far less effective in spurring energy efficiency in the electricity sector or emissions reductions in the important transportation sector. Well-crafted and well-funded government efforts to develop and deploy clean tech, including smart energy regulations, would be far more successful. In fact, large efficiency savings are cost effective today, as California and a few other states and companies have shown. But when government encourages utilities to build and sell more power plants, it works against efficiency.

Most traditional economic models take a similarly flawed and incomplete approach. They don't typically model the huge efficiency opportunity because they view it as contrary to standard economic theory, which says the economy is always operating efficiently. That's a key reason those models usually require a high (politically unacceptable) price for carbon to get deep emissions reductions. Over the next couple of years, you will see an unending stream of such models, some funded by fossil fuel companies, and some from credible-seeming places like the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), all designed to scare the public into opposing serious action on climate.

How scary will the models be? In 1998, EIA concluded that merely meeting the Kyoto target would require a 7 percent reduction below 1990 levels of greenhouse gases by 2008-12. Achieving that reduction strictly through domestic reductions in energy-related emissions would require the price of carbon to reach politically impossible levels, $348 per metric ton, which, in the EIA analysis, doubles the price for electricity.

That price for carbon would raise gasoline prices by approximately 90 cents a gallon. Yet that spike wouldn't drive much efficiency or fuel switching, just as the recent price jump from $2 a gallon to $3 didn't. Also note that $348 a metric ton of carbon would add over 9 cents per kilowatt hour for traditional coal, tripling or quadrupling the cost of power from existing plants, rendering them uneconomical.

The EIA model is flawed and incomplete, and contradicted by technology-based analyses used by McKinsey and cited by the IPCC. But imagine if we adopted cap and trade without an aggressive efficiency and clean-tech deployment effort: Long before the big price hikes, long before overall electricity prices would double -- perhaps during the first recession after a cap-and-trade system was adopted -- businesses and consumers would demand the price be capped, or the program shut down entirely. Thus pouring all your political capital into a cap-and-trade system, as McCain is likely to do, is destined to fail to arrest global warming.

But what about his silver-bullet technology solution? As he said last year, "I think we need to go nuclear power, I think we need to do it heavily."

Let's say that McCain's policy focuses on building nuclear plants, not efficiency, and somehow we build 100 new nuclear power plants, plus replacements for existing plants, by 2050. Those nuclear power plants would still deliver under 10 percent of the total energy used by the country. What are the chances of building 200 nuclear power plants over the next four decades in this country? Not bloody high. How about building five times that number worldwide, as would be needed for nuclear to comprise even 10 percent of the global GHG solution. Not gonna happen. We will no doubt build some new nuclear plants -- as will the world -- but it is no silver bullet, and cannot hope to make the same contribution that energy efficiency can at one-quarter the price and with no long-term waste or proliferation concerns.

Given the lost Bush decade, avoiding catastrophic global warming will be one of the most difficult things this country and the world has ever accomplished. Only mandated emissions reductions coupled with aggressive federal tech deployment strategies (managed by appointees who believe in climate change and those strategies) can save future generations from a ruined planet. Only strong and consistent public advocacy by the next president and his entire administration, along with Congress, can reverse the years of muzzling and misinformation of the Bush administration and its conservative allies.

McCain does not appear to be that advocate. He is a conservative who happens to be on the only intellectually defensible side of the climate change debate. But he is still a conservative, and the vast majority of the solutions to global warming are progressive in nature -- they require strong government action, including major federal efforts to spur clean technology. McCain will inevitably appoint to key positions a great many conservatives who are skeptical of global warming and government-driven solutions. And he has promised to oversee the transition to a smaller government -- which will be inevitable if he slashes spending in order to make the Bush tax cuts permanent while funding the Iraq war for the duration of his presidency.

McCain belongs in the Senate, where he is a rare conservative vote for action on climate change. But a President McCain is not likely to be the leader this country and the world needs to maintain the planet's livability for our children and the next 50 generations.

By Joseph Romm

Joseph Romm is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he oversees He is the author of "Hell and High Water: Global Warming -- The Solution and the Politics." Romm served as acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy in 1997. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from MIT.

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Energy Environment Global Warming John Mccain R-ariz.