McCain’s climate plan falls short

If nothing else, John McCain has got chutzpah. It takes stones, after all, to steadfastly vote against green energy legislation - then stand in front of a massive wind turbine and promise to save the planet. That’s precisely what McCain did yesterday in Oregon, rolling out a carefully calibrated environmental plan intended to woo independent voters without altogether alienating his conservative base.

McCain pitched his plan - essentially a rehash of the cap-and-trade system he proposed back in 2003 - as a third way between the outright climate denial of the Bush years and the more ambitious climate strategies offered by his opponents. “One extreme thinks high taxes and crippling regulation is the solution; another denies the problem even exists,” he announced in a campaign ad accompanying yesterday’s speech. “There's a better way.”

As Victoria noted yesterday, it’s refreshing to see a GOP candidate acknowledge climate change, let alone try to tackle the problem: If we take the Bush presidency as our benchmark, the fact that McCain even has a climate strategy is genuinely revolutionary. Unfortunately, though, McCain’s “better way” is pretty small beer: Where McCain’s Democratic rivals would aim to reduce carbon emissions to 80 percent of 1990 levels by mid-century, McCain would aim only for a 60 percent cut - well short of the level of reduction scientists say is needed to halt climate change.

He’d also include a number of business-friendly provisions that would further reduce the impact of his plan. Companies would be allowed to make unlimited use of foreign carbon-offsetting operations, making it far harder to ensure genuine emission reductions. Worse still, McCain would give companies a starter-pack of free carbon credits based on their past emissions records, ensuring massive windfall profits for big polluters and introducing an extra layer of pork for politicians and polluters to scrabble over.

McCain might have done better to propose a straight-up carbon tax. That would have sliced through the “crippling regulation” of a cap-and-trade system, and allowed him to present himself as a straight-talking maverick opposed to hidden taxes, big government, and pork-barrel politics. Instead, he offered up a heavily diluted version of the plans already set out by his Democratic rivals: good enough to convince a few independent voters, perhaps, but hardly worthy of a politician who used to be a genuine environmental hero.