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During his 1999 bid for the Republican presidential nomination, the New York Times reported that John McCain told a group of college students that there was still a lot he didn't know about global warming. "I don't claim to be an expert on the issue," he said.
That's a brave and surprisingly humble admission from anyone running for national office. But he didn't let that lack of knowledge stop him from spending the next eight years pushing bad policy on the issue.
Throughout this week's campaign-trail stops, several of which focused or touched on environmental issues, he hasn't stopped. On Monday, he showed up in the Portland, Oregon specifically to talk about climate change. There, he announced that the country "stand[s] warned by serious and credible scientists across the world that time is short and the dangers are great. The most relevant question now is whether our own government is equal to the challenge."
With these words, McCain proved that he has bought into the most catastrophic scenarios proffered by the environmental left, and that he has just as equally accepted their preferred response: the heavy hand of government.
It's telling that he chose the environmental haven of Portland to deliver the speech. As the first American city to adopt measures to curb global warming, it's one of the most green-obsessed cities in the country. The symbolic message to conservatives is clear: I'm with the other side.
THE PROBLEM, HOWEVER, is that what McCain is offering to address climate change is, for most part, pure symbolism -- and expensive symbolism at that.
The science of the matter -- whether global warming is happening and how much damage it will cause -- is almost entirely superfluous, for even if one buys into the most apocalyptic predictions about warming's effects, McCain's approach is unlikely to have a significant effect on global temperatures. It will, on the other hand, raise taxes, make energy more expensive, and provide a raft of subsidies to energy lobbyists.
McCain's global warming plan offers a variation on what's known as a "cap-and-trade" plan. The basic idea is that the government sets an overall limit to the amount of carbon which American businesses and individuals are allowed to emit, an amount which is slowly ratcheted downward over time. That's the "cap" part.
Businesses are then issued emissions permits, which they can sell to others, meaning that, in theory, businesses have a market incentive to emit less. That's the "trade."
Problem is, this is just a roundabout way of imposing a tax on energy, and one with potentially dire economic consequences. A recent estimate by the Heritage Foundation indicates that another cap-and-trade plan, the Lieberman-Warner bill, could cost as much as $4.8 trillion by 2030, even given the most generous assumptions. That bill is slightly more restrictive than McCain's, but McCain has spoken favorably of the legislation in recent months.
That the bill is essentially a tax is especially problematic for McCain, who's worked to brand himself as a low-tax candidate. He's has refused to take a no tax-hike pledge, but he's made tax cuts a central plank in his economic plan, and he told the Wall Street Journal, "I'm not making a 'read my lips' statement, in that I will not raise taxes. But I'm not saying I can envision a scenario where I would, OK?"
Yet it's tough to view any cap-and-trade system as something other than a backdoor tax, especially when McCain's top economics advisor, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, is on record as having advocated raising taxes on energy.
THERE ARE OTHER problems for McCain's image as well. The Senator has long campaigned against special interests, yet the design of his climate-change plan includes a rather hefty corporate giveaway. Rather than auction off all the emissions permits when the plan goes into effect, McCain would simply give them away to numerous big energy corporations.
That further entrenches the big corporate interests who are already in the game. And it's why several big energy providers favor cap and trade regimes -- just so long as they get the valuable emissions rights up front for free.
In another speech later in the week, McCain seemed to suggest that cap-and-trade would spur new technology and significantly reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil. Pretending to look back from the end of his first term, McCain saw that
The United States is well on the way to independence from foreign sources of oil; progress that has not only begun to alleviate the environmental threat posed from climate change, but has greatly improved our security as well. A cap and trade system has been implemented, spurring great innovation in the development of green technologies and alternative energy sources.
This is quite frankly impossible. As energy analyst Peter Kiernan recently explained, there is simply no way to achieve the sort of energy independence that McCain implies is possible. His speech envisioned a future that cannot exist.
McCAIN ALSO SAYS he will "propose to include the purchase of offsets from those outside the scope of the trading system."
But carbon offsets, which supposedly mitigate the effects of carbon emissions, are just another form of expensive symbolism. A report in the Washington Post concedes that those who purchase offsets "may be buying good feelings and little else" and that many "improvements bought by customers are only estimated, extrapolated, hoped-for or nil."
Apart from the expense, that's a pretty good summary of the effect McCain's plan is likely to have on the climate. McCain buys into the green movement's disaster rhetoric, yet, for many environmentalists, isn't stringent enough in what he requires.
As the New Republic's Brad Plumer explains, "McCain's actual goals for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions -- 60 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 -- fall well short of the cuts that many climate scientists deem necessary" to stop the most devastating aspects of climate change. The result is an all-around failure: a purely symbolic plan that costs a lot, does little, and pleases no one.
Still, you have to give McCain credit for living up to his reputation as a straight talker. When he said he didn't know much about global warming all those years ago, he was clearly being honest. Looks like he's still got a lot to learn.
Peter Suderman is a writer and policy analyst at FreedomWorks. He blogs at FreedomTalks.org.