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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

He Was For It Before He Was Against It

I want you think back. Way back. So far back, you might have trouble remembering it. It was, after all, more than a year ago. Way back in those heady days of our youth, there was a presidential campaign going on. And one candidate had a plan for saving the planet. This Earth Day, it pays to go back and look at that plan, which was originally printed in the Financial Times on March 18, 2008:

International responsibility also means preserving our common home. The risks of global warming have no borders. Americans and Europeans need to get serious about substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years or we will hand over a much-diminished world to our grandchildren. We need to reinvigorate the US-European partnership on climate change where we have so many common interests at stake. The US and Europe must lead together to encourage the participation of the rest of the world, including most importantly, the developing economic powerhouses of China and India.

I have introduced legislation that would require a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but that is just a start. We need a successor to Kyoto, a cap-and-trade system that delivers the necessary environmental impact in an economically responsible manner. New technologies hold great promise. We need to unleash the power and innovation of the marketplace in order to meet our environmental challenges. Right now safe, climate-friendly nuclear energy is a critical way both to improve the quality of our air and to reduce our dependence on foreign energy sources.

So, to recap, US-European partnership on reducing emissions, a new international treaty, new technology, nuclear power, and cap and trade. I'm not a big fan of the nuclear part -- mostly because it's not really clean and it's stupid-expensive -- but the rest sounds good, right?

McCain in a hardhatThis plan to save the world was put forward by John McCain. But that was a long, long time ago -- going on 400 days ago now -- and McCain's saying different things about cap and trade now. Why? Because he's a Republican. Republicans now define what they stand for as "everything Democrats want is wrong." So McCain -- a good little mavericky GOP footsoldier -- jumped right on that bandwagon. He put cap and trade to the rigorous test of seeing if dems liked it and determined that it was just the worst thing ever. Where cap and trade was once a common sense solution to global warming that relied on markets to reduce emission, CaT is now a commie plot to ruin corporations and raise revenues for the federal government. Democrats are for it, President Obama's for it, so it must be bad. Good Republicans are guided by their jerking knees.

Any doubt that McCain had done a complete 180 on cap and trade was dispelled yesterday, when ran the headline, "McCain Slams 'Cap And Tax' Energy Plan."

As Congress opens hearings on new energy policies, John McCain said President Obama is pursuing a strategy that is a "revenue generator for the federal government," not a solution to the threat of climate change.


"At this time of economic hardship, it is beyond irresponsible to further raise costs of operation for our country's businesses," he said at an energy forum hosted by the Reform Institute in Washington today. "I still believe that it is the time to address this critical domestic and international issue. But my vision for a cap and trade system is mechanism to lower greenhouse gases in our hemisphere, not as a revenue generator for the federal government."

I know what you're thinking, "He says right there he's for his 'vision of cap and trade.' He's just got a problem with the Democrats' version." Here's the thing, John McCain doesn't really have any idea what the hell cap and trade actually is. This was a problem during the campaign -- he said he was for cap and trade, only without that whole "cap" part.

Now would probably be a good time to explain how cap and trade works. The government sets a limit on how much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases a plant or shop or whatever can emit. But you can buy what would basically be an allowance to exceed that by going to a facility that's below their cap or some sort of carbon mitigation service and buying credits. Now you can pollute more, because you've added the other facilities deficit to your polluting capacity. Initially, these credits would be auctioned by the government. Afterward, the credits would be traded in an open market, with more credits issued as needed -- i.e., as total emissions go down and polluting capacity increases.

McCain's "vision of cap and trade" is trade and no cap. Companies would basically buy pollution from each other -- if they wanted to, because it'd be a nice thing to do. And we all know that global corporations are all about being nice. If they make a little money, that's great, but all they're really interested in is making the world a better place.

McCain made his misunderstanding of the entire mechanism of cap and trade clear at a June 2008 press conference, where he was asked, "The European Union has set mandatory targets on renewable energy. Is that something you would consider in a McCain administration?"

"Sure. I believe in the cap-and-trade system, as you know," he answered. "I would not at this time make those -- impose a mandatory cap at this time. But I do believe that we have to establish targets for reductions of greenhouse gas emissions over time, and I think those can be met."

Writing about it at the time, I posted, "Let me see if I've got this straight, McCain's for cap and trade -- so long as we get rid of that whole 'cap' part. Without a mandatory cap on emissions, there's no reason for anyone to do any carbon trading. It'd be a completely profit-free market, which doesn't make it extremely attractive for investors. Who's going to buy pollution?"

In fact, in an interview with Greenwire, McCain made his misunderstanding of cap and trade clear, saying -- with his trademark testiness -- "It's not quote mandatory caps. It's cap-and-trade, OK. It's not mandatory caps to start with. It's cap-and-trade. That's very different. OK, because that's a gradual reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions. So please portray it as cap-and-trade. That's the way I call it."

"The way you call it" isn't exactly right, John. You don't get to run around redefining terms to your liking. Especially in cases like this, where the redefinition doesn't make any damned sense and clearly wouldn't work. What you're calling "cap and trade" isn't actually cap and trade at all, it's just pollute, trade, or not trade as you see fit.

Sound familiar? Yeah, that's because it's pretty much what we have now. Anyone can buy carbon credits. You can resell them if you want. But there's no real market for them because you're not required to have them. Since companies don't actually need them, guess what? They don't buy them. McCain might as well be selling leprechaun farts -- McCain's carbon market would trade in something that has no value because it isn't actually real.

But the core idea behind all of this is that Democrats are wrong -- always. If they propose one thiing, as a good Republican, McCain is required to advocate for the opposite. It doesn't have to make any sense, it doesn't have to have a hope in hell of ever working, it just has to be different.

That's what being a maverick is all about -- doing exactly what the rest of your party does. If this seems indistinguishable from your typical partisan ass, then that's what "maverick" must mean.

Because that's the way McCain calls it.


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