The following post was first published on Passing Through, The Nation‘s guest blog, where I will be posting all month.

Though recession and war are probably higher on the public’s immediate priority list, there is no challenge of greater historical consequence facing the next U.S. president than the climate crisis. It is vitally important that the next chief executive enter the Oval Office committed to decisive and sustained action. He or she will need a firm grasp of the developing science, the political obstacles, the economic trade-offs, and the technological opportunities.

John McCain. Photo: Jim Greenhill via Flickr
John McCain.

Does John McCain have that kind of deep understanding and commitment? If elected, will he be the climate champion we so desperately need?

Conventional wisdom says yes. The media touts McCain’s stance on climate as evidence of his straight-talkin’ maverickosity. Conservative stalwarts assail McCain for his heresy (Romney attacked McCain’s climate bill in Michigan and Florida). The public hails him for reaching across the aisle. Even Democrats and greens seem inclined to give him a grade of Good Enough on climate.

This is a classic case of what our president calls the soft bigotry of low expectations. Judged against his fellow Republicans, McCain is a paragon of atmospheric wisdom. Judged against the climate and energy legislation afoot in Congress, he falls short. Judged against the two leading Democratic presidential candidates, he is a pale shadow. Judged against the imperatives of climate science — that is to say, judged against brute physical reality — he isn’t even in the ballpark.

It’s time to stop grading McCain on a curve.

McCain’s green bona fides, as far as I can tell, boil down to three things:

  • He voted against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and has sponsored or cosponsored the occasional, modest environmental protection bill (protecting whales; awarding tax credits for energy efficiency; boosting fuel efficiency). (Note, however, that his lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters is a measly 29 percent.)
  • In 2003, he and Sen. Joe Lieberman introduced the first-ever climate bill to the Senate: the Climate Stewardship Act, which would establish a carbon cap-and-trade system to reduce U.S. emissions. It was introduced and voted down in 2003 and again in 2005.
  • He acknowledges, without hedging, that anthropogenic climate change is real, and speaks eloquently about the need to address it. He has frequently criticized the Bush administration for inaction.

These aren’t chopped liver. All were acts of courage undertaken in a time of Republican majority, when they offered little political reward (other than the undying love of cable news talk-show hosts). The second, in particular, was a beacon of hope for greens in a time when there were very few.

Nonetheless, we must assess these acts in light of what has come after, and the political environment we find ourselves in today.

Cap and trade

Relative to what’s offered by other Senate cap-and-trade bills (and the plans of his Democratic rivals), the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act — even in its 2007 incarnation — is weak. Unlike other such bills, McCain’s specifically sets aside massive and unnecessary subsidies for the nuclear industry. Its emissions targets are exceeded even by the lowest-common-denominator bill now heading to the Senate floor, the Lieberman-Warner America’s Climate Security Act.

This is to say nothing of the Sanders-Boxer bill, the strongest extant climate legislation, which now boasts both Clinton and Obama as co-sponsors and includes even more aggressive targets. Beyond that, we have the plans offered by the leading Democratic campaigns, which offer bold targets, 100 percent auctioning of pollution permits, and detailed plans for how to allocate the auction revenue to boost the green economy.

McCain has never updated his position on cap-and-trade legislation, despite the steady advance in public opinion and climate science since he introduced his bill in 2003. He has not discussed, much less matched, the ambitious targets of his Dem rivals. He has not signed onto the Sanders legislation, or even Lieberman’s new bill. He has not said whether he’ll vote for it, and has hinted ($ub. rqd) that he’ll vote Nay unless big buckets of nuclear pork are added.

In short, McCain’s take on cap-and-trade legislation is now anachronistic, lagging well behind what’s current, what’s possible, and what’s needed.

Beyond cap and trade

As anyone familiar with the issue — e.g., Goldman Sachs — will tell you, a mandatory, declining cap on carbon is only the first step toward effective climate policy. It is necessary but not sufficient. That’s why Democrats in Congress are pushing a number of supplemental bills, attempting to raise vehicle fuel-economy standards, remove tax breaks from fossil fuel industries, change utility regulation to encourage efficiency, boost basic research funding, extend production tax credits for renewable industries, and establish a Renewable Portfolio Standard to boost the amount of renewable energy in the U.S. mix.

Voting against these measures would boost McCain’s cred with the conservative base, but damage his green credibility. Voting for them would do the reverse. So what has Mr. Straight Talk done?

He has gone AWOL:

  • On June 21, 2007, the Senate voted on the Baucus amendment to the energy bill, which would have removed some oil company subsidies in order to fund renewable energy. The amendment failed to pass. Where was McCain? He didn’t vote.
  • On the same day, the Senate held a cloture vote to overcome the standard Republican veto threat and pass the energy bill. The vote succeeded. Where was McCain? He didn’t vote.
  • On Dec. 7, the Senate held another cloture vote to overcome the standard Republican veto threat on the energy bill, which had become substantially bolder after being aligned with the House version. The vote failed. Where was McCain? He didn’t vote.
  • On Dec. 13, 2007, the Senate held another cloture vote to overcome the standard Republican veto threat and pass the energy bill, which had the Renewable Portfolio Standard stripped out of it but retained a measure that would shift oil company subsidies to renewables. The vote failed — by one vote, 59-40. Where was McCain? He didn’t vote — the only senator not to do so.
  • On Feb. 6, 2008, the Senate held another cloture vote to overcome the standard Republican veto threat and pass a stimulus bill containing a number of green energy incentives. The cloture motion failed, by one vote. Where was McCain? He didn’t vote — again, the only senator not to do so.

You get the idea. The Democrats in Congress have been struggling to change U.S. energy policy, to raise standards and shift some federal expenditures from fossil to renewable energy. In several cases, McCain could have made the difference between success and failure. In some cases — as with regard to, e.g., the stimulus bill — McCain’s campaign has claimed that he would have voted against it anyway, so the result wouldn’t have changed. In this way, McCain gets to signal to political insiders on the right that he’s with them, without putting himself on record where the public can see it. That’s a funny sort of straight talk.

On the campaign trail, McCain said: “Of course we want renewable energy. Of course we want better standards. I want to do everything I can to see that wind, solar, hydrogen, ethanol … and all of these, including nuclear power, [are put to better use].” Everything he can? Well, one of the things senators can do is vote on legislation. So maybe not everything.

Conservative solutions

Perhaps you think that McCain has gone AWOL on congressional green votes simply because he’s a conservative. After all, most recent climate and energy legislation has been put forward by progressives (despite all of it garnering Republican votes, sometimes a lot of them).

Nope. There are plenty of things a libertarian-leaning leader could do on climate: meaningfully reduce counterproductive energy subsidies; reform utility regulation to introduce competition, incentivize efficiency, and reduce the traditional utility bias toward large, capital-intensive centralized power projects; change or eliminate outdated environmental regulations that hamper energy innovation and the growth of the solar and wind industries; reduce trade barriers to encourage the flow of advanced energy technologies to developing countries.

McCain rarely opposes any of that stuff, particularly in his rhetoric. But he hasn’t done anything about it, or shown signs of having put much thought into it.

Understanding

Ultimately what a president needs more than anything is an understanding of the issue: the highest benefit and lowest cost solutions, and the way to tweak American economic rules and institutions to encourage those solutions.

McCain doesn’t even seem to understand the one solution he has offered, cap and trade. In the Republican debate in Florida, he denied that his cap-and-trade program included a mandatory cap on carbon. (One wonders what he thought that first word was doing in there.) He has said he won’t support a cap-and-trade bill unless it includes extra support for nuclear power (because nuclear power is low-carbon), not seeming to grok the fact that the whole point of a cap-and-trade program is to raise prices on carbon, offering a de facto subsidy to all low-carbon options.

More broadly, as has now become conventional wisdom, McCain just doesn’t seem all that interested or invested in domestic policy. He himself has admitted that he doesn’t understand economic issues very well. In an area of policymaking where the president will be beset with industries rent-seeking and think-tankers offering every flavor of bogus miracle cure, that is a recipe for wasted effort and ineffective leadership.

International solutions

To his credit, McCain has said that one of his international priorities would be working with other countries to fight climate change. Unfortunately, he also parrots the conservative line that he’ll sign no treaty unless China and India are involved. But the brute fact of the matter is that the U.S. bears the lion’s share of the responsibility for the climate change that’s already occurred and, thanks to the time lag of the atmospheric system, the climate change that will occur for the next 20 years. America is also the richest and most dynamic country on the planet, the one best positioned to create solutions. Pulling China and India into the fold is an important goal, but it will happen through bold U.S. leadership or not at all. Playing a game of chicken with developing countries hasn’t worked yet.

This is perhaps the greatest challenge for a president who’s serious about climate. He’s going to have to help Americans come to terms with the fact that they will pay more than other countries, and sacrifice some measure of the unilateral sovereignty Bush convinced them is a transcendent good. Whether it’s technology transfer or development aid, the richest and most responsible country on the planet is going to pick up a disproportionate share of the bill.

He’s also going to have to coax other countries into joining us. It will require careful, persistent, delicate diplomacy, which isn’t something one generally associates with a man of McCain’s temper and penchant for starting wars.

Republican mavericks are Republicans

On balance, the evidence indicates that while McCain may be sincere about the need to fight climate change, there’s no indication that he has a particularly firm understanding of the policy or a particularly deep commitment to following through on it.

To be crude (but, I think, accurate), these qualities wouldn’t be so worrisome if McCain were a Democrat. As a Democrat, he would have members of his own party in Congress pushing him to act; he would have policy advisers with long experience and knowledge of the issue; he would seed the federal bureaucracy with officials committed to climate action, and do the same with judges on the federal bench; he would be pushed to action by his base. This is not to say that the Democratic coalition is monolithically supportive of strong climate policy, but on balance, a Democratic president will have his nominal commitment strengthened through positive reinforcement.

As a Republican, on the other hand, a President McCain would be surrounded by a political infrastructure that is actively working against him on climate. In passive terms, his policy advisers and congressional colleagues simply won’t show much interest in the issue. In active terms, they will be pushing him to weaken his position, water down his legislation, and moderate his rhetoric. His bureaucracy will be filled with functionaries shaped by a party that believes climate change is a lefty conspiracy. His judges will be friendly to big industry and hostile to environmental litigation. His State Department will be staffed with people schooled in the neoconservative doctrine of belligerent unilateralism. He will have allies at the state level — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida — but they have only so much sway in D.C. He will, in short, be sailing against the wind.

Will McCain have the dogged persistence to push through that kind of institutional resistance and implement bold climate solutions? Is this issue meaningful enough, personal enough, for him to expend political capital on it? Will he have the appetite for fighting with a Republican establishment that already views him with open suspicion?

As should be clear by now, I have strong doubts. I do not want to deny McCain his due — he deserves credit for genuine political courage on climate change in a party that is actively hostile to even a modicum of sanity on the issue. But that courage is admirable only relative to that party.

Judged on its own merits, McCain’s climate commitment — relative to what’s offered on the other side of the political aisle, and more importantly, relative to the increasing alarm we hear from climate scientists — is simply and unmistakably inadequate.