In the Wall Street Journal, Stephen Power summarizes the difference between Obama and McCain on energy and environmental policies this way:
Sen. Obama is pushing a bigger government role in fostering the development of technologies to reduce emissions and alternatives to fossil fuels. Sen. McCain, meanwhile, argues for a more hands-off approach, saying "unintended consequences" can result from wrongheaded interference in the marketplace.
This is the John McCain who mere months ago called for temporarily lifting the federal gas tax, which surely qualifies as wrongheaded interference in the marketplace, though its consequences are easy enough to predict (think: more driving).
Sen. McCain argues that many of the steps [Obama proposes] are little more than subsidies that enrich special interests. … "I’m a little wary — I have to give you straight talk — about government subsidies," he said. "When government jumps in and distorts the market, then there’s unintended consequences as well as intended."
This is the John McCain who recently said he wouldn’t vote for the Climate Security Act because it didn’t have enough pork for nuclear power. The guy who asks about one of the Western world’s most conspicuous and expensive instances of central economic planning, "If France can produce 80% of its electricity with nuclear power, why can’t we?" (Answer: it would cost $4 trillion.) The John McCain who receives considerable largess from some special interests of his own:
He has received over $2 million from oil, coal, utility, auto, chemical and nuclear companies from the 1990 cycle to the first quarter of 2008. In fact, of this total, McCain received nearly two-thirds of it — $1.2 million — since he began his presidential quest 18 months ago. And like Senator McCain, these interests and the trade associations they fund oppose the Climate Security Act.
Power notes at the end of his piece that "both candidates’ positions have their share of inconsistencies and hedges." And it’s true. There are red flags in Obama’s record:
Obama, on the other hand, is an Illinois pol. That means he is, by necessity, a little friendlier with coal, ethanol, and nuclear interests than greens might like. Those allegiances led him to vote for the monstrosity that was the Energy Act of 2005, a porkfest that funneled subsidies to all three interest groups (Clinton voted against it). Early last year, he pushed legislation boosting liquid coal. (When greens threw a fit he backed off somewhat, making clear that liquid coal is kosher only if it meets low-carbon fuel standards.) As the NYT exhaustively documents, he gets big campaign contributions from Exelon, a nuke outfit based in Illinois; his campaign adviser David Axelrod once consulted for the company.
Nonetheless, the bulk of the evidence indicates that Obama would be a boon to those who recognize the climate threat.
McCain, by contrast, continues to offer virtually no action — certainly no votes — to substantiate his professed concern over climate change. His opposition to government interference in the market is selective at best, opportunistic at worst. He approaches energy with neither principled conservatism nor sincere environmentalism, but a largely cinematic series of poses.
Framing the comparison as one between more or less government is a red herring. Governments are deeply and historically involved in energy markets. They set regulatory and legal parameters. They establish tax rates. They build infrastructure. They conduct diplomacy, negotiate treaties, and invade Middle Eastern countries.
Governments always and already shape energy markets. The question is how to do it better. Obama has introduced a credible, detailed approach. He evinces commitment to thinking the problem through, interest in the details, and a level of seriousness that is nowhere evident in McCain. That’s the relevant comparison.