If you think Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is a straight-talking, courageous politician on the issue of global warming, watch this jaw-dropping clip from last night’s Republican presidential debate:

The transcript is online, so we can go through McCain’s entire Orwellian answer to moderator Tim Russert. [Note: This was following a question to Giuliani about the global warming threat to Florida and his opposition to mandatory caps, which I’ll briefly discuss at the end.] Russert said, correctly:

Senator McCain, you are in favor of mandatory caps.

And, as you’ve seen, McCain immediately answers:

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No, I’m in favor of cap-and-trade. And Joe Lieberman and I, one of my favorite Democrats and I, have proposed that — and we did the same thing with acid rain.

And all we are saying is, “Look, if you can reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, you earn a credit. If somebody else is going to increase theirs, you can sell it to them.” And, meanwhile, we have a gradual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

As a great American once said: you cannot be serious! My jaw dropped (yes, I was watching, and yes, I’m a hardcore political junkie). I know McCain was beaten up in Michigan by Romney for supporting CAFE standards to deal with global warming, and I know “mandates” are as popular with conservatives as taxes are, but this is Romney-esque doubletalk. Europe has a mandate. We dealt with acid rain with a mandate. And McCain’s own climate bill with Lieberman is a mandate.

A straight talker would not use those two wishy-washy “can’s.” Nothing about “can” is mandatory or threatening to conservatives. What a wonderful world McCain is imagining: If “somebody else” increases their emissions — not you, of course, you’ll be the one reducing emissions cheaply and getting rich with all the credits — “you can sell it to them.” Well, that is double-doubletalk.

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First, a straight talker would note that the person who increases their emissions must buy a credit (though obviously not necessarily from you). Second, a straight talker would not imply that the point of a cap-and-trade is to allow someone who decreases their emissions to sell credits to someone who increases them — the point is to set the cap well below current levels (as McCain’s own bill does) so that everyone decreases their emissions, but allowing those who can achieve very deep reductions cost-effectively to sell to those who can’t.

If John “Straight Talk” McCain can’t tell conservatives the truth about what this country will need to do to stop catastrophic global warming, who can? Buck up, John — A real man says “mandate.”

The rest of his answer is equally unsettling:

We need a global agreement, but it has to include India and China. We need to go back to nuclear power. We cannot be dependent on $400 billion a year paying for foreign oil. There’s a nexus here.

Well, there may be a nexus here, but it isn’t between nuclear power and cutting foreign oil use, since we don’t drive our cars on electricity (though hopefully some of us will in the near future). Again, a straight talker would not coyly leave the impression that we can significantly cut our $400 billion energy bill with nuclear power and without mandates — either for much tougher fuel economy standards or alternative fuel vehicles.

But climate change, in my view, is real. It can affect states like Florida dramatically, because I think it has to do with violent weather changes, as well.

But I am confident — I am confident American technology and the embrace of green technologies, many of the things that Rudy just talked about, and nuclear power being one of them, we can reduce these greenhouse gas emissions.

McCain never mentions a single strategy except the one that conservatives like, nuclear power, which he mentions twice. And if he is implying nuclear power is green power, well, that isn’t straight talk either. I have never heard McCain advocate any other solution to global warming but nuclear power. As I blogged earlier, in a March 2006 interview, he stated he would demand legislation to expand U.S. nuclear power as part of his efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions (I guess nuclear mandates are okay):

It’s the only technology presently available to quickly step up to meet our energy needs.

Incorrect. As many independent reports make clear — as former Vice President Al Gore told Congress last year — that nuclear may be a part of the solution, but probably only a very limited part. [Note to McCain: nuclear ain’t quick. Most experts I’ve talked to think it would take at least a decade to spin the industry up to a level where it could deliver plants at a rate needed to have any significant impact: three nuclear plants built each week for 50 years!]

Going back to McCain’s words in the debate: “in my view” does not cut it. We’re not going to do this because McCain thinks climate change is real. We’re going to do this because that’s what the science says. Yes, I know, conservatives don’t do things because scientists say so, but this is relevant to McCain’s final bit of doubletalk:

And suppose that we are wrong, and there’s no such thing as climate change, and we hand our kids a cleaner world. But suppose we are right and do nothing.

I think that’s a challenge for America. We can meet it.

Uh, no.

I know that McCain likes this formulation — he often says,”suppose I’m wrong” which is much worse — and I’ve heard other climate advocates use it. But it is very weak, and ultimately counterproductive.

Why? First, this formulation will leave many people — especially those inclined to be skeptical — the impression that the chance he is wrong about climate change is somehow comparable to the chance he is right. But the point is, this isn’t about what McCain thinks, it is about what the science says — and at this point there is exceedingly little chance that continuing on our current course of uncontrolled emissions is anything but a guaranteed catastrophe. That’s why normally reserved scientists are getting so desperate.

A more imporant flaw in this formulation: If there’s no such thing as human-caused climate change, as many of his conservative brethren believe, then nobody in their right minds would pass a law to cut U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions 60 to 80 percent in four decades — unless of course you are trying to leave listeners with the (false) impression that such cuts can be done so easily that they are no big imposition on Americans, certainly not requiring unpleasant mandates or other things conservatives would never, ever embrace unless the fate of the planet were at stake.

Yes, I know unrestricted carbon dioxide emissions will eventually render the ocean nearly lifeless, but again, that’s yet another reason why his phrasing is so lame — we must reduce CO2, not to hand our kids a cleaner world, as important as that is, but to avoid destroying the planet’s livability for our kids and their kids and the next 50 generations!

Right now, McCain is not a straight-talking or courageous politician on global warming — though he is vastly superior to all of the other GOP candidates. You can read Rudy’s answer to Russert here — it is just the old Bush-Luntz/Lomborg/Gingrich “technology, technology, technology, blah, blah, blah” routine.

If McCain gets the nomination, I wonder if he will be more honest with the public. If not, I would strongly recommend that his opponent expose his doubletalk, but that is a topic for a later blog post …

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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