Muckraker: Grist on PoliticsJohn McCain unveiled his plans to address global warming in a speech Monday afternoon in Portland, Ore. The candidate called climate change a “test of foresight, of political courage, and of the unselfish concern that one generation owes to the next,” and called for a cap-and-trade system to drastically reduce the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

John McCain. Photo: Mr. Wright via

John McCain.

“Whether we call it ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming,’ in the end we’re all left with the same set of facts,” McCain told an audience gathered at a Vestas wind-energy training facility. “The facts of global warming demand our urgent attention, especially in Washington.”

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Many environmental leaders were glad to hear the GOP candidate talking specifics on climate action, but still had criticism for the particulars of his plan.

Jeremy Symons, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s climate-change campaign, was one of the more positive voices from the environmental community. “It’s not just a policy platform. He is building a case around the central idea he mentions that time is short and the dangers are great,” Symons said. “We are entering the post-Bush era of climate politics.”

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In his speech, McCain called for a series of targets for reducing carbon emissions, starting with a goal of reducing emissions to 2005 levels by 2012 and working toward a 60 percent drop below 1990 levels by the year 2050. While Symons noted that the final emissions cap is lower than the 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 that’s called for by NWF, other environmental groups, and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, he was optimistic that McCain did indicate “new flexibility” in this and other policy areas. He noted that the senator called for “at least” 60 percent reductions, and indicated that an increasing portion of carbon credits could be allotted by auction, which is an element of a cap-and-trade plan that many environmental groups have called for.

“There aren’t a lot of shut doors here,” said Symons. “This is a very compelling statement about why we need to act urgently, and that is good news for everyone that we have candidates from both parties that are going to be making that case.”

But others found the speech to be a mere rehashing of the climate policy McCain has supported for quite some time, dating back to 2003 when he first introduced the Climate Stewardship Act with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

“To his credit, Sen. McCain wants to do something serious about global warming, but his proposal falls far short of what the science says we need to do today,” said League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski in a written statement. “He has not substantively improved his plan over the bill he introduced years ago — legislation that the science now shows is out of date.”

David Hamilton, director of the global warming and energy program at the Sierra Club, echoed that sentiment. As he told Grist, “We’ve moved a long ways since then, and we now know that cap-and-trade means very different things to different people.” Hamilton noted that McCain left open a lot of questions because he was vague on issues like how carbon credits would be allocated in his cap-and-trade scheme and what percentage of emissions reductions could be achieved through the purchase of offsets. “This is a fundamental issue of how much polluters are going to assume the burden, and how much are we going to put that burden on the taxpayers,” said Hamilton.

Hamilton’s boss, Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope, was more harsh: “Like President Bush, McCain’s policies on global warming offer more of the same,” Pope said in a statement. This seems like a bit of stretch, as Bush has stubbornly refused to put any mandatory constraints on carbon emissions, while McCain is proposing a set of specific carbon caps that aren’t all that far from those of the Democratic presidential candidates.

In the speech, McCain also talked up his belief that nuclear power is “one of the cleanest, safest, and most reliable” energy sources, another issue that puts him at odds with many environmental groups — and with Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who’s shepherding climate legislation through the Senate.

“If you do it his way with nukes, it is guaranteed to jack energy bills,” said Hamilton. “The cost of nuclear power has gone through the roof, and you have to be nuts to bank a wholesale change of our energy system on nukes.”

But Symons of NWF notes that rather than calling for nuclear subsidies — which McCain has done repeatedly in the past — in this speech he instead focused on the natural market incentives for nuclear in a cap-and-trade plan, and talked more about putting additional resources into safety at nuclear plants, areas where he might be able to find more common ground with enviros.

One group clearly enthused by McCain’s climate speech is Republicans for Environmental Protection, which is calling it a marker of a new era for the GOP on climate. “It’s really refreshing to have a Republican nominee that truly understands climate change and the need to act, and is really pressing for that,” said David Jenkins, government affairs director for the group. “We’ve been dealing with eight years of a president who has not felt the need to press on this issue.”

Jenkins said he was impressed by McCain’s emphasis on “building the infrastructure for a non-carbon energy future” — expanding development of wind, solar, plug-in hybrids, and biofuels. He also praised the speech as a sign that the Republican Party is coming up to speed on science and public opinion, while returning to traditional conservative values that place an importance on environmental preservation.

“I don’t think we’ve had a nominee since Teddy Roosevelt who truly understands that stewardship is supposed to be inherent to conservatism,” said Jenkins. “Hopefully it will help the rest of our party leaders get more in sync with where rank-and-file Republican voters are on this issue, and where Americans are in general.”