Just months ago there was a palpable sense of optimism that no matter who is elected president this November that the U.S. would soon embark on serious climate change legislation. I think recent events have shown that the chances of that happening are slim to none.

Let’s start with if McCain is elected.

Today the senator from Arizona is going to do a photo-op on an oil rig because he has become the biggest champion of increased drilling this side of the Middle East. He wants to extend major tax breaks for oil companies and open up virtually all of America to more drilling.

I was always highly skeptical of McCain’s commitment to serious climate change legislation and the way he has talked about cap-and-trade on the campaign trail has only increased that skepticism. He has said repeatedly that he is against capping greenhouse gas emissions even though that’s exactly what a cap-and-trade system does. In addition, he is in favor of freely allocating permits to energy companies, which is a trillion-dollar give away to big business.

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If McCain wins he is going to be so in debt to the right wing that I would not be surprised to see an extremely reactionary energy policy full of more big tax breaks for fossil fuels and increases in nuclear power, with minimal incentives for alternative fuels. Even if addressing greenhouse gas emissions ultimately makes economic sense, in the short term any serious policy acts like a tax on emissions (even with cap-and-trade) and I see no way McCain raises energy prices given the GOP’s ideological aversion to taxes and the state of the economy. Lastly, McCain simply doesn’t care much about domestic issues; he is a foreign policy person and little more. Don’t expect him to spend the political capital necessary to enact any serious climate legislation even if he might have wanted to at some point. (While he would be facing relatively large Democratic majorities in Congress, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him exercise his veto power rather liberally, although it is possible that the Democrats could build veto-proof majorities for better energy policy.)

With respect to Obama I am a little more optimistic, but not by much.

Obama’s plan calls for the auctioning of permits and so far he has done a pretty good job of resisting the ridiculous drilling mania that has gripped the GOP base. Obama, however, will enter office with major crises to address along with major objectives that will be extremely difficult to enact. My guess is that he will use his political capital more on foreign policy than most expect, and that health care will be his domestic priority. I think he may make some significant progress on funding of alternative energy, but I would be surprised if a seriously binding cap on greenhouse gas emissions was accomplished in the first year or two, if at all during his first term.

Progressives are fighting an uphill battle that will only get steeper. The public’s tremendous ignorance on the determinants of gas prices and their widespread support for increased drilling is a serious obstacle that requires skilled leadership to circumvent. And for all the talk about the new environmental consensus within religious communities, pastor Rick Warren didn’t ask McCain or Obama one single question about the environment in more than two hours of questions last weekend.

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Unfortunately, with the economy in the tank and numerous foreign crises brewing or still to be resolved, the environment ranks even lower in public consciousness. What to do about it? I’m not sure.

To be continued …

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