McCain and Climate Change: Sci-Fi as Policy

His plan to fight global warming makes no economic sense without radical breakthroughs.

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Are you worried that efforts to limit possible climate-altering carbon emissions might tank the economy? Not a problem, says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, John McCain's top economic adviser. Here's what Holtz-Eakin said during a conference call after McCain outlined his climate plan, including a cap-and-trade system for carbon allowances:

If you look at the modeling studies...they suggest...a reduction of GDP growth by eight tenths of a percent by 2030. If you look at that reduction, it means that instead of hitting a $26 trillion economy in January, you're hitting it in April.

Those "studies" Holtz-Eakin refers to are ones like the recent analysis of the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act put out by the Environmental Protection Agency. It shows the U.S. economy growing 81 percent between 2010 and 2030 without a national carbon emissions cap—and virtually the same amount, 80 percent, with the bill's limits.

First, I would guess that such studies probably use the same economic logic that also somehow shows massive tax increases to have little effect on economic growth. Second, key to that EPA forecast is a projected 150 increase in the use of nuclear power and the wide-scale implementation of carbon-capture technology, where carbon dioxide emitted from power plants would be captured in some fashion and stored underground. Without carbon capture—or even more far-out technologies—none of these studies that purport to show little economic damage make any sense.

So without amazing breakthroughs, to even come close to such goals as reducing carbon emissions to 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050—when, keep in mind, the economy could be four times as large as it was a decade and a half ago—would require draconian decreases in economic growth tantamount to a global depression. Yet when you ask environmental advocates about this technological X-factor, they assume it away. It's like the old economists' joke:

A group of people, including an economist, get shipwrecked and wash up on a desert island. When they get together to solve their predicament, the economist takes charge: "First, assume we have a boat..."

Not that science fiction can't be an effective policy tool. President Reagan's vision of orbital laser platform at the ready to obliterate Soviet ICBMs has yet to come to pass, yet the threat of Star Wars was certainly a factor in breaking the will of the Evil Empire. But in this case, science fiction might be more effective than politics. At the post-speech conference call, these were the very first words out of the mouth of Holtz-Eakin: "John McCain's remarks today indicated the beginning of the end of the Bush administration-imposed inaction on climate change." Clearly, climate change is a key issue in McCain's effort to convince voters that he doesn't represent a third Bush term.