Politics & Policy

Big Mistake

Senator McCain gave a speech in Portland, Oregon Monday reiterating and explaining his longstanding support for a “cap-and-trade” approach to global warming. He proposes that the government require reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions but allow companies to trade emissions credits, supposedly creating an efficient, market-based distribution of the regulatory burden. Support for this policy is the biggest mistake his campaign has made so far.

Early in this speech, Sen. McCain ran through a litany of woes that we can expect from global warming: “reduced water supplies, more forest fires than in previous decades, changes in crop production, more heat waves afflicting our cities, and a greater intensity in storms.” In other words, we may be worse off in the future because of emitting carbon dioxide today. In the next paragraph, he said that “the fundamental incentives of the market are still on the side of carbon-based energy.” In other words, we will be less materially wealthy, at least in the short-run, if we reduce our use of carbon-based energy.

This means there’s a trade-off, and it raises the obvious question about his proposed policy: How much will it cost us today, and how much better off will it make us in the future?

The Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) estimates that a U.S. cap-and-trade regime like the one discussed in this speech would cause about a one-percent reduction in GDP within five years. In less abstract terms, under that projection, by 2014 something like 1 million people would lose their jobs and the average American family would have about $150 less to spend every month. The costs would ramp up dramatically from there. In short, it would cost a lot. The U.N. IPCC estimates that unconstrained global warming is expected to cause damages equal to about 1-5 percent of global economic output about a century from now. William Nordhaus of Yale has estimated that the net benefit that would be created for the world by a perfectly implemented, globally harmonized carbon tax would be just under 0.2 percent of the present value of future global consumption. That presents a painfully thin margin for error, ignores the fact that costs will be disproportionately borne by the U.S., and does not bear much resemblance to the rhetoric of crisis that Sen. McCain uses in his speech.

It is highly unlikely that we could ever realize this theoretical benefit. Nobody has any realistic plan to get China and India to reduce emissions, and without doing so the costs of cap-and-trade to the U.S. would be dramatically greater than the benefits. Even if we could get the developing world to go along, the theoretical benefits that such a regulatory regime might create would, in the real world, be more than offset by the economic drag that would be created by the side deals required to get China, India, and the U.S. ethanol lobby, among many others, to go along with it.

The scariest sentence in the speech was: “If the efforts to negotiate an international solution that includes China and India do not succeed, we still have an obligation to act.” This is posturing in the place of thought. It puts us in the worst possible negotiating position, and confirms that Sen. McCain is not engaging practically with the costs and benefits of his own policy. It indicates a foolish willingness to sacrifice trillions of dollars on the altar of fashionable, though uniformed, opinion and political expediency.

Once you leave reason behind, there is no logical stopping point, and his Democratic opponent will always be willing to one-up him. Sen. Clinton’s reaction to his speech (literally before it was even delivered) was: “Senator McCain’s proposal simply does not go far enough…”

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