Today, John McCain traveled to Portland, Oregon and speechified on his new climate policy. His plan is far from perfect—more on that later—but it’s a remarkable departure from a certain president who shall remain nameless:

Instead of idly debating the precise extent of global warming, or the precise timeline of global warming, we need to deal with the central facts of rising temperatures, rising waters, and all the endless troubles that global warming will bring. We stand warned by serious and credible scientists across the world that time is short and the dangers are great. The most relevant question now is whether our own government is equal to the challenge.

That’s a darn good question to be asking! And to the extent that McCain’s new proposal, flawed as it is, constitutes the lower bound of new national climate policy, we’ve just made a gigantic step forward.

So what’s wrong with McCain’s plan? 

  • 1. The targets are too modest. It calls for 60 percent reductions (below 1990 levels) by 2050, rather than the more aggressive 80 percent targets favored by the democratic candidates. Eighty percent is now something of a consensus position for public interest groups, and the minimum reduction recommended by James Hansen and other leading climate scientists.

    2. It allows for unlimited “offsets” from both foreign and domestic sources. There are two big problems with the anything-goes approach to offsets. For one thing, there’s simply no guarantee that the offsets are real (and our experience to date suggests that they’re often chimeras). And two, a huge offset program drastically reduces the incentive for businesses to innovate and adapt. Why invest in efficiency measures when you can just keep polluting and pay for a phantom tree-planting project in Indonesia?

    3. It gives away carbon permits for free at the outset of the program, moving toward auctioning only later. That’s a big problem—and something we can learn from our carbon-trading friends in Europe—because giving away permits has the effect of bestowing windfall profits on private corporations. Consumers, of course, pick up the tab. A better approach is auctioning the permits and then using the revenue for the public benefit, perhaps simply rebating the funds on a per capita basis.

    Speaking of those Europeans, it’s a discouraging legacy of American sloth on climate policy—and no small irony—that McCain’s presidential climate plan was delivered at a Vestas plant. Vestas, by the way, is Danish company that now dominates the global wind turbine market.

    It used to be that American companies had a big stake in alternative energy. But US investments in alternative energy stagnated for many years and our position eroded. So now, as our national policy finally startst to get serious about climate change, it looks like we’ll be be buying our efficient technologies from the Europeans.

    It doesn’t have to stay that way, of course. With smart policy—maybe juiced by some carbon auctioning revenue—there’s plenty we can do to foster homegrown solutions.