Someone had better tell McCain…

Elisabeth Bumiller, after failing to seriously cover the Bush administration for many years, is now failing to seriously cover the McCain candidacy. Will someone please send this woman back to Russia? She may not have seriously covered the Kremlin, either, but at least she’s unlikely to have much effect on the elections there.

She writes in her big Is McCain like Bush? article on Tuesday:

Perhaps Mr. McCain’s biggest departure from the president is on climate change. Mr. McCain has called for mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions, unlike Mr. Bush, who says such limits would be bad for the economy. Mr. McCain also supports a “cap and trade” system in which power plants and other polluters could meet limits on heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide by either reducing emissions on their own or by buying credits from more efficient producers.

It’s true, in a sense, that McCain has called for mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions, because he has called for a cap-and-trade system, and without mandatory limits, there would be nothing to trade, as I’ll explain below. Unfortunately, however, McCain doesn’t seem to understand this, so he keeps protesting that he is not calling for mandatory limits at all. Here is McCain speaking in a press conference on Monday:

I believe in the cap-and-trade system, as you know. I would not at this time make those — impose a mandatory cap at this time. But I do believe that we have to establish targets for reductions of greenhouse gas emissions over time, and I think those can be met.

That’s somewhat ambiguous — he “believes in” the cap-and-trade system and would not impose a mandatory cap “at this time,” and supports “targets” that he “thinks” can be met. But he was less ambiguous, and also less coherent, when he said this in a January interview:

It’s not quote mandatory caps. It’s cap-and-trade, OK. It’s not mandatory caps to start with. It’s cap-and-trade. That’s very different. OK, because that’s a gradual reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions. So please portray it as cap-and-trade. That’s the way I call it.

That may be “the way he calls it,” but it also happens to be gibberish. You simply can’t have cap-and-trade without some kind of mandatory caps. The basic idea of a cap and trade system is that you set a limit on the amount of emissions that an industry can produce. The government can either auction off “emissions credits” that allow companies to emit a specified amount, or it can allot emissions credits to companies through some other mechanism, but the key is that there are limits — mandatory limits — on the greenhouse gas emissions that companies can produce. Then, if a company emits lower amounts of greenhouse gases than they are permitted under the law, that company is allowed to sell their extra “emissions credits” to companies that fail to emit within their limit.

So companies are faced with the choice of either lowering their emissions and making some extra money by selling their excess credits, or exeeding their emissions limits and having to pay another company for some additional emissions credits. This obviously gives companies a financial incentive to figure out ways to lower their emissions, so it is seen as a good way to reduce emissions and spur technological innovation, yet also allow companies some flexibility in deciding whether they would rather invest in cleaner technologies or pay extra for the privilege of emitting more greenhouse gases.

Under a cap-and-trade system, an individual company might be able to exceed their emissions limits, by buying credits from another company, but the emissions of the industry as a whole are subject to a mandatory cap. And you can’t set up a cap-and-trade system but leave out the mandatory cap part, as John McCain seems to think, because the cap is essential to the idea of cap and trade. Here is why:

Imagine that company A reduces its emissions below its alloted amount. It then has excess “emissions credits” that it can sell to another company. And imagine that company B isn’t able or willing to keep its emissions below its alloted amount. Company B can then buy company A’s excess emissions credits, which will then allow company B to emit more than it would have otherwise. But if company B is not subject to some sort of mandatory limit on how much it can emit, then it has no incentive whatsoever to buy credits from company A. If company B is only subject to a voluntary “target,” then why would it spend money buying company A’s emissions credits? It wouldn’t, of course. Company A therefore would not have any buyers for its extra emissions credits, and why would company A work to lower its emissions below its own “target” if it could not find a buyer for its excess emissions credits? It wouldn’t. Without mandatory limits, the entire system breaks down because the “credits” have no value.

John McCain either doesn’t understand this, or else pretends that he doesn’t understand this in order to avoid scaring his base. Whichever is true, he certainly is determined on this point. When Tim Russert (R.I.P.) mentioned that McCain was in favor of mandatory caps during a January GOP debate, McCain said:

No, I’m in favor of cap-and-trade. And Joe Lieberman and I, one of my favorite Democrats and I, have proposed that — and we did the same thing with acid rain…

…And all we are saying is, “Look, if you can reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, you earn a credit. If somebody else is going to increase theirs, you can sell it to them.” And, meanwhile, we have a gradual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

McCain, of course, doesn’t explain why the “somebody else” would ever want to buy “your” credit unless they were subject to a mandatory limit on their own emissions. This answer is clearly an effort to make his policy sound more palatable to the Republican base — first the denial that he supports a mandatory cap, then the talk about how “you” can make extra money by selling emissions credits. Given how eager he is to make cap-and-trade sound warm and fuzzy to conservatives, it’s no wonder that he rejects the term “mandatory cap,” but if Elisabeth Bumiller really wants to inform her readers, she should mention that he has been going around the country for 5 months disavowing a major part of the policy that supposedly marks his “biggest departure from the president.”

If I wanted to be charitable to McCain, this is how I would defend his statements: McCain may think that if a company can buy its way out of a mandatory cap by purchasing credits, then the cap is not actually mandatory, or it’s not really a cap, or something like that. But even if this is true for an individual company, the system still requires that the industry as a whole be subject to a mandatory cap on emissions. If I wanted to be uncharitable to McCain, which I do, then I would say that this is yet another issue that he is either confused about, or lying about. (Take your pick; either one is a good reason not to vote for him.)

Unfortunately, cap-and-trade is not a particularly intuitive or easy to grasp policy, and it’s hard to explain in a pithy soundbite. (I struggled for quite a while to explain it briefly but coherently here, and I doubt that I succeeded. I’m also no expert on the details of how you would implement it.) Unless a voter is knowledgeable about what cap-and-trade entails, he or she is unlikely to realize that McCain is speaking nonsense when he says that he supports cap and trade, but isn’t in favor of mandatory caps. And exasperated environmentalists and Democrats are unlikely to be able to refute him without giving long wonky lectures that will only confirm their reputation as out-of-touch elitists who don’t speak with the kind of “straight talk” that John McCain provides. So McCain more or less gets away with telling his fairy tale, and reporters like Elisabeth Bumiller don’t bother to call him on it.

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3 responses to “Someone had better tell McCain…

  1. That is an outrageous paragraph; it is SO obvious that cap and trade requries mandatory limits–that it is so obvious is exactly why you struggled to explain it–because, what do you think the “cap” part of cap and trade MEANS? Duh! No cap, no trade! Bumiller should come work for the Tab or the Sag.

  2. Well, at least Bumiller knows what McCain’s policy actually is, unlike the candidate himself. I meant to check McCain’s website last night to see if he admitted to being in favor of a mandatory cap there, but I got bogged down in the cap-and-trade explanation and forgot. The policy at the website does, of course, mention mandatory caps, although not in those exact terms. In the “Climate Change” section:

    John McCain’s Principles for Climate Policy

    • Climate Policy Should Be Built On Scientifically-Sound, Mandatory Emission Reduction Targets And Timetables.

    “Mandatory Emission Reduction Targets And Timetables.” That sounds like a “mandatory cap” to me.

    Then, under the heading “John McCain’s Cap and Trade Policy”:

    John McCain Proposes A Cap-And-Trade System That Would Set Limits On Greenhouse Gas Emissions While Encouraging The Development Of Low-Cost Compliance Options. A climate cap-and-trade mechanism would set a limit on greenhouse gas emissions and allow entities to buy and sell rights to emit, similar to the successful acid rain trading program of the early 1990s. The key feature of this mechanism is that it allows the market to decide and encourage the lowest-cost compliance options.

    So basically McCain is going around contradicting the policy that is outlined plainly at his own website. “Mandatory Emission Reduction Targets” and “Set Limits” sounds pretty clear to me.

  3. Right–what they are twisting themselves into knots to avoid is any simple statement that could be misinterpreted as mandatory limits on individual companies. They are really worried about the dumb people in their own party who have been thoroughly brainwahsed into thinking that any government limits on anything are bad and a limit on freedom… Any mention of mandatory anything makes them squirm–so they use words like “targets”–which sound like something you aim for but don’t necessarily hit, a connotation that is trying to soften the blow of the word “mandatory” that was used just before… And then “set limits” doesn’t include the word “mandatory” at all, so there’s no hint of government coercion…

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