WSJ not biting on McCain's carbon "market"

The bastion of free-market journalism has little stomach for John McCain’s attempt to create a new market for carbon-emissions trading. The Wall Street Journal calls McCain’s attempt to address global-warming issues “vastly complex” and not all that distinguishable from what Barack Obama proposes. The editors conclude that it would create large swaths of new federal regulation and enforcement, the opposite of what energy producers need to lower prices and improve efficiency:

The latest stop on John McCain’s policy tour came at an Oregon wind-turbine manufacturer, where the topic was – what else? – the Senator’s plan to address climate change. This is one of those issues where Mr. McCain indulges his “maverick” tendencies, which usually means taking the liberal line. That was the case yesterday, no matter how frequently he claimed his approach was “market based.”

In fact, if “the market” is your favored mechanism, Mr. McCain’s endorsement of a “cap and trade” system is the worst choice for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. …

Then there’s cap and trade, which Mr. McCain has backed for years and would, as he put it with some understatement, “change the dynamic of our energy economy.” He noted that Americans have a genius for problem-solving but continued, “The federal government can’t just summon these talents by command – only the free market can draw them out.” To translate: His plan is “market based” insofar as it requires an expensive, invasive government bureaucracy to interfere with the market.

Where to begin? McCain’s vision of a government-run, government-mandated “market” really only exists as a series of taxes and subsidies, not a free market in any sense of the term. It starts with government mandates on emissions that may or may not be rational, and it produces penalties and rewards dependent — much like the federal tax system — on which lobbyists succeed in adapting the legislation to their benefit. As the WSJ points out, the system would force energy producers to buy “credits” from other industries that have reduced their global-warming sins already, or from foreign countries such as China to fund improvements in their energy-production systems.

Let’s emphasize that: American industry would pay to improve China’s energy infrastructure in a period when we expect to increasingly compete with China economically. Does this make sense?

In fact, we know it doesn’t make sense because Europe has had the same system in place to enforce the Kyoto accord. Have they met their reduction goals? Not exactly; instead, they’ve busied themselves trying to boost the emissions estimates from their baseline 1990 numbers in order to mask their failure and to reduce the cost of future compliance. Instead, the US has used incentives for businesses to modernize and retrofit, with real results. Under the Bush administration, carbon emissions have declined 3%, beating most of the EU nations using the same cap-and-trade system favored by McCain.

With that experience, the notion of cap-and-trade makes little sense. At least a “carbon tax” would have the virtue of honesty, as well as keep the proceeds within the US rather than forcing tribute to foreign nations for their own modernization. And since the science of all this remains unsettled — especially given the new predictions of a decade-long cooling while carbon continues to increase — the need for action is far from established at all. Both Obama and McCain offer top-down government-controlled solutions for a problem that appears to exist only in the fevered imaginations of statists.

While hydrocarbon emissions reductions have benefits outside of global-warming theories, the need to kneecap our economy while subsidizing those of our competitors simply does not exist.

Update: Hugh Hewitt notes McCain’s support for nuclear power as a way to trade off for carbon emissions:

Skeptics about any aspect of the global warming debate –the significance of the temperature rise, its origins, or the ability of humans to affect the temperature change– thus have a choice:  A candidate with a plan that includes a push for nuclear energy and accountability for China and other rapidly industrializing countries, or a candidate who will push an America-first, only, and without nuclear power plan.

McCain has occupied the center on this debate, and the GOP and conservatives should get over it and begin working to keep enough Republican senators in place to assure that President McCain’s emphasis on a new generation of nuclear power plants becomes a reality, thus keeping cap-and-trade from becoming a suffocating blanket.

We should push for nuclear power and a large expansion of domestic coal and oil production rather than adopt the failing EU system.  And while there are many reasons to prefer John McCain over Barack Obama, Hugh is wrong in identifying this as one of them.