John McCain and the Politics of Climate Change

In a recent speech, Senator John McCain reiterated his support for mandatory caps on greenhouse gasses and for a cap and trade policy for carbon dioxide. He also criticized President Bush’s lack of leadership on global warming. It is good news to see some consensus among all the Presidential candidates on the issue of global warming and a definite step forward.

Two other elements of McCain’s climate and energy policy are a little less positive. First is his support for the suspension of the gasoline tax for the summer. I’m with Mike Bloomberg on this—the tax suspension is one of the most idiotic proposals of this endless presidential campaign. If you want to reduce production of greenhouse gasses you should not be lowering the price of gasoline. If you want to keep our aging highway bridges from falling down you might not want to defund the highway trust fund. Second is McCain’s support of nuclear power. He is not alone in pushing nuclear power. While no one argues, as they did in the 1950’s, that nuclear generated electricity would be too cheap to meter, many scientists are attracted to nuclear energy’s carbon free properties. This includes a number of my colleague’s here at Columbia University.

Most of the electricity in France is generated by nuclear reactors. China is rapidly building both coal and nuclear power plants. Both of these nations have central governments with a great deal more authority over local governments than ours. Despite the efforts of Vice President Cheney to consolidate power in the White House, the United States remains a federal system with states retaining a great deal of authority. Local governments in the United States and even communities are seen as important players in our political process. While all local government authority must be granted by states, in this country, local communities have strong veto rights over land development. That is why the nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada may never open. That is why there are no Wal-Marts in New York City. That is why no nuclear power plants have been built in the United States in a generation.

While the nuclear industry is desperately promoting a revival, no one wants a nuclear power plant next door. Nuclear power plants require a great deal of water for cooling and so they tend to be located in the same place we are building condos and new beach clubs. My own view is that investing a great deal of resources in a technology that is so controversial is a waste of time and money. Even if you set aside the issues of waste, vulnerability to terrorism and risks from incompetent operation, the politics of power plant siting should be enough to apply the brakes to nuclear development.

In this region, LILCO’s customers are still paying the costs of building and never operating the Shoreham nuclear power plant. There are constant calls to shut down the Indian Point nuclear power plant north of the City. Many of America’s nuclear power plants are approaching the age where they must be renovated or decommissioned and taken out of service.

Nuclear advocates respond by saying that when brown-outs are common and we don’t have enough electricity to run our homes, we will turn to nuclear power out of desperation. I don’t think so. Moreover, why not develop other, less complicated, more decentralized and maybe even less capital-intensive power sources? It is not that I lack confidence in nuclear technology, it’s that I think it is not politically feasible at the scale we need to construct. Nuclear power’s appeal is that it is available and off the shelf. Its problem is that in our decentralized political system no one wants it next door and every community has the power to veto it.

We need to develop a carbon- free energy source. With Nissan Motors announcing that it is ready to mass market the first electric car, the need for renewable sources of electricity has become more urgent. The issue of climate change creates a crisis that is global in scale. The future of our economy depends on the development of sustainable, renewable and probably solar-based energy. It will be interesting to see if our energy future develops as a theme during this campaign. I wonder if an issue as central as this can compete for media attention with the stuff we end up hearing about? I mean isn’t more important to know who Hamas favors in this election, and how old can someone be and still serve as President? How does the future of the planet and our economic well being compete with those key issues? I guess we’re about to find out.

John McCain and the Politics of Climate Change