McCain’s Open Letter to Europe

The Financial Times published what might be called an Open Letter from John McCain to Europeans:  America Must Be a Good Role Model.   The first question through the gate, before reading anything other than the title: Does that mean that John McCain believes that American under George W Bush and Richard Cheney has not been a good role model?  That George Bush’s American does not live up to “our own high standards of morality and international responsibility”? This suggests so:

We cannot torture or treat inhumanely the suspected terrorists that we have captured. We must close the detention facility at Guantá­namo

Yet, if John McCain believes (or claims) this, is he willing to name names or just talk around the issue?

But why does this the Guantanamo detention facility matter at Energy Smart? Putting aside the wind turbines used to power it and the potential for solar power, the interest here is more the paragraphs related to Global Warming. And, the disingenuous and misleading claims that are part of John McCain’s Straight Talk Express directly to a dirty energy non-action machine.

John McCain certainly can talk a good talk when it comes to Global Warming. And, he has a legislative record that suggests he recognizes the problem and wants to do something about it. After all, there is the McCain-Lieberman bill that would reduce carbon emissions by 65% by 2050 that was actually voted on by the US Senate, defeated 55-43 by the Republican Senate in 2003 (two years before Hurricane Katrina). As McCain said then,

“Let’s get real here: this is a very minimal proposal that should be a first step,” McCain told the Senate, showing pictures of Arctic Sea ice loss and melting at Glacier National Park. “But we have to start somewhere. We will be back, because these pictures will continue to get worse and won’t improve until we begin to address this issue.”

That Straight Talk is pretty good, isn’t it? And, this is prior to Hurricane Katrina. Prior to An Inconvenient Truth. Prior to the most recent International Panel on Climate Change report. Prior to a major shift in US public and elite understanding and views on Global Warming.  Yes, John McCain once held a leadership position when it came to Global Warming and climate change legislation. The only problem:

  • The Science has changed, we have learned much.
  • The public understanding has changed.
  • The public, elite, business, international support for action has changed (increased).
  • John McCain hasn’t changed.

In 2003, John McCain’s name was on legislation for roughly a 65% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.  In 2008 … the same.

Back to the Financial Times,

I have introduced legislation that would require a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions …

Yes, John, you have. This legislation, however, fails utterly on the basic principles of Global Warming legislation. To start with, it falls short of the base minimum requirement of an 80% reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions, a base requirement to provide a 50% chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.  And, McCain has not even seen fit to sign up as a cosponsor to just slightly less inadequate bill written by two of his strongest supporters: Joe Lieberman and John Warner. Interesting words, misleading words.

 but that is just a start. 

Well, of course. Introduced and not passed is not even a start on real action. And, alongside the words where is the action. 

We need a successor to Kyoto,

One has to wonder whether McCain speaks like this in front of private Republican audiences when trying to raise money. One has to wonder how the Republican base likes calls for international treaties.

a cap-and-trade system that delivers the necessary environmental impact in an economically responsible manner.

Well, John, “an economically responsible manner” would provide a system with 100% auction, to provide economic clarity and clear signals to the market place about the value of reducing pollution. It would not provide hidden subsidies through passing out auction credits and would not exempt polluters. 

And, “an economically responsible manner” would provide paths to ensure that consumers (and that includes industry, government, communities, and individual households/individuals) have access to the technologies and options to respond responsibly to those price signals.

And, economically responsible means driving ever tighter standards of all sorts (building, electronic, automobile mileage) to provide signals to drive efficiency ever greater so that we get ever more economic value from every drop of fuel, from every pound of carbon.

New technologies hold great promise.

Yes, they do. But let us not have a fantasy that we cannot do anything until inventors wave a magic wand and invent something new.  

We need to unleash the power and innovation of the marketplace in order to meet our environmental challenges.

Yes, John, we do.  And, one path for doing so is that open and clear price signal.

Right now safe, climate-friendly nuclear energy is a critical way both to improve the quality of our air and to reduce our dependence on foreign energy sources.

Interesting, isn’t it.  We must have “new technologies”. Okay, nuclear power really isn’t going to be “new”, but deployment of relatively mature technology.  “Power and innovation of the marketplace” should drive things. Hmm, but nuclear power plants are not driven fully by the marketplace but require heavy government support to be built.  (There are many factors, but the data is clear, the “marketplace” does not favor construction of nuclear power plants unless there is significant government involvement, including financial supports (loan guarantees, insurance against risk, etc).)

And, nuclear power has the quite serious reality that it takes a significant amount to deploy, with little impact from new plants in the United States likely prior to the 2020s … and the problems are already so serious.

In addition, how will “nuclear energy … reduce [American] dependence on foreign energy sources”?  Less than 3% of US electricity comes from burning oil thus new nuclear power plants will have little impact on oil bills.

Thus, these words, on first blush, might look good, but on examination the Straight Talk Express doesn’t seem to lead in a straight direction.

McCain wrote much to agree with

The bottom line is that none of us can act as if our only concerns are within our own borders. We cannot define our national interests so narrowly that we fail to see how intimately our fate is bound up with that of the rest of humanity. There is such a thing as good international citizenship. If we wish to be models for others, we must be model citizens ourselves.

And, as he finishes, “This is not idealism. It is the truest form of realism.” Yes, realism calls for internatinal engagement with tools other than military force, to approach challenges differently than by singing a chorus of Bomb, Bomb, Iran.

McCain writes that “Certainly the US must be that model country.” One must wonder whether John McCain would be able to foster that “model country”. His words might seem appealing on first blush, but carry less weight when considered more deeply.

When it comes to Global Warming, John McCain provides a good Republican voice in the US Senate, a voice with at least a toe in the real world in comparison with others in his caucus, such as James Inhofe (R-EX).  But, his Straight Talk has not been straight action, with avoiding every meaningful vote related to greening the economy in the past year.  This OPED, again, has interesting words … words not backed with action.


8 responses to “McCain’s Open Letter to Europe

  1. Thanks for the info on Sen. McCain. I’m finding the same level of criticism aimed at the other major candidates, too. Are we supposed to look to Governor Schwartzenegger for leadership on this?

    I think the comments on nuclear energy are at best a distraction. As long as fossil fuels receive subsidies in the form of tax credits and are able to evade even reasonable clean-air standards, no alternative energy sources can compete on cost; not windpower and certainly not solar energy.

    To answer your question about nuclear energy and oil imports: All the proposed alternatives to petroleum motor fuels require vast amounts of hydrogen and electricity to be effective. That’s where nuclear energy comes in.

  2. Red. Thanks for commenting.

    1. I truly don’t understand the comment that “I’m finding the same level of criticism aimed at the other major candidates, too.” Clinton and Obama are both calling for 80% by 2050 and are co-sponsors of Boxers-Sanders, which has that target. They both have quite serious energy plans, with each having some excellent elements in their plans. They speak, even eloquently, about energy. (With, for example, Obama having this as part of a speech just today:

    2. I am very well aware of PHEV/EV potential, the value of electrification of rail, etc … I understand that option space. I don’t disagree that nuclear power has a (potential) role in supporting this, I just don’t see John McCain doing anything to help foster the move toward PHEV/EV transport.

    3. RE Hydrogen, this remains a chimera to me. The infrastructure obstacles are so high that I do not see, if it occurs, this being a major part of the economy for decades. We must act sooner than that to deal with Global Warming and necessary carbon reductions. Thus, the PHEV/EV option seems the far more valuable approach to pursue aggressively in the coming decade.

  3. Your responses are entirely apt, as would be expected. I’ll answer as well as my humble abilities allow.

    The criticisms I’ve heard about Sens. Obama and Clinton are that they rely too much on cap-and-trade. Cap-and-trade depends on an aggressive program of lowering the caps. What is expected is that decisions about caps will be made between corporation executives and politicians behind closed doors. As I understand the situation, both candidates intend to auction off pollution rights to pay for subsidizing non-fossil energy sources. In effect, it’s a carbon tax. Taking money from ratepayers and putting it through the treasury is a tax as most people understand the term. I believe Republicans won’t allow it and Democratic politicians facing tough challenges won’t vote for it.

    Beyond that, both candidates believe biofuels will solve the problem. There are three separate reasons for believing that’s false, any one of which is sufficient. First, it takes a gallon of biofuel to produce a gallon of biofuel. Unless some startling advance is made, biofuels are only a boondoggle aimed at enriching farmers at the cost of everyone else. Second, the land requirements for growing biomass are so huge that biofuels can only provide a small fraction of the motor fuels we need, even with strict conservation. Third, growing biomass requires clearing land; the greenhouse-gas emissions from landclearing are so large that it takes decades to pay it back.

    There’s a difference between a goal and a plan. They may have a goal that part-time energy sources, biofuels and compact fluorescent lightbulbs will lower emissions by 80%, but arithmetic shows that they don’t have a plan to do it. As I read their energy proposals, they seem to consist only of wishful thinking: maybe if we adopt only Greenpeace-approved energy sources, the energy fairies will solve our problem for us. Please look at Dimensions of the Challenge and tell me if you see something wrong with it.

    The link took me to a speech by Sen. McCain. I did read a speech today from Sen. Obama; it contained only a few lines about energy, all nonspecific.

    Oh, no. Nuclear has much more than a potential. Right now it’s producing over 70% of our non-fossil electricty. More important, it’s the only full-time non-fossil energy source available to us. The important thing to know about renewables is that they only work if there is backup energy for them. If people can’t get the energy they need from renewables and nuclear, they’ll take it from fossil fuels. Nuclear is the one part of the solution that is totally essential.

    Maybe some background on hydrogen is in order here. We do not have a practical alternative to petroleum motor fuels. Plug-in hybrids are only a down-payment on what’s required. We have to replace petroleum fuels because they generate about a third of all artificial CO2. We can do something with conservation, though that depends on the support of voters who are attached to their SUV’s, motorhomes, and yachts. And if it’s achieved, it’s not enough; we also need a replacement onboard energy supply. Here are the possibilities:

    * Battery-powered vehicles. There aren’t any batteries that can power trucks or even cars for long drives and there aren’t any prospects of such batteries being developed. Nonetheless, battery-powered commuting cars could help, if electricity were available for them.

    * Hydrogen-powered vehicles. Hydrogen storage is further advanced than batteries are. If hydrogen were available, these vehicles could play a role.

    * Hydrogen-enriched biofuels. Purdue University is patenting a process which triples the yields of biofuels by adding steam and hydrogen to the mash. Planting biomass crops may never pay, but waste material could play a small role in providing motor fuels.

    * Air-capture of CO2. Two chemists from Los Alamos National Lab have designed a process to capture CO2 out of the air and turn it into motor fuel. It requires large amounts of hydrogen and electricity.

    That’s the situation. To overcome the motor-fuel problem, our available options require large amounts of energy (steam or electricity) and hydrogen. By far, the best way to produce steam and hydrogen is with nuclear energy. This is a way renewable energy can contribute meaningfully to the solution; it can take some electrical load off the nuclear plants so they can generate more motor fuel.

    When one of the candidates is willing to talk about energy at this level, that’ll be the one to vote for.

  4. 1. Cap and Trade is something that, if you read my work, I am far from comfortable with for a range of reasons, including several that you suggest.

    2. “Tax” — how about fee. And, the key issue is how is that revenue used. If it is simply into the treasury, we have a problem.

    3. “Tax” — at some point we’ll have to stop the tax increases on the unborn (misleadingly referred to as Tax Cuts) and actually start paying our way through life (if not paying down debt). Revenues from carbon fees could help on that, if we choose to move that way. Leadership …

    4. All the grand political schemes on biofuels (with the ethanol elements) are bordering on disastrous.

    5. Re nuclear, I don’t see the path toward massive introduction of nuclear power fast enough.

    6. I understand hydrogen. There are some severe infrastructure challenges (moving, storage, etc …) before transport can go hydrogen. It can go (partial) electric today, with existing infrastructure, and “smart grid” introduction will increase its effectiveness.

    7. There are many paths (especially with smart grid but also storage) for renewables to move from intermittency to base load capacity. (Which, of course, biomass and hydropower already are …)

    Thank you for the serious engagement here.

  5. I think you and I agree on the tax part. People want first-class services and benefits but only want to pay third-class fare. My take on the current economic mess is that there was too much cash floating around because of the deficit; people were encouraged to buy more than they could afford with bait-and-switch lending schemes and now both the borrowers and the lenders are getting burned.

    But back to our topic. Regardless what you and I might think, the anti-tax crowd sees user fees and taxes as the same thing. As long as this is a democracy, we shouldn’t count on user fees as a solution.

    Getting nuclear plants on line fast enough is indeed a real challenge. On the other hand, it takes more manufacturing and construction effort to get equal energy from renewables, so that particular argument won’t get us anywhere. Still, it’s inescapable that an unprecedented effort will be required to deal with this successfully. Think in terms of the war effort in the 1940’s. The challenge is, at the same time, a terrific opportunity. These will be good paying jobs because they add real economic value. Instead of working in casinos or sending out junk mail for a living, people can produce clean energy that doesn’t cause thousands of Americans to die every month from health problems due to pollution. By substituting synthetic fuels, we can stop sending our wealth to oil-producing countries. From what I can see, people are looking for good investment opportunities; here they are.

    For a long time there’s been a notion that intermittency can be overcome with technology. In truth, neither grid upgrade nor storage will work. During the summer, wind strength is low all over the continent. That means that oversizing the distribution grid won’t fix it, and there plain isn’t any way to store enough energy to get us through the summer. Please take a look at this page for details. Factoring in other renewable-energy sources makes the calculations more complicated, but the end result is the same. There will be times when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining; people won’t sit home in their dark cold houses as long as policymakers are elected.

    Bear in mind that the concept of baseload capacity only makes sense if there is also a load-following capacity. That’s another way of saying renewables need backup. (I don’t follow how biomass can be baseload capacity.)

    Good dialog! Thanks.

  6. Rob,

    1. I will use this: “People want first-class services and benefits but only want to pay third-class fare.” Thank you.

    2. I think that leadership can create the ‘acceptance’ of fees/taxes, if there is a clear understanding as to why and where. Leadership …

    3. Re nuclear power and industrial requirements. The industrial weight per mw capacity is basically a true point, but ‘renewables’ can come on line incrementally while the nuclear power is a 0/1 situation. It is contributing nothing until it is totally completed.

    4. For you to understand, I don’t think it is (or necessarily is) an either/or situation. Renewables and nuclear power, rather than the two at odds with each other.

    5. Biomass — burning charcoal for electricity can be 24/7, baseload power supplier.

  7. Rob,

    Your calculations are interesting and useful to bound a problem set.

    1. You predicate 100% wind, which is not being advocated by anyone.

    2. Large-scale introduction of wind (and other intermittent renewables) will, I would hope, be associated with development of a smart(er)/learning grid, along with HVDC background to be able to move significant power between regions.

    3. While not a 100 day reserve, part of smart grid would be V2G to enable emerging PHEVs/EVs to be used for some storage and power demand leveling.

    4. DSM is a critical part of the system as well.

  8. I absolutely agree that minimizing global warming will require all the renewables we can manage and more conservation than anyone wants, as well as many nuclear plants. We will need so many of all of them—enough to replace all the fossil-fired power plants—that it will take place in small increments anyway. Really, one plant out of 500 or 1000 is an awfully small increment.

    I can’t argue for or against the leadership comment. Pres. Reagan had a vast and enthusiastic following but he was unable to get his economic plan to work. He wanted to cut entitlements and pork-barrel spending to allow for cutting taxes. All he got was a tax cut and a huge deficit. Would President Obama, charismatic as he is, be able to close down the motorhome industry? The yacht industry? The tourist industry? Will people buy houses that aren’t the size of hotels just because he asks them to? I can’t say.

    Are you really suggesting that people use firewood as an important energy source? I would think it would lead to massive deforestation, and the energy inefficiency of hauling it to its point of consumption would be unacceptable.

    What I’m trying to do is compare alternatives by putting some scale on them. In fact, though, at this point wind power is the only renewable energy source that can compete on cost (both economic and environmental) with nuclear (not counting hydro, which is essentially saturated). So when people tell me that renewables can supply all the energy we use, as Greenpeacers are likely to do, I offer this as a yardstick.

    There are clear limits on how much benefit we can derive from redistribution. It is not the case that one region is oversupplied with wind energy when other regions are undersupplied. Typically the whole continent is seeing similar conditions so at best one region will be somewhat undersupplied when the others are greatly undersupplied.

    Relying on car batteries for demand smoothing is not going to save us. Battery capacity is so limited that supposing batteries could run air conditioners and microwave ovens and cooking ranges is not at all realistic. Could that change? I hesitate to guess about the long-term future; we need to focus on solutions that work now. For the foreseeable future, whatever benefits could accrue are pocket change. The world needs real folding money.

    DSM offers a lot more benefits than car batteries, but it won’t come close to overcoming intermittency. People are willing to do laundry at whatever time energy is available. They’re not willing to swelter in hot rooms or go without cooked meals.

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