Nuclear McCain

It became clear over the weekend that some elements in the press are going to attempt, in spite of all the evidence, to suggest that Obama and McCain are “really” the same. The centerpiece for any such argument would have to be climate change, where McCain genuinely has broken with the Bush administration’s horrible record and come out in favor of reducing carbon emissions. And it should be conceded up front that reducing emissions by any amount, however inadequate, would be a big improvement over the Bush plan of ever-increasing emissions.

But lurking within McCain’s agenda is a striking level of vacuity. Right now, the federal government spends a lot of money on roads and very little money on railroads. Moving freight on railroads emits less carbon than does moving freight on roads. And moving people on railroads emits less carbon than does moving people on roads. Ergo, one good way to reduce carbon emissions would be to shift some of our spending off of roads and onto rail. This needn’t entail any increase in overall spending levels so there are no reasons of fiscal tightwadery that conservatives would need to oppose such a measure. And yet, McCain doesn’t seem to favor it.

What’s more, McCain doesn’t seem to favor any changes in federal policy that would lead to reduced carbon emissions. He has no proposals to reduce driving and no proposals to increase energy efficiency. What’s more, he opposes subsidies to clean sources of electricity. This last he nominally does on the conservative grounds that we shouldn’t be interfering with the normal operation of the market. That seems like a plausible view to take, except McCain isn’t opposed to nuclear subsidies. Indeed, he very strongly favors them. Favors them, Dave Roberts points out, to the extent that he said he would vote against the most moderate cap-and-trade plan in the congress on the grounds that it doesn’t include sufficient subsidies for nuclear power.

That’s the kind of position you would expect a lobbyist for the nuclear energy industry to take — not someone who’s serious about reducing carbon emissions. Anything that puts a price on carbon, whether or not in includes explicit subsidies, will be good for the nuclear energy industry. And if additional subsidies on top of that are the price it takes to convince unprincipled Senators — like, apparently, John McCain — to vote for an overall good bill then that’s a price worth paying. But on the merits the McCain position, “yes to cap-and-trade if and only if it contains large subsidies for nuclear power” verges on the insane. Or, rather, it makes a lot of sense in terms of McCain’s prodigious fundraising from the energy industry but it’s very hard to understand on the merits.

Photo of Enrico Fermi Nuclear Power by Flickr user Mandj98 used under a Creative Commons license