10/11/2007 05:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Grading on a curve

All the action and excitement around climate change policy seems to have lulled Chris Mooney into a false sense of security about the current crop of Republican presidential candidates. This, however, is no time to go soft, and no time to give points for showing up. Bare acknowledgement of the reality of climate change is an absurdly low bar to clear at this stage of the game.

If you want to see the heart of the Republican stance on climate change, have a look at the interview with Sam Brownback we just published. I single it out not because Brownback has a particularly good or particularly bad take on the issue, but precisely because it strikes me as the middle-of-the-road response among Republican pols.

Two points need to be made.

First, while the R candidates may acknowledge climate change, they don't care about it. What they care about is "energy independence." To wit:

What do you think is the most important environmental issue facing the nation?

It is probably our consumption of foreign oil -- the huge quantity, the dependency -- and what comes out of doing that.

Note that this answer makes no sense. To the extent oil is an environmental issue, it's just oil, period -- where it comes from doesn't make a bit of difference. You might argue that "foreign oil" is a national security issue, or an economic issue, but it is manifestly not an environmental issue, much less the most important one facing the nation.

This way of prioritizing things pops up everywhere, from the casual support for securing "oil-sands areas in Canada" to this monstrosity:

I think [coal] is key. It is our biggest source of energy from a carbon basis that we have in the country. We have a 200- to 300-year supply. The issue I think for most people has been the carbon dioxide emissions from coal, but I don't think we can break off of [coal use], and I don't think we should break off. We are going to have to find ways to have cleaner burning of coal. Some people are trying to find ways to do CO2 sequestration from coal. That, it looks to me, is a ways off.

The second point has to do with appeals to "the market" -- more specifically, what those appeals have come to mean for modern conservatism. Watch:

Do you support a mandatory cap on greenhouse-gas emissions?

I really believe that the route for us to go to accomplish the most is an incentivized marketplace, not regulation. Markets are much more efficient at moving this forward.

The whole point of a cap-and-trade system, you'll remember, is to use the power of the market to find the optimal way to reduce GHG emission. It sets a price on carbon and lets market forces sort out the rest.

So what does Brownback mean, then, when he talks about markets? Witness:

I would like to see us incentivize the move toward more electricity in the car fleet, with tax credits both at the production and buyer levels. I support strongly the expansion of nuclear power generation ... I would like to see us use tax credits and incentivize people to create carbon sinks in this country or around the world ... I want us to work together particularly on this plug-in technology, and do that through tax credits and incentivizing in the marketplace, not by regulation. ... What I would like to see us do is incentivize with tax credits, incentivize cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel for some period of time, and support research. I think those are ways that we can rapidly move forward. ... Why not use our tax credits and our economy to encourage projects like the Brazil model I mentioned? ...

You see that what Brownback has in mind by market solutions: a grab bag of subsidies and tax breaks for favored industries. Instead of the market, legislators decide what will work out best. To use Sean's distinction, this isn't supporting markets, it's supporting businesses -- a very different approach, one that bears a large share of responsibility for the farce that our energy policy has been for the last many years. Just as with the Republican passion for privatization, it isn't about marshaling market forces -- freedom coupled with competition and the real possibility of failure -- it's simply about offloading as much of the government's work onto private actors as possible.

Anyway, to sum up: the Republican candidates, with the partial exception of (the now-doomed) McCain, are focused on channeling government pork to domestic energy producers they favor. There is only the barest pretense that this has anything to do with global warming or would do anything to slow it. I know green is the new black and everything, but let's not be so naive as to think everybody's on board.