To be unequivocally clear, Sen. Obama believes that the United States must and will act to put a mandatory limit on our domestic greenhouse-gas emissions. That is a predicate for us leading the world to enact a truly equitable and global program in which China and India and Brazil and all the major emitting countries also put legal limits on their emissions. The story of this country has not been waiting to be led by others to address global challenges.
Ultimately the solution to global climate change is going to be mediated through the lens of global trade. Sen. Obama has been supportive of mechanisms that have the U.S. take a first step, and if after a period of years other nations are not acting in what is deemed to be a commensurate responsible manner, look to our trade laws to try to ensure that there's no inequity or competitive disadvantage imposed on U.S. businesses. The idea that was initiated by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, in which importers of energy-intensive products would be required to purchase permits for the carbon embedded in those products -- the details need to be fleshed out, but that seems to be a reasonable approach to level the playing field, if we get there.
But Sen. Obama also has faith in the intellect of others. While he believes the United States has a vital role to play in leading this discussion, he does not believe we are going to have to bludgeon other countries into appreciating their own self-interest. Climate change is a real problem. The Chinese are going to suffer the impacts of it much more harshly and immediately than we will. The Chinese and the Brazilians and the Mexican government and others read the same scientific reports as we do. They recognize that the exacerbating cycles of flood and drought will be devastating for countries trying to support billions of people on smaller amounts of arable land, who don't have the same kind of water-handling and -treatment systems. It is the wealthy nations who are in many ways the most hedged and capable of adapting early on.
Here's how I interpret Obama's views based on these statements. As President, Obama would first take action to limit U.S. carbon emissions through a cap-and-trade program. Then, he would try hard for an international agreement on the issue, with the goal of including the developing countries which so far have been reluctant to sign on. But if it becomes clear that some countries cannot be brought into an international agreement, he is willing to act unilaterally to impose equivalent burdens on imports from these countries.
As for McCain, here's something from his recent speech on climate change:
If the efforts to negotiate an international solution that includes China and India do not succeed, we still have an obligation to act.
In my approach to global climate-control efforts, we will apply the principle of equal treatment. We will apply the same environmental standards to industries in China, India, and elsewhere that we apply to our own industries. And if industrializing countries seek an economic advantage by evading those standards, I would work with the European Union and other like-minded governments that plan to address the global warming problem to develop a cost equalization mechanism to apply to those countries that decline to enact a similar cap.
This wasn't quite as specific, but that's to be expected given that it was the candidate's own speech rather than a Q & A with an adviser, as with Obama. Nonetheless, it seems that McCain's views are similar to Obama's: International rules are preferred, but we will act unilaterally, if necessary, to impose similar burdens on countries that do not act.
Of course, within those broad principles, there is a lot of room for disagreement, both on cap-and-trade generally and the international trade component specifically. No doubt these disagreements will get fleshed out a bit more in the coming months.
(Notice that I've created an Obama vs. McCain '08 category for this post. I may be jumping the gun a bit here, but this matchup has begun to look inevitable.)