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McCain's Lonely War on Global Warming

Despite mountains of evidence, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation without a global warming policy. McCain's about-face sheds some light on a GOP loathe to admit that there is a problem.
 
 
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Matthew Stembridge graduated from Dartmouth College in May of 1999. He returned the next winter wearing red tights over orange long johns, a red knit stocking cap, yellow-painted galoshes that reached midcalf, and a red curtain -- his cape -- draped around his neck. "We were doing this global warming campaign for the presidential primaries, young people all across New Hampshire," says Stembridge. "I was Captain Climate, sent back from the future to educate our leaders so they could avert disaster."

Captain Climate made his debut the night in mid-January when Senator John McCain visited Dartmouth. "Someone saved a seat down front for me, and a couple of minutes before it was supposed to start I walked in. The news cameras all swung around in my direction. And then McCain walked in and came straight up to me. 'Hello, captain,' he says. 'Why don't you come up on stage with me.' He introduces me to his wife, Cindy. And then he raises my hand like we're in a boxing ring." About a week later, at another rally, Captain Climate was again in the audience. And this time, McCain announced from the stage, "I'm concerned about climate change. I'm going to do something about it."

And here's the odd thing -- he did. After Karl Rove finally managed to sink his candidacy, McCain went back to Washington and held hearings in the Commerce Committee on global warming. Real hearings, with real scientists. And then, last fall, he managed to force the first real Senate vote on actually doing something about the largest environmental peril our species has yet faced. The bill he drafted with Senator Joe Lieberman was modest to a fault, and it lost 55-43, but at least, 15 years after the issue first surfaced in the public consciousness, there'd been a vote. "We'll be back this year to do it again," he said when I talked with him in Washington earlier this year. "Campaign finance reform took us seven years. This may take longer, but we'll stay at it."

McCain's emergence as Washington's most important champion of global warming legislation raises some interesting questions -- about him, and about the rest of the Republican Party. Is he an isolated outlier or an early sign that some in the GOP might be ready to soften their anti-environmental stance? Since Republicans control most of the levers of our government, the answer to that puzzle may determine in turn whether America rejoins the world effort on environmental change or continues to drift off in its own orbit. McCain may have morphed into Captain Climate -- minus the red cape -- but for all his force of character, is even he powerful enough to turn Washington to his way of thinking?

In many ways, McCain makes an unlikely environmentalist, lacking among other things the strong sense of place that has turned so many people into passionate conservationists. Instead, he was the classic military child -- both his father and grandfather were Navy admirals -- and he made his own career in the service, eventually, of course, ending up in a North Vietnamese prison camp. When he finally hung up his uniform, he settled in Arizona only because it was the home of his second wife. "All my life I had been rootless," he says. In fact, the turning point in his first run for Congress in 1982 came when an opponent called him a carpet-bagger in one debate. "Listen, pal," he said. "I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the first district of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi."

Once he found a home, however, McCain seemed to grow taproots, deep down into the desert sand. He bought a retreat on Oak Creek, near Sedona. His favorite season there, he says, is the spring: "Lots and lots of flowers. Lots and lots of wildlife, especially birds -- wild ducks, quail, hummingbirds, yellow-billed cuckoos, which are very rare. A pair of black hawks. There are javelina, coyote. A cougar passes through once in a while. Deer, beaver. It's the most beautiful place on earth."

So maybe, if you were looking for the reason that John McCain has become the Senate's only western Republican to take environmental issues seriously, you could point to the pure power of landscape. "The ecology of the desert is very fragile. Obviously climate change could have a very serious effect there," he says.

Or maybe the seeds were planted earlier. Republicans often give lip service to the idea that they're "from the party of Theodore Roosevelt," but few are as devoted as McCain. Most environmentalists revere T.R. for the national parks and monuments and wildlife refuges he left dotting the country. But McCain admired him first for his military insight, his courage as a soldier, and his "deeply personal, almost spiritual, sense of patriotism." Those may sound like conservative virtues, but they turned Roosevelt into a crusader: He railed against the notion that private interest always trumps public good. Roosevelt believed, says McCain, that "base materialism tempted people to indolence and greed."

McCain's other influences were more contemporary. He says one of his greatest mentors was Morris Udall, Arizona's longtime liberal congressman (and another failed populist presidential candidate), who went out of his way to befriend the young McCain during his first term. "I loved Mo Udall. Absolutely loved him," says McCain, who cosponsored the Arizona Desert Wilderness Act with Udall. "By the time I knew him he already had Parkinson's, so we spent less time outdoors than I would have wanted. But we traveled the state together. There was no greater environmentalist than Mo Udall."

In truth, though, this kind of analysis can get you only so far. Take, for instance, Jon Kyl, Arizona's other Republican senator. He has doubtless spent plenty of time admiring desert wildflowers, and surely he knew the Udalls too, but the last scorecard from the League of Conservation Voters gave him an 8 percent rating, and he took to the floor of the Senate to denounce McCain's global warming bill as "foolish."

Even asking McCain straight out why he's been willing to take on this most thorny of environmental issues doesn't prove terribly revealing. His support of legislation to curb climate-change came slowly, as the science became clearer, he contends. "It's been gradual, over the years, as the evidence has accumulated." But evidence of that commitment is hard to find before the 2000 campaign -- he wasn't giving speeches or writing op-eds on the topic, and he certainly wasn't sponsoring legislation. His views on other green issues were pretty abysmal too; the League of Conservation Voters consistently ranked him below 20 percent in its annual survey of political greenness. During the 2000 primary campaigns, when global-warming activists like Stembridge began targeting him, he was giving the standard Republican line: The data are iffy, the costs are too high, we shouldn't do anything yet. That was in late December.

But then, at every rally and every town hall forum, people stood up to ask McCain about global warming. The tag line to their question was always the same: "What's your plan?" And eventually the question seemed to take hold. It was right about then that McCain invited Captain Climate up on stage and, a few days later, promised to appoint a scientific panel that would report back to Congress within a year -- with a plan. "I thought we were all going to drop dead with a heart attack. I mean, we'd seen someone who tried to shut us down with pat, smooth answers in December do a 180-degree turn," says Stembridge. "He became passionate and driven. All of us felt that this was the kind of person we could be excited about following. One guy on our five-person team threatened to quit that day and go to work for him."

By May, McCain was back in Washington, fresh from his defeat in the primaries, and chairing hearings. "One of the great things about the requirements of the electoral process is extensive interaction with the citizenry," he told his fellow senators. "I just finished an unsuccessful, but very enlightening, adventure in that area.... There is a group of Americans who now come to political rallies with signs that say, 'What is your plan?'... I am sorry to say that I do not have a plan because I do not have, nor do the American people have, sufficient information and knowledge. But I do believe that Americans, and we who are policy makers in all branches of government, should be concerned about mounting evidence that indicates that something is happening...I do intend, beginning with this hearing, to become informed, to reach some conclusions, and make some recommendations." McCain-Lieberman was the result of that process.

So chalk one up for the power of people willing to wear funny costumes -- for the power of democracy.

But even that, in the end, doesn't explain everything. The same group of activists was also tailing the other contenders in 2000, without the same result. When Bush personnel wouldn't let them into his tightly scripted events, for instance, they stood outside chanting, "Houston: We have a problem." But it clearly didn't do much good.

Perhaps we're asking the question the wrong way around. It's possible that there's nothing so odd about John McCain, no need to explain his conversion as some kind of miracle. In his belief that global warming is a serious problem, and in his desire to do something about it, he's in agreement with the vast majority of American voters, the legislators of every other industrialized country, and virtually every climatologist on planet Earth. (His proposed legislation, in fact, is far weaker than the weakest laws of the European nations.) Maybe the better question is: How did the other Republicans in Washington get so...odd? How did the party of T.R. become so anti-environmental?

Consider, for instance, Senator James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who chairs the Committee on Environment and Public Works. He didn't just vote against McCain-Lieberman -- he took to the floor during the debate over the bill to describe global warming as "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." Shortly thereafter, he led an unofficial delegation of eight Republican congressmen to talks in Milan on ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. Though President Bush had long since pulled the United States out of the agreement, Inhofe still thought it was important to make clear to the Europeans "that we are not going to ratify Kyoto." Indeed, he lectured them on his collection of scientific "evidence" disproving climate change -- a threadbare assortment of discredited studies that fly in the face of the mountain of peer-reviewed evidence assembled in the last decade, not to mention the observable trends gaining momentum across the planet (glacial systems in rapid retreat, Arctic ice thinning precipitously, all 10 of the warmest years on record in the last two decades). For some reason, the Europeans were not impressed -- perhaps because they still remembered last summer's record heat wave, which baked to death more than 10,000 residents of France and Belgium. "They don't want to listen," Inhofe told nationally syndicated columnist James Glassman. "They were zombies."

Some of this radicalism stems from the perception that environmentalists have been overreaching in recent years. McCain himself talked bitterly to me about conservationists who sued to block the reconstruction of a washed-out road across federal land. "People needed to get their kids to school -- all over Arizona people thought that was ridiculous," he says. But mostly, says Jim DiPeso, the policy director of Republicans for Environmental Protection, it comes from a kind of worship of the market -- a deep belief that there's never any good to come from interfering with the free operation of laissez-faire economics. "Look at James Inhofe and people like him. They're so bought into the notion that economic prosperity is tied to the consumption of fossil fuels that they simply refuse to let go of it. They can't tolerate any argument that postulates that fossil fuels have downsides, that there are reasons to accelerate the transition to other forms of energy."

"It seems like these Christian fundamentalist far-right Republicans put business ahead of the environment every time," says Pete McCloskey, who served from the late 1960s until the middle of the Reagan administration as a Republican congressman from California -- and who helped organize the first Earth Day, in 1970. "In my day -- really, until Newt Gingrich took over -- we could always count on a good number of Republicans for environmental issues. The Environmental Study Conference in the House and Senate, which functioned like an environmental caucus, usually had 60 or 65 percent of each chamber enrolled. But those great Republican enviros have largely left or been shunted aside or died -- Mark Hatfield, Chuck Percy, Mac Matthias." Even as recently as the first Bush administration, says Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords, the split wasn't so deep. Indeed, the first President Bush pledged to "fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect." "I was proud to work with his father on the Clean Air Act amendments in 1990," says Jeffords. "Now this President Bush insists on undoing his father's legacy." For Jeffords, of course, it was too much -- the environment was one reason he finally left the GOP and began caucusing with the Democrats.

At this point, the remaining GOP environmentalists are almost completely stockaded in the Northeast. There's New York governor George Pataki, who has acquired large tracts of land in the Adirondacks and fought hard against acid rain. There's Christie Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey who ran the Environmental Protection Agency for George W. -- but who lost just about every fight within the administration to more conservative colleagues, eventually resigned, and just last month wrote an op-ed for the New York Times admitting that "many conservatives act as if they wish we moderates would just disappear." In the House there's New York Republican Sherwood Boehlert. And in the Senate, both senators from Maine -- Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins -- supported McCain-Lieberman, as did Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee. But that's about it. As DiPeso of Republicans for Environmental Protection admits, "In Congress, once you get west of the 100th meridian, Republican environmentalists get very few and far between."

If you ask environmentalists who work the Hill about their contacts in the GOP, you get mostly blank stares. Aside from McCain and a handful of others, "we have trouble even getting into a lot of their offices," says Karen Wayland, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "They brand us as extremists despite the fact that the public has been long supportive of environmental regulations. When there's a big environmental vote we might be able to pull 20 Republicans in the House, and that's not a lot, because we lose some conservative Democrats." Debbie Reed, legislative director for the National Environmental Trust, says she thinks a few Republican senators actually believe that global warming is a problem. She cites Idaho's Larry Craig and Kansan Pat Roberts, who visited a National Science Foundation project in Antarctica and saw some of the scientific data firsthand -- but even they couldn't bring themselves to vote for the mild law proposed by McCain and Lieberman. Among other things, she says, they were unwilling to buck the president.

Wayland cites pure partisanship as one reason for the antipathy to environmental concerns among Republicans. "Look at the House. Tom DeLay runs it with an iron hand. They have a much less fractured caucus than the Democrats do, and a lot of it has to do with the retribution they're willing to exact." Indeed, even Republicans whose seats are safe from Democratic challenge still fear the right wing of their party: PACs like the Club for Growth increasingly intervene in party primaries to back more conservative challengers if they feel an incumbent is moderating. New York's Boehlert, for instance, barely survived such an attack in 2002 and faces another this year. This may be one place where McCain's biography really does make a difference: Not only does his POW record give him a coating of political Teflon, but it may also make him steelier than the average pol in the face of threats. "He's an independent thinker," says Jeffords. "The White House may give him a hard time because of it... but doing what you know to be right makes the uncomfortable decisions easier."

"Hey, he spent five years in the Hanoi Hilton," says McCloskey. "He's not going to scare easily."

I'd been looking forward to interviewing McCain, who has a reputation among reporters as open and engaging. But our sessions were mostly anticlimactic. He consistently parried any questions about his newfound environmentalism. Instead, over and over again, he kept returning to the same idea: Special interests controlled the debate and, until they were overmatched by public opinion, little progress would be possible. At first I was frustrated -- most of us want to believe that it comes down to something more than the familiar refrain of money in politics, want to believe that minds could be changed by ideas, by rational debate, or by flying congressmen off to see melting glaciers. But the more I thought about it, the more grateful I was for McCain's insistence on the primacy of politics. In the end, only senators know what it's like to be a senator. "If there's one thing that everyone here's an expert on," says McCain, "it's getting elected."

And so, the science of global warming pales in importance next to the fact that "all of the manufacturing sector is opposed to significant measures being taken. People like the National Association of Manufacturers, the automobile industry. There's a broad array of powerful opposition to doing anything." Indeed, shortly before the vote on McCain-Lieberman, the manufacturers' association sent out a letter to senators calling the bill "fossil energy rationing": "In light of the seriousness of this vote and the signals it will send, the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among others, are planning to count this vote as one of their Key Votes." The message was clear: When these groups prepare their annual political scorecard, those on the wrong side of the debate could expect payback.

At the moment, energy interests may be the most powerful force of all in Washington. A large proportion of the president's advisers come, like him, from the oil, gas, and coal industries. (Chevron named an oil tanker after his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.) By most accounts, the industry essentially wrote the nation's energy policy, though we may never know for sure because Vice President Cheney has refused to release the names of the lobbyists he met with while drafting the document. Consider last fall's Energy Bill, which went down to narrow, and perhaps temporary, defeat. The nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity calculated that coal, oil, and gas companies on the Fortune 1000 list had given $13.9 million to Republicans since 1998, compared with $3.2 million to Democrats. For their money, they got what even the conservative National Review called "pages of special-interest giveaways, almost devoid of worthwhile reforms." McCain famously renamed the bill the No Lobbyist Left Behind Act. "It was pork and nothing but," he says.

If that's the the only problem, however, then at least we've been down this road before. "You know, Republicans weren't all that much better on the environment when I arrived in 1967," says McCloskey. "It was the party of big business then, too. In fact, when Gaylord Nelson started Earth Day, he asked me to be cochair because he wanted it to be bipartisan and I may have been the only Republican he could find."

But then something interesting happened -- something that recalls Matt Stembridge in his red curtain and yellow overshoes. "About two weeks after Earth Day," McCloskey says, "there was an article on the sixth or seventh page of the Washington Star -- some of the Earth Day kids had labeled 12 members of Congress the Dirty Dozen and vowed to defeat them. Nobody paid much attention. On the first Wednesday in June, though, everyone in Washington opened the paper to find that the two Democrats on that list -- one a powerful committee chairman, the other a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee -- had lost primary fights by fewer than a thousand votes. Within 24 hours, seven of the 10 Republicans on the list had come to me, even though I was despised, against the war and all. 'What's this about water pollution, about air pollution? What can you tell us?' That fall, five more of that dozen were defeated. With seven of them down, when the next Congress convened everyone raised their hand and said, 'I'm an environmentalist.' And in the next three years we passed the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and most of the rest of the major environmental laws."

If legislative change is going to come, in other words, senators will have to sense a shift in public attitudes first. There are already a few signs of that, says McCain. "More people are moving into these western states who are environmentally attuned," he says. "So you start to see a little more concern. And as the economic base shifts from mining and logging to skiing, tourism, and other things that a good environment is critical to, you see change." And then there is the perception, too, that conservatives are the ones who are overreaching. Karen Wayland, the NRDC lobbyist, cites the administration's push to allow coal-bed methane development in Wyoming, which she says is bringing together ranchers and environmentalists in an effort to stop the spread of wells. Adds DiPeso, "I've heard Wyoming ranchers say, 'Dammit, the Republicans want my land and the Democrats want my guns.'"

But on the hardest questions like global warming, expect slow progress. McCain and Lieberman surprised most observers when they managed to get even 43 votes for their bill. "That's the good news," McCain says. "The bad news is it's a long ways from 51 or even 60," the number needed to overcome a filibuster. Or for that matter 67, the number needed to beat a presidential veto. And with the Republicans widely expected to pick up several southern Senate seats this fall, the math could grow more daunting still.

"What you really need is a sea change in public opinion," says McCain. "Global warming has to become a campaign issue, and it never has, either in congressional campaigns or senatorial campaigns or presidential campaigns." And that's not entirely the fault of Republicans -- in 2000, even Al Gore tried to distance himself from his own strong views on climate change, fearing it was a political loser. As activist Stembridge recalls, "Captain Climate had a sidekick, Boy Atmosphere. But when he tried to approach Gore at the last debate, the campaign had its volunteers surround us with a cordon of supporters so no one could see us." It's hard work, politicking, and often bitter work (ask any of the legion of Howard Dean supporters). But it may be the only work that finally matters here. "Writing letters, making phone calls, organizing neighborhood campaigns -- average Americans can have a strong impact on policy," insists Jeffords. Especially since, again thanks to John McCain, the laws on campaign finance have been tightened, at least a little, to diminish the power of corporations and unions.

"We've made a modest effort with this bill," says McCain. "But until enough citizens who are voters care, then these special interests will be able to block any meaningful policy change. It's as simple as that." He pauses and adds, "The race is on. Are we going to have significant climate change and all its consequences, or are we going to try to do something early on? Right now I don't think we're going to act soon enough without significant degradation of our environment. I hope I'm wrong."