Thursday, March 6, 2008

John McCain's Environmental Confusion

Where does John McCain stand on environmental issues? The record is confusing, according to this article in The New Republic (excerpt below):
Trying to explain McCain's wildly erratic record on environmental issues is a maddening task. "We never know where he's going to come from," says Debbie Sease, the legislative director of the Sierra Club. "As a general rule, on land and conservation issues ... he tends to be pretty good. But he's a doctrinaire conservative on the role of government in protecting people from pollution." In his early House years, McCain was mentored by Morris Udall, an Arizona Democrat and conservationist. Soon enough, McCain was championing legislation to limit flights over the Grand Canyon and, as a freshman senator in 1990, snarling at senior Republicans to back down on local water issues.
But, when he wasn't safeguarding Arizona scenery, McCain usually held the conservative line, voting to hollow out clean-water and health protections or to expand offshore drilling. He also famously agitated for the construction of a controversial telescope atop Arizona's Mount Graham--which meant the razing of a forest containing an endangered species of red squirrel. When a Forest Service supervisor wanted to halt work on a road into the area, McCain was livid, according to a later investigation, threatening that, "if he did not cooperate on this project, he would be the shortest tenured forest supervisor in the history of the Forest Service."

In 1995, the Gingrich revolution swept into Congress and quickly set about trying to undercut the EPA. Once again, McCain stood with conservatives. But, the following year, after Bob Dole was trounced in the general election and GOP pollster Frank Luntz warned that half of all Republicans didn't trust their party on green issues, McCain penned a New York Times op-ed headlined "Nature Is Not a Liberal Plot," lambasting his fellow Republicans for their anti-environmental zeal. According to Frank Riggs, a former Republican representative who advised the senator in his 2000 campaign, McCain wasn't fundamentally at odds with the GOP goal of rolling back laws it saw as infringing on private property, but he did see a p.r. problem. "A lot of us were saying it privately, but he was one of the few willing to voice it publicly," says Riggs. "The Republicans could not be seen as anti-environment." McCain's gambit worked: The press hailed him as a kinder, gentler Republican in 1999, even as he was promising to repeal a Clinton-era ban on new roads in protected forests and skipping key votes on fuel-efficiency, wildlife, and mining bills.
The big exception to this pattern came after McCain returned to the Senate in the summer of 2000, still smarting from his primary defeat at the hands of Karl Rove. At the time, the odds of Congress acting on climate change seemed negligible: The Senate had denounced the Kyoto Protocol in a 95-0 vote, and Bush would soon renege on a campaign pledge to regulate greenhouse gases. On the trail in New Hampshire, McCain had been assailed by questions about global warming and dogged by an activist in yellow galoshes and a cape nicknamed "Captain Climate." Once back in Washington, McCain held the first balanced climate hearings in years starring real scientists (rather than industry-funded hacks). And, in private, Joe Lieberman convinced him that the United States risked losing its leadership position in the world if it didn't act. So the two senators drafted the first economy-wide cap-and-trade bill for carbon emissions and wrenched arms until the GOP leadership let it go to the floor, where, in 2003, it got 43 votes--far more than anyone had expected. "It was transformative: We went from Kyoto going down ninety-five to zero, and conventional wisdom saying nothing could ever pass, to a place where we had forty-three votes for a cap-and-trade regime," says Tim Profeta, a former Lieberman aide who helped draft the bill. Thanks in part to McCain, the political tectonics have shifted to the point where, today, a cap-and-trade bill is seen as inevitable.
But, just as McCain was becoming a celebrity in green circles--he graced the cover of OnEarth magazine in 2004, under the headline "Meet Captain Planet"--he swerved yet again. When McCain re-introduced his climate bill in 2005, he larded it with hefty nuclear subsidies, a poison pill that scared off environmental groups and lost four Democratic supporters. (Not all enviros are flatly antinuclear, but most would rather not see it heavily subsidized at the expense of other forms of clean energy.)
It's not clear why McCain sabotaged his own bill. One ex-staffer suggests that he thought he could lure Republicans like Lindsey Graham and Sam Brownback with a nuclear carrot, but miscalculated. (It didn't hurt that South Carolina, where McCain's first White House bid had foundered, is a big nuclear state.) And it's true that McCain isn't known for his deft legislative touch--one Senate staffer told me that McCain "totally screwed up the floor strategy" for a fuel-economy bill he sponsored with John Kerry in 2002.
Yet it's hard to shake the feeling that McCain may have been more interested in using global warming to burnish his maverick reputation than in passing legislation. "[T]he day-in, day-out negotiations you normally see--those weren't taking place," says Steve Cochran of Environmental Defense. Indeed, just last year, McCain refused to endorse a similar cap-and-trade bill sponsored by Lieberman and Virginia Republican John Warner--which actually has a shot at passing this year--just because it doesn't mention nuclear power. It's an absurd quibble for someone who thinks global warming is a colossal problem (the nuclear industry hardly lacks for subsidies as is) but a fine pose for someone who wants to be seen flouting conventional wisdom.
Interfaith Power and Light is a religious response to global warming with chapters in 25 states and Greater Washington, D.C. Find a link to your local chapter at
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1 comment:

Interfaith Power and Light said...

Thanks for the heads up Pastor Denise - it's important that the daily media not green wash any candidates.