If the hype is to be believed, Sen. John McCain is practically the second coming of Sierra Club founder John Muir. "I will clean up the planet," McCain told a New Hampshire crowd in January, a promise he has made at dozens of campaign stops since then. "I will make global warming a priority."
But while McCain maintains that global warming will be one of his top three issues as president, he has not articulated a plan of action, nor has he updated his policy positions to reflect changing scientific understanding. Despite all the kudos he gets for acknowledging the threat of climate change, both his record and policy reveal a candidate who is confused about what he's supposed to advocate, and lacks true conviction about environmental protection.
McCain's lack of conviction was eminently clear at the Republican primary debate in Florida last February, where he discussed the Climate Stewardship Act he introduced with Joe Lieberman -- the first legislation in the Senate to call for a cap-and-trade scheme. When moderator Tim Russert suggested that his bill called for a mandatory cap on emissions, McCain responded, "No, I'm in favor of cap-and-trade." Unfortunately for McCain, no matter how unpopular "mandates" may be with his Republican brethren, that's exactly what a cap and trade plan is. McCain's problem seems to be that while he fundamentally supports environmental objectives, he must nevertheless cater to the conservative establishment.
Not only will McCain fold on the issue of mandatory emissions caps, but even the 2007 version of his climate bill is feeble compared to the plans of the Democratic presidential candidates. Despite promising to put climate change at the top of his agenda and repeatedly invoking the phrase "energy independence," he has not put forward a comprehensive plan to address either of those concerns, so it's hard to analyze his platform on the matter in much detail. In the absence of his own plan, he has indicated that he supports climate legislation similar to the industry-friendly Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, which includes lower emissions targets and billions of dollars in handouts to polluters. On the campaign trail, his discussion of renewable energy is often confined to nuclear energy, and he has said he is opposed to creating subsidies and tax incentives to develop alternative energy sources -- despite his own advocacy of massive subsidies for the nuclear industry.
McCain's legislative record on the environment has been similarly disappointing. When the League of Conservation Voters released their annual congressional scorecard for 2007, McCain scored a big fat zero on all things environmental. It's not that he voted against environmental protections. He just didn't bother to show up for the vote on the 15 legislative issues the league included in its scorecard -- measures that would have eliminated subsidies to big oil, created a national renewable electricity standard and included $5.7 billion in tax incentives for renewable energy in the economic stimulus package.
What's more, McCain was among those who voted against approving the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, and he maintains that he won't sign any global climate treaty that doesn't include China and India. So while he talks big about climate and environmental concerns, when it comes to imposing tough standards on industry, making necessary federal investments, and assuming a position of world leadership on climate, he has shown very little initiative.
His lifetime score from League of Conservation Voters stands at a paltry 24 percent, despite earning environmental credibility over the years for voting against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and cosponsoring bills to protect whales, award tax credits for energy efficiency, and raise fuel efficiency standards. He did take heat from the GOP on those issues, and the very fact that he acknowledges unequivocally that anthropogenic climate change is real puts him light years ahead of many Republicans. He has even been an outspoken critic of the Bush administration for denial and inaction on climate change.
The problem is that McCain's few admirable gestures toward environmental responsibility have blinded the public and the press to the actual likely environmental consequences of a McCain administration. His refusal to sign any international climate treaty that does not include China and India is, in practice, refusing to sign one at all. McCain has also stressed that he will appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court, which would affect the outcome in cases like last year's 5-4 decision in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, in which the court ruled that the EPA has the responsibility of regulating carbon dioxide. In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that carbon dioxide is not an air pollutant, and repeated all the absurd claims of the Bush administration EPA on why the agency shouldn't have to regulate emissions. He was joined in that dissent by justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito -- precisely the types of judges McCain says he'd appoint. There's a similar concern about the conservatives he'd tap to head crucial agencies like the EPA and the departments of energy, commerce, treasury, agriculture, and state.
Despite his lip service, all signs indicate that McCain lacks a grasp of the gravity of environmental concerns, and will push policy only as far as it does not inconvenience special interests and the conservative establishment. While his own values may be greener than those of the current Republican administration, chances are slim that he would make the strides necessary to reform the nation's environmental agenda.