McCain resumes his quest for climate change action

The senator bucks his party on climate change, after years of silence.

 

On Sunday, Sen. John McCain said it’s time to sit down again and figure out some “common-sense solutions” to climate change. The Arizona Republican made his cautious remarks on CNN when asked why others in his party act as if climate change is not real. In recent days, President Donald Trump and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt brushed off questions about climate change and Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, the storms that killed dozens of people and caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damages in the South. Trump and most of McCain’s Republican colleagues in Congress are busy reversing former President Barack Obama’s climate change agenda.

 McCain, who recently started treatment for an aggressive type of brain cancer, told CNN the climate is being altered in “unprecedented” ways. Nuclear and renewable energy need to be part of the solution: “Solar and other technologies make it cheaper for energy for many of the American people, including a state like mine where we have lots of sunshine,” he added.

This isn’t the first time McCain has bucked his own party on climate change, although he hasn’t been prominent on the issue since his loss to Obama in 2008. “He embraces being the voice of the maverick in the Republican Party; speaking truth to power,” says Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University in North Carolina. “Climate change is one of the big issues where he wants to do this with President Trump.”

McCain diverged from his party on climate change after an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for president. In 2000, McCain was followed around New Hampshire by a recent college graduate who wore a makeshift superhero costume and called himself Captain Climate Change. Instead of sending security guards after him, McCain publicly discussed climate change with him at campaign events.

Back in the Senate, McCain stuck with the issue, Floyd Deschamps, a longtime McCain aide, remembers. “When he came back off the campaign in 2000, he talked about how many younger voters asked him where he stood on climate change and what his policy was on climate change,” Deschamps says. “At the time, he really didn’t have a policy.” That spring and summer, as chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, McCain held hearings on climate science. Starting in 2001, he drafted the first bipartisan climate change legislation with Joe Lieberman, at the time a Democratic senator from Connecticut. They worked together for years trying to push it through Congress, despite the opposition of most congressional Republicans and President George W. Bush.

Sen. John McCain, left, and frequent ally former Sen. Joe Lieberman at the Munich Security Conference in 2010.

Their bill used a market-based approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, allowing companies to buy and sell permission to pollute. When McCain forced a vote in 2003 on the so-called cap-and-trade bill, it was defeated 44-53. But support kept broadening, eventually drawing endorsements from major electric utilities. “McCain changed the political dynamic of the issue in the United States,” recalls Profeta, who at the time was Lieberman’s counsel for the environment.

McCain won his party’s nomination for president in 2008 and he and his Democratic rival, Obama, both supported climate change legislation.

The next year, with Democrats in charge, the House passed a cap-and-trade bill that differed in significant ways from McCain and Lieberman’s and drew criticism from McCain. In the Senate, a McCain ally, Sen. Lyndsey Graham, R-S.C., was a key player. McCain, who faced reelection, was not.

“It did seem a bit like a betrayal; at the time I assumed it was politics and I still do,” remembers Katharine Jacobs, a University of Arizona professor and director of its Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions. She worked on climate science in the Obama White House.

Without Republican support or strong leadership from Obama, the Senate version imploded in 2010. There have been no serious efforts to revive climate change legislation since then.

So when McCain suggested on CNN that the time has come to readdress climate legislation, Democrats took notice. “When you have an administration that is in denial mode about climate change, to have a senator as prominent as McCain make an opening — I think it’s an opening we should take advantage of,” says Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources committee.

McCain has already slowed the reversal of Obama’s climate change policies. In May he unexpectedly joined two other Republican senators in voting to keep a Bureau of Land Management rule designed to limit emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from oil and gas operations.

Still, even as he defied his own party, McCain lashed out at his likeliest allies in any climate deal. In his remarks on CNN, he criticized environmentalists for dismissing nuclear power as an important part of the solution.

Confidants say McCain never stopped supporting action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But as a legislator with a lot of priorities, he gave his time to issues that seemed more likely to benefit from his attention. “Going all the way back to when he ran for president, he’s always been an advocate for action concerning climate change,” says Grant Woods, a former Arizona attorney general who has long advised McCain and co-chaired his 2010 campaign. “He did that even in Republican primaries when it wasn’t that popular. I think it’s just a matter of: He’s got a lot of things on his plate. He’s never changed his position."

Given the entrenched partisan divide on the issue, a climate deal is unlikely in the near future. And it’s not yet clear how strongly McCain might push for action to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

For future climate legislation to succeed, senators from both parties will have to come to an agreement, says Profeta: “I don’t think that deal is ripe though. You need some triggering event to allow people to come off hardened positions. I think in the end we will price carbon. I pray that Sen. McCain is part of it.”

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington.