Republican Senator John McCain has been considered somewhat of a maverick by both his critics and supporters. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his stance on global warming. The Bush administration and the Republican party, as a whole, are slow to move to action when it comes to climate change. This hasn’t stopped the Arizona senator from being a leading advocate for curbing global emissions. Host Steve Curwood talks with Senator McCain about his climate agenda, and how the issue first came up four years ago on the campaign trail.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
In today’s political climate, there are few Republicans leading the fight against climate change. But that’s just what Arizona Senator John McCain is doing. The once and perhaps future presidential candidate with a maverick reputation has emerged as the leading advocate in Congress for action on global warming.
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Senator John McCain at Yale University (Photo: Peter Casolino)
MCCAIN: Good morning. Today the committee meets for the third in a series of hearings this year on the very critical topic of the impacts of global climate change… an issue of worldwide importance…
CURWOOD: As chair of the Senate’s commerce and science committee, Senator McCain has brought the top climate scientists in the world to the halls of Congress. The hearings have become his bully pulpit to bring attention to the issue and to take on global warming skeptics.
MCCAIN: There is strong scientific consensus about the fact that global climate change is occurring, and occurring as a result of human activity. Those few scientists and those in industry that claim otherwise do so despite their lying eyes.
CURWOOD: Senator McCain also co-authored the Climate Stewardship Act with Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman. The bill would create the first federal mandatory limits on emissions of climate-changing gases such as carbon dioxide. The measure failed in the Senate last year but did better than expected in a 55 to 43 vote.
And Senator McCain says he is committed to winning passage of the act no matter how long it takes, and compares it to his years-long effort to reform campaign finance law. It’s a curious crusade for someone like John McCain to take up. Many of his fellow Republicans – including President Bush – oppose regulatory action on climate change, and some Republican Senate leaders even deny global warming is a threat.
I sat down with Senator McCain in his Washington office recently to ask him why he’s taken up this fight and where he sees it going. He says it started on the campaign trail four years ago when he was running for president and decided to take a closer look at climate change because voters were asking him to.
MCCAIN: Every town hall meeting that I had, some young person would stand up and say, “What are you going to do about climate change?” And initially … I didn’t disregard the questions, but more and more it got me more interested and more involved. And it wasn’t just in New Hampshire – it was all over the country. There would always be people there who would ask about climate change. And clearly, as an elected representative or a person who wants to represent the people, you should pay attention to their concerns. And I started – and that certainly piqued both my interest and my involvement in the issue.
CURWOOD: People who have championed this from the Senate – I’m thinking of yourself, I’m thinking of Joe Lieberman, I’m thinking of Al Gore – you guys all have run for president and haven’t gotten there.
MCCAIN: (LAUGHS) Well that may be partially coincidence. When I ran in 2000 I didn’t have nearly the concern about climate change as I’ve begun to feel over the last two or three years as the accumulation of scientific evidence has dramatically increased.
CURWOOD: You say it’s important for people to be educated about this. Tell me about the education of John McCain, when you first became aware of climate change as being a major issue. And what motivated you to become really a champion of us looking at it politically?
MCCAIN: I was concerned about it because I’ve heard and read so much about it. But probably what – my position evolved. When we started having these hearings and these incredibly respected scientists who spend their lives studying this issue become more and more unanimous, and more and more definitive in their views about climate change – look, the most cautious people in the world is the scientific community. And the National Academy of Scientists has come out in very definitive language that, quote, “human activity is responsible for the increase in greenhouse gases.” I mean, that’s…there’s no equivocation there. So when the smartest people in the world – I stood fifth from the bottom of my class at the Naval Academy, I don’t claim to be real smart, but I do claim to respect the views and opinions and conclusions of the smartest people in America and the world.
CURWOOD: I understand you just were on a tour that took you to the northern-most fringes of Norway and Spitzbergen. What did you see?
MCCAIN: We saw glaciers that have dramatically diminished over the last ten years. We talked to various scientific research people. There are ten nations up there in this particular place, in Spitzbergen, doing research who also said they had significant evidence of climate change taking place.
CURWOOD: I understand on this trip you actually asked some of the other folks who were traveling with you to take a detour to Spitzbergen. Why did you specifically want to take members of the Congress, the Senate, to see Spitzbergen?
MCCAIN: Well I think that it’s an educational experience. Whenever you actually see some of things that you actually hear about and read about, it has a much greater impact. By the way, we also stopped in Iceland on the way back, and they are seeing significant impacts of climate change as well.
CURWOOD: When I look back at your record on the environment, at least according to League of Conservation Voters, they don’t give you a very good score from their perspective. They give you a 20 percent score. And yet today you’re one of the leading champions here in the national government talking about taking mandatory action for climate change. What is it that brought you to the issue of climate change?
MCCAIN: First of all, as far as the scores of my friends – and they are my friends – in the League of Conservation Voters: one, for example, one of their grading criteria is whether you are pro-life or not, and if you’re pro-life then you’re marked down in their scores. So, in all due respect, I believe that my commitment to the environment – beginning back in the ‘80s working with Mo Udall to put three million acres of Arizona into pristine preservation status – speaks for itself, but...
CURWOOD: So it’s a bad rap they’ve given you, in other words.
MCCAIN: No, we just have differing opinions as to what is an environmental issue. I don’t view the issue of abortion as being an environmental issue, they do. But that’s – look, that doesn’t bother me. The people of Arizona and the people of this country know me and my record well enough that I’m not too concerned with a particular scorecard.
But more importantly than that, what has made me far more dedicated to this issue is the accumulation of scientific evidence and the opinion of the most-respected scientists in the world. That’s what has caused me to increase my commitment. And I know we’re going to address this issue. I mean, there’s not a doubt in my mind. The question is, how much damage has been done? How much are our kids and grandkids gonna pay before we’re able to take significant action?
Now, some things are already happening a little bit. This new commitment and glamour associated with a hybrid engine is now, I think, a nice little sign. The fact that the Europeans are now going to start a cap-and-trade system, that I’m sure will work, will have an effect on our legislation. And amongst young Americans the issue of the environment is becoming a larger and larger issue and ranks in importance with young Americans.
CURWOOD: What are the chances now for passage of the Climate Stewardship Act?
MCCAIN: I think it’s probably, if I had to guess, another year or so. The reason why I say that is because the special interests here – the utilities, particularly, but also the automobile manufacturers, so many others are such powerful lobbies here. What’s interesting is you’re seeing activities amongst various states. The Northeast is forming a coalition of governors, out in California and the West Coast states. So where these lobbies are not as powerful you are seeing action being taken far ahead of that of the Congress.
CURWOOD: The President, President Bush, is well on the record not favoring mandatory action to deal with climate change. You’ve had a number of rather public bear hugs with the President these days; in those moments, do you ever whisper in his ear, “Do something about climate change”?
MCCAIN: (LAUGHS) We spend a lot of time together and I try to respectfully bring to his attention my position on this and other issues. But the one thing I don’t do – and I’ve never done with any president who I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with – is force my agenda on them. The President knows my views on this and other issues in which we are not in agreement. So, I don’t believe that the administration is going to do anything about climate change until after the election. And I’m hopeful then that we could perhaps get some action.
But the fact is we will pass legislation such as that that Joe Lieberman and I have proposed. I mean, the facts are facts, and climate change is real, and it’s threatening, and it’s inevitable that we act. Look, a huge percentage of the world’s coral reefs are dying. What happens if the coral reefs die? Then the fish die, and the beginning of the food chain dies. Recently the Australians declared that the Great Barrier Reef is going to be dead by the year 2030. These comments and findings are gonna sooner or later force the Congress of the United States to act, with or without the agreement of the administration. Of any administration, Bush or Kerry.
CURWOOD: Politics is the big piece of it. So what about the big political question right now, the presidential race? The Democratic nominee favors mandatory action on climate change. The Republican nominee, your party, does not.
MCCAIN: Yep. Tell me the last time that the positions of either candidate had one line in any major newspaper in America. Fact is that it’s not being made an issue in this campaign and I’m sorry it’s not.
CURWOOD: Can’t you make global warming an issue due to your visibility in the Bush campaign? You can step up to the microphone and say something.
MCCAIN: What I do in the Bush campaign is introduce President Bush at various rallies. But I go around the country and campaign for him and I always answer questions. I always answer questions, both from the press and from people who attend. And quite often I’m asked about it and I’m very outspoken and very passionate in my responses.
CURWOOD: How do you reconcile your support for Mr. Bush with your desire for regulation of greenhouse gases?
MCCAIN: Because I support him on most issues, on a majority of issues. We have disagreements, that’s why we campaigned against each other, and I believe that President Bush’s leadership of the nation after September 11 is what qualifies him primarily, and the primary challenge we face is the war on terrorism.
CURWOOD: We’re speaking with Senator John McCain of Arizona about his efforts to combat climate change. Coming up: global agreements, special interests, and why we should reconsider nuclear power. Our conversation with John McCain continues. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. If you’re just joining us, our guest is Arizona Senator John McCain who is leading a call for Congress to do something about global climate change. He wants the United States to put limits on climate-changing gases, but allow businesses to use the marketplace to trade greenhouse gas permits – the so-called cap and trade approach.
The Bush administration is against any mandatory limits, and has opposed both Senator McCain’s domestic proposal as well as an international measure to reduce emissions called the Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto will become international law if Russia follows through on its promise to ratify it. Meanwhile, the recent devastating hurricanes in the Southeast and the Caribbean have some talking about a connection to climate change. I asked Senator McCain about it.
MCCAIN: It’s risky to attribute a phenomena to the issue of climate change because these phenomena may have happened in the past. But you’re on far safer ground to base your arguments on the accumulation of scientific evidence of temperature rises, of icecap melting, of effects, for example, on the Alaskan natives, of low-lying countries that are seeing more flooding, etc. Let me just give you one small example. For 10,000 years the Inuits, the Alaskan natives, never had the word for “robin” in their language. Now there’s robins all over their villages.
CURWOOD: What specifically can be done, should be done?
MCCAIN: Well, let’s pass the very modest Lieberman/McCain bill. And it’s very modest, it just calls for cap-and-trade and gradual reductions of greenhouse emissions. And then once we pass that let’s start focusing our attention on specifics, including re-opening negotiations with the participants in the Kyoto Treaty; demanding changes in the Kyoto Treaty so that emerging economies such as India and China are included; and then enter into some kind of global agreement to address the issue of climate change.
CURWOOD: Let’s talk about the Kyoto Protocol for a moment here. Now the Kyoto Protocol, as cast, calls for industrialized nations to go first. You are among I think a unanimous Senate that passed a non-binding resolution saying, no, no, we really shouldn’t get involved unless the developing countries are included. My question is this, though: the developing countries feel that we in the rich part of the world built up our economies with these emissions and that, to be fair, we ought to go first. How do you address this fairness question?
MCCAIN: I address it by saying full agreement amongst industrialized nations would entail a reduction – a reduction – in greenhouse gas emissions, not a status quo. And that’s going to be pretty tough in some areas. And so what we’re asking is that there be some cap put on the emerging industrialized nations, rather than – I don’t blame us having some more stringent requirements, but to have no requirement on a country like China, I mean, you’re not addressing the issue. Finally, let me say the addition of Russia into Kyoto is going to make it move forward. But we all know that the country that manufactures, or is responsible for, 25 percent of greenhouse gases – being left out of it is not going to make any efforts very meaningful.
CURWOOD: So if, for a moment, you could…let’s fast-forward and say that Russia has decided to cede to Kyoto and it’s now the international law, except the United States, and you’d like to get the United States involved in the process. What would be the basic terms that you think the United States should enter the Kyoto process?
MCCAIN: Since we’re 25 percent of the total greenhouse gases that are emitted, then we would have enormous clout. And we should go back to them and say, “We’ll join, but you have to change the terms here for emerging nations. China is becoming an economic and industrial giant and they will be, within ten or 15 or 20 years, a huge contributor. Now there’s got to be curbs put on these emerging nations. Perhaps not as stringent as the mature ones, but there has to be. And in return for that we will join with you. I think there would be very little doubt what the outcome would be.
CURWOOD: Let’s talk about technologies out there: nuclear power to combat the threat, or actually the progress of, climate change. How do you feel about that?
MCCAIN: I feel very strongly about nuclear power. And I believe that we need to solve the waste problem. Everybody recognizes that. But the waste problem is a political issue, it’s not a scientific issue. We’re worrying about whether we can keep this stuff safe for 10,000 years or 20,000 years. The fact is it’s a political issue.
The second thing is technology now is developed in the nuclear industry where you can build much smaller nuclear power generators and make it much safer.
Third of all, we’ve had Navy ships cruising around the world for about 60 years, and we’ve never had a nuclear accident with nuclear power plants. So, this abiding fear of another Chernobyl is just sophistry. And you can’t be serious, you can’t be serious about reducing the effect of greenhouse gas emissions unless you factor in nuclear power into the equation.
CURWOOD: What about wind? The amount of money being spent on wind by the federal government is infinitesimal. What do you think the priorities should be?
MCCAIN: Anything – wind, solar, tides – I’ll be for anything. But the realities are, the realities are that if you put up a windmill in every vacant lot in America you still would have a very miniscule effect on the overall energy demands of the United States of America. I’m all for ‘em, I love to see all those little things turning around. But as far as having an actual significant impact – it’s not gonna be. You’re going to have to do other things, such as hybrid car engines, such as much more emphasis on nuclear power, technologies that would make coal clean. There are technologies that are being developed that could make coal clean.
Instead, our friends from coal-mining states would prefer to just protect the industry rather than go through procedures which would just make them less pollutant. Look, 90 percent – not 90 – 70 percent of this is political. Whether it be nuclear power, whether it be putting scrubbers on power plants, whether it be development of new technology for automobile engines. And they don’t want to do it, and we’re going to have to overcome the influence of special interests.
CURWOOD: If the scientific facts compel the kind of action that you’re talking about, what’s stopping us from taking that action?
MCCAIN: The special interests.
CURWOOD: You’d think they wouldn’t want to have a warmer world, either.
MCCAIN: Oh, I think history shows that, for example, the automobile industry opposed seatbelts as being too expensive and would wreck the automobile industry. Airbags. Side airbags. Whatever it is, they’ve always opposed it. And the utilities, public utility companies, are responsible to their stockholders to maximize their profits. Clearly, if you installed some emission controls in clean-ups that it would be more expensive for them. So, I don’t expect them particularly to do anything but what they’re doing. What I expect the Congress to do is not be overly influenced by them.
CURWOOD: You have a relatively new book called “Why Courage Matters.” Where do you see courage, political courage, on this question of climate change?
MCCAIN: Well I see the incredible influence of special interests here and the way we do business legislatively. And it’s very unfortunate, because I’m sure that the overwhelming majority of Americans would like to see us act on this issue of climate change, particularly younger Americans who are going to be paying the price. But we are not only not being courageous, we are ignoring an issue that’s not static. It’s an issue that every day that goes by, as greenhouse gas emissions increase, our challenges increase. Now, some scientists estimate that if we stop right now the increase in greenhouse gas emissions it would be another 20 years before we would see any beneficial effect. In other words, you would still see cumulative damaging effect of what we’re doing now. So it’s very, very serious.
CURWOOD: We’re in over our heads.
MCCAIN: I’m not so sure were in over our heads. We don’t have the political will to stand up, and second of all to educate ourselves. Now, again, if the President believes there’s not climate change I think he should talk about it in the campaign. If John Kerry believes that there is, I think he should talk about it in the campaign. I think it’s an issue. But it’s being ignored by both the campaigns and the media.
CURWOOD: John McCain is a Republican Senator from Arizona. Thank you so much for taking this time.
MCCAIN: Thank you for spending the time with me. It’s always good to be on NPR.
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