John McCain’s Vision

“Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”

– Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

According to family and friends, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls was Senator John McCain’s favorite book. Both his daughter and President Obama mentioned the novel in their eulogies for the senator in the memorial that took place Saturday (September 1st) at the Washington National Cathedral.

President Obama included the quote above twice in his speech. Many credit it for Senator McCain’s vision of our main obligation in life: to ensure a better future for our children and the generations that follow. Such a goal can only be accomplished making actions in the present to mitigate future disasters.

The popular motto, “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst,” is thought to stem from a quote attributed to Benjamin Disraeli: “I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best.”  Be that as it may, preparing inherently implies immediate action in the face of future threats; likewise, hope is an emotion that applies to one’s vision of the future. There is conviction and usually some degree of sacrifice in present actions involved, while the future payback is uncertain. But if we are not willing to pay the price now, the future could be much worse.

Economists dismiss the stress between sacrificing in the present and preventing future damage by discounting the value of the future (July 7, 2015 and December 5, 2017 blogs). This becomes a highly subjective “quantification” of long-term impact. There is probably no better example of this problematic dismissal than anthropogenic climate change.

John McCain embodied this conflict in his impact on our management of the climate change threat.

Reading about McCain’s handling of the climate change issue during the first decade of the 21st century is vital for every student interested in the topic. I used a similar description for a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine that was fully dedicated to the conflict between the science of and the political impediments to our attempts to mitigate the possible impacts. This clash took place between 1979 and 1989 (see August 14, 2018 blog). I posted links to the magazine issue here and urged my students to read it. Apple actually had a similar thought and bought the rights to the content, with the plan to make a TV program that will be available to a much wider audience.

Marianne Lavelle aptly summarized Senator McCain’s role in a piece called, “John McCain’s Climate Change Legacy,” which was published on the website, InsideClimate News:

InsideClimate News logo

The site describes itself this way:

InsideClimate News is a Pulitzer Prize-winning non-profit, non-partisan news organization that provides essential reporting and analysis on climate, energy and the environment for the public and decision makers. We serve as watchdogs of government, industry and advocacy groups and hold them accountable for their policies and actions.

It’s a long article, which describes in some detail this historic moment in which the United States decided its collective political attitude to climate change. Senator McCain stood at the center of this effort. In that sense it is similar, albeit with different players, to the NYT Magazine piece, though I haven’t heard about any offers to use it as the basis for a TV show or movie. That aside, this article is just as crucial for anybody interested in the politic of future threats. I am recommending it just as highly to my students.

I could have made everybody’s life easier and satisfied myself by just posting the link and directing my readers to the piece on its original site. However, having some experience in this business, I know the general result is that most readers will just skip the link. The alternative I have chosen is to include key excerpts here, given that I already have your eyes on this blog. I would be delighted if you went to the original article and checked whether my selection of highlights corresponds to yours. I would be even more delighted if you added such a comparison in the comments section here. In any case, here are some parts of the article:

He wrote legislation that failed. He built a bipartisan coalition that crumbled. And when Congress came closest to passing a bill that embraced his central idea—a market-based cap-and-trade system—McCain turned his back.

And yet, McCain’s nearly decade-long drive on global warming had an impact that reverberates in today’s efforts to revive the U.S. role in the climate fight. In the Senate chamber and on the campaign trail, the Arizona Republican did more than any other U.S. politician has done before or since to advance the conservative argument for climate action.

Today’s efforts to recruit GOP members into the climate movement—appeals to conservative and religious values, the framing of climate change as a national security threat, efforts to stress market-based solutions and the role business leaders can play—all owe a debt to McCain.

At the same time, McCain’s climate journey and its abrupt end serve as a cautionary tale of how far the Republican Party has moved from a mainstream conservatism that is receptive to such appeals.

“What McCain did on climate is a really great reminder of where we need to get back to,” said Kevin Curtis, executive director of NRDC Action. As an environmental lobbyist on Capitol Hill in the 2000s, Curtis watched close-up as McCain crafted the first economy-wide climate legislation in the U.S. with one of his closest friends in the chamber, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democrat who would later turn Independent.

“Lieberman and McCain were really good examples of a Democrat and Republican intentionally, consciously and thoughtfully trying to work across the aisle to build a 60-vote coalition in the Senate on climate,” said Curtis. “The point of looking at McCain’s legacy, I think, is not to just look back to the ‘good old days,’ but to look at what we need to get back to.”

Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense Fund and one of the political fathers of cap-and-trade, said McCain’s work on climate change was ahead of its time and laid the groundwork for the battle that continues.

“The McCain-Lieberman bill was the most substantial bipartisan effort our country has ever made to address the threat of climate change,” Krupp said. “The Senator will be remembered as being on the right side of this issue. He fought courageously in Congress to get them to take action on this problem long before we even understood how serious and urgent it is.”

“It was tough politics for him,” said former Sen. Tim Wirth of Colorado, who worked on international climate negotiations as undersecretary of state in the Clinton administration and for 15 years as president of the UN Foundation. “It was not easy in Arizona, and it was not easy as the conservative wing of the party was getting more vocal. But he kept hammering away at it, which from the perspective of today seems even more impressive.”

McCain began to focus intently on climate change soon after ending his roller-coaster 2000 presidential run …

McCain had co-sponsored the 1990 bill that established a federal Global Change Research Program—legislation that passed the Senate unanimously—but the students’ question gnawed at him. “I do not have a plan,” McCain acknowledged in May 2000, at the first of three hearings on climate change he would convene that year as chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “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 policymakers in all branches of government, should be concerned about mounting evidence that indicates that something is happening,” McCain said.

… McCain and Lieberman unveiled their plan—an economy-wide cap-and-trade program based on the successful 1990 program for curbing acid rain pollution—in a colloquy they inserted into the Congressional record for August 3, 2001. “Deploying the power of a marketplace to pursue the least expensive answers is a unique and powerful American approach to the threat of climate change,” McCain said.

… On July 31, Frist announced that the McCain-Lieberman bill would not need to go through Inhofe’s committee, but would move directly to the floor. There would be six hours of debate, with no amendments allowed except McCain and Lieberman’s own revisions to the bill.

… McCain opened the session with a pre-emptive swipe at Inhofe’s plan to lead opposition to the bill by attacking the validity of climate science. “There are some scientists who will … say that pigs fly and up is down and black is white, but the majority opinion is that of the most respected body in America, the National Academy of Sciences, and they are the ones who come forward with the views that are corroborated by thousands of scientists all over America and the world,” McCain said.

… Although McCain-Lieberman failed, 55-43, with 10 Democrats voting in opposition and two Democrats absent, the vote sent a ripple of hope through the community of climate activists. Five Republicans in addition to McCain—Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Richard Lugar of Indiana—had supported the bill. And members of both parties who voted in opposition said they accepted climate science and pledged to work for a climate bill they could support—including the two who led the Senate vote in opposition to the Kyoto Protocol.

… McCain and Lieberman made clear they planned to reintroduce the measure and seize what they saw as an opportunity to win converts. Des Champs recalls, “That vote in 2003 surprised a lot of people. At that point, it really hit the radar screen: ‘This could actually happen’.”

But that realization also brought out the opposition to climate legislation in full force. Business and fossil fuel interests joined in a new lobbying coalition focused on beating back environmental legislation, with McCain-Lieberman their primary focus. United for Jobs, led by Frontiers of Freedom, a nonprofit funded in part by the petrochemical billionaire Koch brothers, included the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a slew of interest groups ostensibly dedicated to the aging population, workers and racial equality, but in fact funded by other Koch groups, Exxon and other fossil fuel interests.

Inhofe and others quoted studies they commissioned on how the climate legislation would wreck the economy. “A lot of Republicans, basically aided by the Chamber of Commerce, ran a very effective campaign in which they turned ‘cap and trade’ into ‘tax and trade’ and it got harder for people to support it,” Lieberman recalls. He and McCain reworked their bill and re-introduced it in the next Congress, but 2003 proved to be their high-water mark. In a 2005 vote, the measure failed 60-38.

… But McCain, the presidential candidate, was calling for less ambitious cap-and-trade legislation than the bill that McCain, the senator, had co-sponsored with Lieberman. His new goal was 60 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, instead of 70 percent. And he signaled a further retreat at a news conference a few weeks later, when he suggested—in contradiction of his previous stand—that his plan was for emissions targets, not required cuts. “I would not … impose a mandatory cap at this time,” he said. He could see that the run-up in global oil prices would dominate political debate throughout the summer.

Over the next few weeks, U.S. gasoline prices climbed above $4 a gallon for the first time ever—even in inflation-adjusted terms, the hit to consumers surpassed the previous peak during the Iran-Iraq war in 1980. McCain sounded more and more in step with Republican party leaders who saw a ramp-up in oil and gas production as the solution to the nation’s energy woes. Chants of “Drill, Baby, Drill” would reverberate at their convention.

… McCain even refused to support the revamped cap-and-trade bill that Lieberman, by now an Independent, brought to the floor with Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) as co-sponsor. McCain, who complained the bill had insufficient nuclear energy incentives, was one of 16 senators (along with Obama, Clinton and Biden) absent for the 48-36 vote, The measure fell 12 votes short of the 60 needed for passage.

… McCain never renounced his belief in climate science or the need for action, but after he lost the presidency, he never resumed his role as a leader in the drive for climate legislation. When climate change legislation sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) passed the House in 2009, McCain called it a “farce” in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “They bought every industry off—steel mills, agriculture, utilities,” he said. “I would not only not vote for it. I am opposed to it entirely, because it does damage to those of us who believe that we need to act in a rational fashion about climate change.”

We already miss him!

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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