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Photo of John McCain
Meet Captain Climate

by Bill McKibben

John McCain says he'll battle global warming as fiercely as he fought money in politics. But will his fellow Republicans join the crusade?

Matthew Stembridge graduated from Dartmouth College in May of 1999. He returned the next winter wearing red tights over orange long johns, a red knit stocking cap, yellow-painted galoshes that reached midcalf, and a red curtain -- his cape -- draped around his neck. "We were doing this global warming campaign for the presidential primaries, young people all across New Hampshire," says Stembridge. "I was Captain Climate, sent back from the future to educate our leaders so they could avert disaster."

Captain Climate made his debut the night in mid-January when Senator John McCain visited Dartmouth. "Someone saved a seat down front for me, and a couple of minutes before it was supposed to start I walked in. The news cameras all swung around in my direction. And then McCain walked in and came straight up to me. 'Hello, captain,' he says. 'Why don't you come up on stage with me.' He introduces me to his wife, Cindy. And then he raises my hand like we're in a boxing ring." About a week later, at another rally, Captain Climate was again in the audience. And this time, McCain announced from the stage, "I'm concerned about climate change. I'm going to do something about it."

And here's the odd thing -- he did. After Karl Rove finally managed to sink his candidacy, McCain went back to Washington and held hearings in the Commerce Committee on global warming. Real hearings, with real scientists. And then, last fall, he managed to force the first real Senate vote on actually doing something about the largest environmental peril our species has yet faced. The bill he drafted with Senator Joe Lieberman was modest to a fault, and it lost 55-43, but at least, 15 years after the issue first surfaced in the public consciousness, there'd been a vote. "We'll be back this year to do it again," he said when I talked with him in Washington earlier this year. "Campaign finance reform took us seven years. This may take longer, but we'll stay at it."

McCain's emergence as Washington's most important champion of global warming legislation raises some interesting questions -- about him, and about the rest of the Republican Party. Is he an isolated outlier or an early sign that some in the GOP might be ready to soften their anti-environmental stance? Since Republicans control most of the levers of our government, the answer to that puzzle may determine in turn whether America rejoins the world effort on environmental change or continues to drift off in its own orbit. McCain may have morphed into Captain Climate -- minus the red cape -- but for all his force of character, is even he powerful enough to turn Washington to his way of thinking?

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Bill McKibben is the author of The End of Nature and eight other books on environmental topics. A former staff writer for the New Yorker, he also writes for the Atlantic, Harper's, and the New York Review of Books.

Photo: Chris Buck

OnEarth. Spring 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council