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Page 3

But even that, in the end, doesn't explain everything. The same group of activists was also tailing the other contenders in 2000, without the same result. When Bush personnel wouldn't let them into his tightly scripted events, for instance, they stood outside chanting, "Houston: We have a problem." But it clearly didn't do much good.

Perhaps we're asking the question the wrong way around. It's possible that there's nothing so odd about John McCain, no need to explain his conversion as some kind of miracle. In his belief that global warming is a serious problem, and in his desire to do something about it, he's in agreement with the vast majority of American voters, the legislators of every other industrialized country, and virtually every climatologist on planet Earth. (His proposed legislation, in fact, is far weaker than the weakest laws of the European nations.) Maybe the better question is: How did the other Republicans in Washington get so…odd? How did the party of T.R. become so anti-environmental?

Consider, for instance, Senator James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who chairs the Committee on Environment and Public Works. He didn't just vote against McCain-Lieberman -- he took to the floor during the debate over the bill to describe global warming as "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." Shortly thereafter, he led an unofficial delegation of eight Republican congressmen to talks in Milan on ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. Though President Bush had long since pulled the United States out of the agreement, Inhofe still thought it was important to make clear to the Europeans "that we are not going to ratify Kyoto." Indeed, he lectured them on his collection of scientific "evidence" disproving climate change -- a threadbare assortment of discredited studies that fly in the face of the mountain of peer-reviewed evidence assembled in the last decade, not to mention the observable trends gaining momentum across the planet (glacial systems in rapid retreat, Arctic ice thinning precipitously, all 10 of the warmest years on record in the last two decades). For some reason, the Europeans were not impressed -- perhaps because they still remembered last summer's record heat wave, which baked to death more than 10,000 residents of France and Belgium. "They don't want to listen," Inhofe told nationally syndicated columnist James Glassman. "They were zombies."

Some of this radicalism stems from the perception that environmentalists have been overreaching in recent years. McCain himself talked bitterly to me about conservationists who sued to block the reconstruction of a washed-out road across federal land. "People needed to get their kids to school -- all over Arizona people thought that was ridiculous," he says. But mostly, says Jim DiPeso, the policy director of Republicans for Environmental Protection, it comes from a kind of worship of the market -- a deep belief that there's never any good to come from interfering with the free operation of laissez-faire economics. "Look at James Inhofe and people like him. They're so bought into the notion that economic prosperity is tied to the consumption of fossil fuels that they simply refuse to let go of it. They can't tolerate any argument that postulates that fossil fuels have downsides, that there are reasons to accelerate the transition to other forms of energy."

"It seems like these Christian fundamentalist far-right Republicans put business ahead of the environment every time," says Pete McCloskey, who served from the late 1960s until the middle of the Reagan administration as a Republican congressman from California -- and who helped organize the first Earth Day, in 1970. "In my day -- really, until Newt Gingrich took over -- we could always count on a good number of Republicans for environmental issues. The Environmental Study Conference in the House and Senate, which functioned like an environmental caucus, usually had 60 or 65 percent of each chamber enrolled. But those great Republican enviros have largely left or been shunted aside or died -- Mark Hatfield, Chuck Percy, Mac Matthias." Even as recently as the first Bush administration, says Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords, the split wasn't so deep. Indeed, the first President Bush pledged to "fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect." "I was proud to work with his father on the Clean Air Act amendments in 1990," says Jeffords. "Now this President Bush insists on undoing his father's legacy." For Jeffords, of course, it was too much -- the environment was one reason he finally left the GOP and began caucusing with the Democrats.

At this point, the remaining GOP environmentalists are almost completely stockaded in the Northeast. There's New York governor George Pataki, who has acquired large tracts of land in the Adirondacks and fought hard against acid rain. There's Christie Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey who ran the Environmental Protection Agency for George W. -- but who lost just about every fight within the administration to more conservative colleagues, eventually resigned, and just last month wrote an op-ed for the New York Times admitting that "many conservatives act as if they wish we moderates would just disappear." In the House there's New York Republican Sherwood Boehlert. And in the Senate, both senators from Maine -- Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins -- supported McCain-Lieberman, as did Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee. But that's about it. As DiPeso of Republicans for Environmental Protection admits, "In Congress, once you get west of the 100th meridian, Republican environmentalists get very few and far between."

If you ask environmentalists who work the Hill about their contacts in the GOP, you get mostly blank stares. Aside from McCain and a handful of others, "we have trouble even getting into a lot of their offices," says Karen Wayland, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "They brand us as extremists despite the fact that the public has been long supportive of environmental regulations. When there's a big environmental vote we might be able to pull 20 Republicans in the House, and that's not a lot, because we lose some conservative Democrats." Debbie Reed, legislative director for the National Environmental Trust, says she thinks a few Republican senators actually believe that global warming is a problem. She cites Idaho's Larry Craig and Kansan Pat Roberts, who visited a National Science Foundation project in Antarctica and saw some of the scientific data firsthand -- but even they couldn't bring themselves to vote for the mild law proposed by McCain and Lieberman. Among other things, she says, they were unwilling to buck the president.

Wayland cites pure partisanship as one reason for the antipathy to environmental concerns among Republicans. "Look at the House. Tom DeLay runs it with an iron hand. They have a much less fractured caucus than the Democrats do, and a lot of it has to do with the retribution they're willing to exact." Indeed, even Republicans whose seats are safe from Democratic challenge still fear the right wing of their party: PACs like the Club for Growth increasingly intervene in party primaries to back more conservative challengers if they feel an incumbent is moderating. New York's Boehlert, for instance, barely survived such an attack in 2002 and faces another this year. This may be one place where McCain's biography really does make a difference: Not only does his POW record give him a coating of political Teflon, but it may also make him steelier than the average pol in the face of threats. "He's an independent thinker," says Jeffords. "The White House may give him a hard time because of it… but doing what you know to be right makes the uncomfortable decisions easier."

"Hey, he spent five years in the Hanoi Hilton," says McCloskey. "He's not going to scare easily."

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