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Meet Captain Climate
Page 4

I'd been looking forward to interviewing McCain, who has a reputation among reporters as open and engaging. But our sessions were mostly anticlimactic. He consistently parried any questions about his newfound environmentalism. Instead, over and over again, he kept returning to the same idea: Special interests controlled the debate and, until they were overmatched by public opinion, little progress would be possible. At first I was frustrated -- most of us want to believe that it comes down to something more than the familiar refrain of money in politics, want to believe that minds could be changed by ideas, by rational debate, or by flying congressmen off to see melting glaciers. But the more I thought about it, the more grateful I was for McCain's insistence on the primacy of politics. In the end, only senators know what it's like to be a senator. "If there's one thing that everyone here's an expert on," says McCain, "it's getting elected."

And so, the science of global warming pales in importance next to the fact that "all of the manufacturing sector is opposed to significant measures being taken. People like the National Association of Manufacturers, the automobile industry. There's a broad array of powerful opposition to doing anything." Indeed, shortly before the vote on McCain-Lieberman, the manufacturers' association sent out a letter to senators calling the bill "fossil energy rationing": "In light of the seriousness of this vote and the signals it will send, the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among others, are planning to count this vote as one of their Key Votes." The message was clear: When these groups prepare their annual political scorecard, those on the wrong side of the debate could expect payback.

At the moment, energy interests may be the most powerful force of all in Washington. A large proportion of the president's advisers come, like him, from the oil, gas, and coal industries. (Chevron named an oil tanker after his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.) By most accounts, the industry essentially wrote the nation's energy policy, though we may never know for sure because Vice President Cheney has refused to release the names of the lobbyists he met with while drafting the document. Consider last fall's Energy Bill, which went down to narrow, and perhaps temporary, defeat. The nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity calculated that coal, oil, and gas companies on the Fortune 1000 list had given $13.9 million to Republicans since 1998, compared with $3.2 million to Democrats. For their money, they got what even the conservative National Review called "pages of special-interest giveaways, almost devoid of worthwhile reforms." McCain famously renamed the bill the No Lobbyist Left Behind Act. "It was pork and nothing but," he says.

If that's the the only problem, however, then at least we've been down this road before. "You know, Republicans weren't all that much better on the environment when I arrived in 1967," says McCloskey. "It was the party of big business then, too. In fact, when Gaylord Nelson started Earth Day, he asked me to be cochair because he wanted it to be bipartisan and I may have been the only Republican he could find."

But then something interesting happened -- something that recalls Matt Stembridge in his red curtain and yellow overshoes. "About two weeks after Earth Day," McCloskey says, "there was an article on the sixth or seventh page of the Washington Star -- some of the Earth Day kids had labeled 12 members of Congress the Dirty Dozen and vowed to defeat them. Nobody paid much attention. On the first Wednesday in June, though, everyone in Washington opened the paper to find that the two Democrats on that list -- one a powerful committee chairman, the other a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee -- had lost primary fights by fewer than a thousand votes. Within 24 hours, seven of the 10 Republicans on the list had come to me, even though I was despised, against the war and all. 'What's this about water pollution, about air pollution? What can you tell us?' That fall, five more of that dozen were defeated. With seven of them down, when the next Congress convened everyone raised their hand and said, 'I'm an environmentalist.' And in the next three years we passed the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and most of the rest of the major environmental laws."

If legislative change is going to come, in other words, senators will have to sense a shift in public attitudes first. There are already a few signs of that, says McCain. "More people are moving into these western states who are environmentally attuned," he says. "So you start to see a little more concern. And as the economic base shifts from mining and logging to skiing, tourism, and other things that a good environment is critical to, you see change." And then there is the perception, too, that conservatives are the ones who are overreaching. Karen Wayland, the NRDC lobbyist, cites the administration's push to allow coal-bed methane development in Wyoming, which she says is bringing together ranchers and environmentalists in an effort to stop the spread of wells. Adds DiPeso, "I've heard Wyoming ranchers say, 'Dammit, the Republicans want my land and the Democrats want my guns.'"

But on the hardest questions like global warming, expect slow progress. McCain and Lieberman surprised most observers when they managed to get even 43 votes for their bill. "That's the good news," McCain says. "The bad news is it's a long ways from 51 or even 60," the number needed to overcome a filibuster. Or for that matter 67, the number needed to beat a presidential veto. And with the Republicans widely expected to pick up several southern Senate seats this fall, the math could grow more daunting still.

"What you really need is a sea change in public opinion," says McCain. "Global warming has to become a campaign issue, and it never has, either in congressional campaigns or senatorial campaigns or presidential campaigns." And that's not entirely the fault of Republicans -- in 2000, even Al Gore tried to distance himself from his own strong views on climate change, fearing it was a political loser. As activist Stembridge recalls, "Captain Climate had a sidekick, Boy Atmosphere. But when he tried to approach Gore at the last debate, the campaign had its volunteers surround us with a cordon of supporters so no one could see us." It's hard work, politicking, and often bitter work (ask any of the legion of Howard Dean supporters). But it may be the only work that finally matters here. "Writing letters, making phone calls, organizing neighborhood campaigns -- average Americans can have a strong impact on policy," insists Jeffords. Especially since, again thanks to John McCain, the laws on campaign finance have been tightened, at least a little, to diminish the power of corporations and unions.

"We've made a modest effort with this bill," says McCain. "But until enough citizens who are voters care, then these special interests will be able to block any meaningful policy change. It's as simple as that." He pauses and adds, "The race is on. Are we going to have significant climate change and all its consequences, or are we going to try to do something early on? Right now I don't think we're going to act soon enough without significant degradation of our environment. I hope I'm wrong."

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