McCain Was Such A Climate Change Maverick That He Undermined His Own Good Work

When climate legislation might actually have had a chance, Sen. John McCain went missing.
Rather than help pass an ambitious climate plan under Barack Obama, John McCain took his ball and went home.
Rather than help pass an ambitious climate plan under Barack Obama, John McCain took his ball and went home.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Climate change is one of the issues on which the late Sen. John McCain was roundly praised for bucking his party. But McCain was arguably the reason we don’t have a sane climate law in place right now.

The Arizona Republican’s early work on climate change with then-Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) was indeed groundbreaking, producing the 2003 and 2005 iterations of the proposed Climate Stewardship Act. While those bills had little chance of success, they were presented at a time when the George W. Bush administration was prevaricating on whether global warming was even a problem and dismissing the work of government scientists, and when fossil fuel interests were shoveling money into efforts to sway the public against taking action. McCain’s work, by comparison, was respectful of science, bipartisan and forward-looking. (Inside Climate News has a thorough rundown of that work over the years, which I will not try to replicate.)

Heading into the 2008 election, the fact that both major parties had put forth presidential nominees who accepted the conclusions of climate science was a notable event, though global warming remained far from a top issue in the debates. It seemed as if climate action was a given no matter who won that election, even if McCain and Barack Obama offered different approaches (and even if McCain’s running mate and advisers had some interesting things to say on the issue).

But then … it wasn’t. Obama won, and rather than help pass an ambitious climate plan, McCain took his ball and went home. The House passed a climate bill in June 2009. But when attention finally turned to the Senate a year later, it was McCain’s friend Lindsey Graham of South Carolina who took up the climate mantle for the Senate GOP, partnering with Lieberman (now an “independent Democrat”) and John Kerry (D-Mass.). The trio seemed on pace to produce a thoroughly moderate bill that capped carbon from major emitters while giving significant handouts to polluters to ease the transition.

What was McCain up to? Well, he was busy railing against Obama’s climate plan as “irresponsible, ill-conceived” and a “cap-and-tax” policy rather than “cap-and-trade” (even though it was strikingly similar to McCain’s own previous plans). He was claiming that he “never” supported capping carbon emissions at a specific level, even though his past proposals did just that. McCain was staying far, far away from the first potentially viable climate bill in the Senate.

He even voted for a resolution to block the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency from moving forward on its own greenhouse gas regulations. The resolution was a straightforward assault on climate empiricism ― the kind of thing that McCain had once rejected. The bill would’ve thrown out the underlying scientific conclusion that greenhouse gases pose a threat to human health.

And then just when it seemed as if the Senate climate bill might go somewhere, Graham withdrew his participation in a spat with Democratic leaders over timing. Graham later said some utterly nonsensical things about climate change before ultimately announcing that he wouldn’t even vote for the legislation he had helped author. Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced a few weeks later that there was no way they had the votes to pass a cap-and-trade bill and they were abandoning the effort.

It’s tough to say whether McCain’s supporting the legislation could have made a big difference. As an elder statesman whom Graham clearly idolized, McCain might have been able to keep him on task. And he could have brought along the Senate’s other moderate Republicans, who in turn might have brought along some waffling moderate Democrats. But we won’t know, because McCain abstained, and now eight years later we’re even further away from a sound national climate policy.

It wasn’t until seven years after the bill’s failure, when Donald Trump’s election had so lowered the bar for conservatives that simply acknowledging the reality of climate change was reckoned an act of political bravery, that McCain, now fighting a deadly form of brain cancer, started caring about climate change again. But it’s much easier to say climate change is important than it is to pass legislation to meaningfully deal with it ― and it’s especially easy to say it when there’s no chance in hell that the sitting president is going to sign any such bill.

There’s a plausible counterfactual that if we’d elected John McCain president in 2008 (or in 2000 even), his administration would have implemented a climate change policy and not faced the same backlash from congressional Republicans. That’s fun to imagine, but what we have before us is an actual record ― one in which McCain retreated from his own proclamation that “time is short and the dangers are great” and allowed humanity to continue careening down a path to climate disaster.

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