McCain gets heated up.

Presiding over his final hearing as chair of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee last week, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) delivered a feisty swan song assuring GOP colleagues and environmentalists alike that he won’t be giving up his fight for climate-change regulations anytime soon — even if the Bush administration and the 109th Congress seem likely to thwart his efforts.

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The hearing took place just two weeks after President Bush‘s reelection, setting the stage for a rancorous debate inside the Republican-dominated Beltway over the next four years, likely deepening the divide between moderate, pro-environment Republicans and the more right-wing, anti-regulation members of the party.

McCain was not shy about reproaching the White House in his commentary at the hearing: “We do have a major task in convincing the administration [to support mandatory greenhouse gas caps],” he said. “Its performance so far, to date, is disgraceful.”

The topic of discussion at the hearing was the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a recent study conducted by some 300 scientists worldwide and commissioned by an international council representing eight countries, including the United States. Scientists testified that the Arctic is heating up 10 times faster than anywhere else in the world as a result of human activity, thereby destroying Alaskan villages, liquefying glaciers, and threatening to wipe out polar bears and ringed seals.

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Highlights of the hearing included McCain’s tart criticism of a report by the right-leaning George Marshall Institute alleging that global warming is a result of natural variability in the climate. McCain snapped that Marshall himself, a moderate conservative who supported conservation, “must be rolling over in his grave.” The Arizona senator then called upon Drew Shindell, a climate expert named one of the world’s top 50 scientists by Scientific American magazine, who dismissed the Marshall Institute’s findings as bogus and testified that scientists worldwide “are well above 95 percent confident that natural variability does not explain the warming we are seeing.”

See No Warming, Hear No Warming, Speak No Warming

Scientific certitude notwithstanding, the ACIA report has run up against some formidable resistance from Alaska’s congressional delegation, even though its constituents stand to suffer more from climate change than anyone else in the nation.

“My biggest concern is that people are going to use this so-called study to try to influence the standard of living that occurs within the United States,” Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska was quoted as saying in the Anchorage Daily News. “I don’t believe it is our fault. That’s an opinion. It’s as sound as any scientist’s,” he added glibly.

Worse still, the report was also dismissed by Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, the man who will inherit McCain’s seat as chair of the Commerce Committee in the 109th Congress (the GOP rotates committee leadership every six years). “I’m just not sure [these scientists] are the only people we should listen to with regard to that subject,” Stevens told the Anchorage Daily News. He too expressed doubt that global warming is a phenomenon directly tethered to human activity.

“Having McCain step down from the Commerce Committee definitely takes away from the forum for bringing attention to these issues,” said Casey Aden-Wansbury, spokesperson for Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), who wrote the Climate Stewardship Act with McCain to impose mandatory caps on greenhouse-gas emissions.

Aden-Wansbury still held out hope for the climate bill’s passage, however, saying that Lieberman and McCain are determined to reintroduce it in the next congressional session. “We’re only short seven votes to pass this legislation. Of the 13 supporters of the Climate Stewardship Act who were up for reelection, only [Sen. Tom] Daschle lost,” she said, adding that senators-elect Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) could count as new votes in their favor.

A McCain staffer told Muckraker that the Arizona senator, too, is feeling confident about the bill’s future: “His hopes aren’t dashed. If anything, momentum is building. There are a whole new set of pressures bringing this issue to the fore … I think the debate is more alive than it ever has been … There are many more briefings on the Hill [on climate change] now than in the past.”

Pressure Cooker

Jon Coifman, director of communications at the Natural Resources Defense Council‘s Climate Center, agreed that despite the formidable anti-environment forces on Capitol Hill, there are plenty of reasons why climate will be a front-burner issue over the next four years. For one, the Kyoto Protocol will go into effect throughout the vast majority of the industrialized world in February, and as much as the Bush administration may wish it weren’t so, the treaty’s implementation will have real effects on the U.S. business community given that many major U.S.-based multinational companies (including most of the Fortune 500) will have to comply with greenhouse-gas limits at foreign facilities located in signatory nations.

“There are more and more industry groups who think that domestic greenhouse-gas regulation is inevitable,” said the McCain staffer. “They believe that the potential for regulation in the next five years is very likely, and they want to be prepared.”

Further fueling the debate will be Bush buddy Tony Blair, whose nation will assume the rotating presidency of the G8 next year and who has stated his intention to make global warming one of the top two issues the body will address in 2005. “Our most important ally in Iraq is saying [to Bush], ‘You’ve got to address this issue,'” said the McCain staffer. “That carries a lot of weight. Sen. McCain is hopeful that the pressures from Tony Blair and Kyoto might persuade the president to change his approach to climate-change policy.” Those may be far-fetched hopes, however; The Independent this week reported that Bush “reprimanded” the British prime minister for his recent tough words on the climate issue and his plan to put it atop the G8 agenda.

But if pressure from abroad isn’t enough, there will also be pressure from within. A flurry of state and regional initiatives are in the works, including a market for trading carbon pollution credits that will go into effect among nine Northeastern states as well as a mandatory cap on greenhouse-gas emissions from automobiles in California. The latter was supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), but can only go into effect once the Bush EPA signs off on it. “Schwarzenegger and Bush will come nose-to-nose on this issue, it will be very interesting to see how these two allies duke it out,” said Coifman.

Schwarzenegger and McCain are both outspoken members of a small but growing group of pro-environment Republicans on the Hill and in state governments, including Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), Olympia Snowe (Maine), and John Sununu (N.H.), as well as New York Gov. George Pataki and perhaps even former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. (Not a whole lot has been reported about Giuliani’s record on the environment, but he collaborated with Pataki on a few pro-environment projects while mayor and is known to be moderate in many of his views.) Of those, at least two — McCain and Giuliani — may vie for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, which could put Bush ideologically at odds with his party’s pick for a successor.

Patrick Michaels, an environmental fellow at the right-leaning Cato Institute who teaches environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, griped that McCain’s climate-change initiative is nothing more than a political gambit to position himself for a presidential campaign. “He is doing all this strictly for political gain,” Michaels told Muckraker. “He needs something to separate him from the Republican competition for 2008. He wants to be the GOP authority on this issue, and my sense is that he’s going to do everything he can in the next four years to make his mark on this issue.”

McCain has been tenacious enough in pressing for action on global warming that it’s hard to believe it’s all a political ploy. But some folks deeply concerned about the climate wish he had been more tenacious still and supported the presidential candidate who actually would have done something about this looming problem.