Grist and Outside

This is part of a series of interviews with presidential candidates produced jointly by Grist and Outside.

John McCain.

John McCain.
Photo: hatch1921

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John McCain likes to project a tough-guy stance on the issues, and global warming is no exception. “Americans solve problems. We don’t run from them,” he’s quoted as saying on the environment page of his website, which goes on to argue that “ignoring the problem reflects a ‘liberal, live for today’ attitude unworthy of our great country.”

McCain has earned the right to put his own conservative spin on the fight against climate change. The first high-profile Republican to start talking seriously about the issue, he has called President Bush’s approach to global warming “disgraceful.” He cosponsored the first Senate bill calling for mandatory greenhouse-gas reductions, the 2003 McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, and has pushed a number of versions of the bill in years since. The latest iteration, though, has little support from environmentalists, because there are now much stronger climate bills in Congress, and because McCain’s bill contains significant financial support for nuclear power.

But, for the most part, McCain’s climate advocacy has earned praise and respect from the mainstream green establishment over the years. In his 2004 Senate campaign, he got the endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters, even though the group has only given him a 26 percent lifetime voting score. [Update: In February 2008, McCain’s lifetime score was changed to 24 — lower than before because in 2007, while he was on the road campaigning, he missed every key vote counted by LCV.]

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McCain is the candidate best positioned to attract support from Republican voters concerned about climate change and the environment. I rang him up recently on the campaign trail in Iowa to find out how environmental and energy issues are figuring into his push for the presidency.

For more info on his platform and record, check out Grist’s McCain fact sheet.

Why should voters consider you the strongest green candidate? What sets your platform on energy and the environment apart from the others?

My clear record of environmental advocacy and activism, ranging from my efforts to protect the Grand Canyon to working with [Connecticut Sen.] Joe Lieberman to get a cap-and-trade proposal to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions through the United States Senate.

You’ve said that global warming would be one of three key issues for your presidency. Why do you think the issue is important?

It’s like Tony Blair said: Suppose we’re wrong, and there’s no such thing as greenhouse-gas emissions, and we adopt green technologies. All we’ve done is give our kids a better planet. But suppose we’re right, and do nothing? Then what kind of a legacy are we handing on to future generations of Americans? I think we ought to frame the debate that way.

And I think most, if not all, of the ways that we can address this issue are through profit motive, free-enterprise-system-driven green technologies. General Electric dedicated itself to green technologies, and guess what? They’re still making a lot of money.

Why do you think many of your fellow Republican candidates aren’t making climate change a priority? Do you think Republican voters care about the issue?

I’m very confident that Republican voters care, and I’m happy to say that more and more members of the so-called “Christian right” or evangelical movement are beginning to focus on our biblical obligation to be stewards of our planet.

Why others have not been more involved — you’d have to ask them. But when I ran [for president] in 2000, in New Hampshire person after person stood up and said, “What are you going to do about climate change?” And after I lost — grrrr — I went back as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and had hearing after hearing after hearing on the issue. I’m deeply disappointed in the administration’s failure to act on this issue, in some cases creating obfuscation and delay. But I stayed on it and developed, among other things, the bill with Joe Lieberman.

You’ve been a leader in Congress in calling for a cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. What about a carbon tax?

No. Cap and trade, to me, is far more capitalistic and free-enterprise oriented.

Would you endorse a goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions 80 percent by 2050?

I’m all for setting goals, but you’ve got to figure out ways to get there, OK? I could set a goal that we’d have zero greenhouse-gas emissions by next year, but that’s the easy part. The hard part is telling people how you’re going to get there. And by the way, I’m confident people will do what’s necessary to help with this problem of greenhouse-gas emissions — they’re convinced.

Some argue that the U.S. should not sign on to an international climate agreement unless China and India participate. Do you agree?

I agree, if only from a purely political standpoint. You’re not going to get anything through the Congress of the United States unless it’s truly international and India and China are engaged. Now, there are lots of ways to negotiate. There are steps that we can take as a country to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But you’re going to have to have the two rising greenhouse-gas emitters in the world involved in an international treaty, I believe, to pass it through the Senate.

To what extent is Iraq a war for oil?

I think it has a big impact. It’s not just Iraq oil, it’s the whole region and the stability in the region. And the stable supply of oil obviously gives it a higher national-security priority. What I don’t interpret that to mean is that I think we went to war for oil, but it’s certainly a factor in our national-security equation.

Sometimes the goals of achieving energy independence and reducing climate change are at odds. Would you, as president, oppose subsidizing technologies that would worsen global warming, even if they would reduce our reliance on foreign oil?

I would certainly give highest priority to those technologies that both reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and reduce our dependence on foreign oil — including and to a significant degree nuclear power. Nuclear power is going to have to be part of any equation if we’re truly going to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

How would you address the problem of safely storing and disposing of nuclear waste?

We need to make tough decisions just like the French have, and just like other European countries have: you either store it or you reprocess it. We have the reprocessing capability at the Savannah River Site [in South Carolina], and we also have a place called Yucca Mountain [in Nevada] where I believe we could safely store the nuclear waste. We have the worst of all worlds now. We’ve got nuclear waste sitting all over America, and we also have not moved forward with the construction of nuclear power plants, which we could do if we would streamline the procedures. Meanwhile, coal-burning power plants are being constructed as we speak.

What role do you think coal should play in America’s energy future?

I’d like to see coal gasification, and I would subsidize R&D in that effort. I’m all for government funding basic R&D, by the way. I really believe that we’re going to have to use a kind of a coal [technology] that does not emit the greenhouse gases that present-day coal-fired utility plants do.

What about coal-to-liquids, turning coal into car fuel?

I’m for any new technologies that will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions — hydrogen, all of those things.

You used to be an outspoken critic of ethanol. Do you believe now that it should be part of America’s energy future?

I do, because, one, of its role in reducing dependence on foreign oil. And also when oil is $10 a barrel, it doesn’t make a lot of sense; when oil is $70 a barrel, it makes a lot more sense. I’m for all kinds of ethanol. I mean, corn-based is obviously the flavor of the month — and I’m all for it — but we also need sugarcane-based ethanol, such as what’s coming out of Brazil, and we need switchgrass biofuels. There should be a broad variety of sources of ethanol besides just corn.

And by the way, I still do not support subsidies for ethanol; it’s doing just fine without them.

Why do you support subsidies for nuclear power, but not for ethanol?

I don’t support, particularly, subsidies. I think what I strongly support is a streamlined licensing process [for nuclear plants], an ability for the investors to be confident that they’ll be able to have some secure future as far as the construction of these facilities are concerned. But I’m not particularly interested in subsidies for them, or the oil and gas industry, for that matter.

But doesn’t your climate-change bill include subsidies for nuclear power?

Nuclear support in my climate-change bill is paid for from the proceeds of an auction of emission allowances to industry, not from taxpayer dollars. The nuclear funding is for the early development of the next generation of nuclear power plants and includes such things as a demonstration program to reduce first-time regulatory costs and a research program for fuel cycles. The support is not for the continuous operation of the plants.

What’s your position on subsidies for green technologies like wind and solar?

I’m not one who believes that we need to subsidize things. The wind industry is doing fine, the solar industry is doing fine. In the ’70s, we gave too many subsidies and too much help, and we had substandard products sold to the American people, which then made them disenchanted with solar for a long time.

Ethanol is, to a large degree, a mature technology. Some of the coal and hydrogen and other technologies are not mature. I think that’s really the difference. The government can help with pure research and development, whether it be on climate and greenhouse-gas emissions or development of the internet. But there’s a point where you should let the free-enterprise system take over.

In 2002, you introduced a measure to increase fuel economy to 36 miles per gallon by 2016. What would you do as president to improve fuel economy?

We need to increase CAFE standards. We all know that. But the devil is in the details. I’m open to negotiations. We obviously don’t want to drive all the car companies out of business. But there needs to be dramatic improvement and no loopholes.

What environmental achievement are you proudest of?

Limiting Grand Canyon overflights is one. Probably the most proud one is working for Mo Udall [former Democratic rep from Arizona], because he was a leader who put 3.5 million acres of Arizona into permanent, pristine wilderness status.

Who is your environmental hero?

Mo Udall. He was the most dedicated person to our environment that I have known. He was incredibly effective in getting legislation through the Congress — wilderness bills and all kinds of environmental protections. History will show that he and his brother Stu, who was secretary of the interior for eight years, were two of the great environmentalists of the 20th century.

Can you share an anecdote about your most memorable outdoor or wilderness adventure?

I’ve had many. Last year, my son Jack, who’s at the Naval Academy, and I hiked the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim. Not for the first time, but it’s an incredible experience. I think rafting the canyon is great. I think the least known great outdoor experience is the Canyon de Chelly [in Arizona].

I’ve also traveled the world and seen visible manifestations of the tremendous harm that global warming has done to our planet. In Greenland, you can see the glacier has receded dramatically. You can go to northern Norway and see the impact there. You can go to the Arctic Circle, as I have, and see it. You can go to the South Pole, fly around in a helicopter, and see incredible damage. They’re the miners’ canaries, worse than the miners’ canaries. The visible manifestations of climate change are there, and they’re very disturbing.

If you were to spend a week in a park or natural area of the United States, where would you go?

I’d probably go to Canyon de Chelley. And second to that would be probably the Chiricahua [National Monument, in Arizona]. Go there and you’ll understand why Geronimo ran off like he did after they took him out of his beloved land.

What have you done personally to reduce your energy and environmental footprint?

We just moved from a very large house with swimming pool and grounds into a condominium, so we made a dramatic change. My daughter has a Prius. And we have a place up north where we have solar panels in some of the buildings. But we haven’t done enough, and we intend to do more.

If you were a plant or animal, what kind of plant or animal would you be?

I think I’d like to be a jaguar. Or if I were a plant, I wouldn’t mind being a Saguaro cactus because you sure do live a long time.