I’ve noticed recently that some conservatives — particularly Andrew Sullivan — have offered kind words to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for being the only presidential candidate in the Republican field to take the climate change issue seriously.

It’s difficult to know what to make of this. On the one hand, the country would be in a much better position to seriously address the crisis if John McCain’s environmental views fell in the mainstream of his party, instead of where they actually fall — radically at odds with the views of his party’s leaders, virtually all conservative thinkers, and almost every last pundit on the right. If that’s ever going to change, it will probably require more people like Andrew Sullivan to highlight — and praise — the fact that McCain isn’t a typical right-wing denialist or industry shill.

At the same time, though, this really brings to light just how far behind the issue green conservatives are, and, as a corollary to that, the fact that the party of the filibuster is light years away from accepting the sort of legislation that will be necessary very, very soon if the problem is to be addressed adequately.

The sad fact is that, though a McCain presidency might drag a substantial contingent within the GOP in the right direction on environmental issues, and especially on climate, his own offerings have been pretty underwhelming. His big bill — the McCain-Lieberman Act — disappeared this Congress when it was, for all intents and purposes, replaced by the Lieberman-Warner America’s Climate Security Act. That legislation is in some ways more stringent than its predecessor, and McCain has refused to cosponsor it, noting through a spokesperson that “it doesn’t include the nuclear issue by name.”

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And there’s no reason to believe that McCain would do nearly enough to address the issue as president.

Realistically, I don’t know if it’s worth expecting more out of conservative intellectuals who genuinely care about the issue. They’re unfortunately entering the game extremely late, and their instincts for compromise are ill-suited to the problem we’re facing.

If the idea is to nod approvingly at important steps taken by Republican politicians, it might behoove the Sullivans of the world to look into gestures from people like Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.); the former has introduced fairly meaty climate legislation with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), and the latter is a cosponsor of Henry Waxman’s hard-hitting Safe Climate Act. Neither of them is running for president, but both of them “get it” much, much more than John McCain does.

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