The Environmental Case for John McCain

By DAVID JENKINS, REP’s government affairs director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Dave delivered this speech to the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Roanoke, Virginia, on October 17, 2008.


Thank you, it is a pleasure to be here.

For those of you who don’t know, Republicans for Environmental Protection, or REP for short, is an organization dedicated to improving the Republican Party’s stance on environmental issues, helping elect truly green Republicans, and advancing our belief that real conservatism requires a strong stewardship ethic.

REP first endorsed Senator McCain in his 2000 primary race against George Bush—and in case anyone is wondering— no, we have never endorsed President Bush.

In fact, it was during that 2000 race that Senator McCain first met with REP and raised the issue of climate change.

And since climate change is currently the biggest and most pressing environmental challenge we face, it is a good place to start when talking about Senator McCain and the environment.

His record of leadership on climate change is unequaled. No member of Congress, Democrat or Republican, has done more to move our nation forward towards an effective response to climate change than John McCain.

Senator McCain has done more than talk about climate change, or roll out an election season plan. He was the first senator to introduce comprehensive climate legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions.

He has been introducing his climate bill since 2003, he held numerous hearings on the legislation, and in the face of opposition by his own party leaders, used political capital to secure floor votes on the bill.

His leadership didn’t stop there. To build support for climate legislation, Senator McCain undertook an intensive effort to educate his colleagues in Congress about climate change and the need to address it.

He took skeptical senators and representatives to the ends of the earth, including Antarctica, Alaska, Greenland, and New Zealand, to show them, firsthand, the impacts of climate change, expose them to climate research, and convince them that it is time to act.

By contrast, Senator Obama’s record on climate change is pretty thin. We really do not know how much political capital he is willing to spend on the issue—or how this issue stacks up related to his other priorities. He has a plan, but that only matters if it is something that can realistically become law.

I firmly believe that a McCain presidency, because of his proven commitment to this issue, his record of bipartisanship, and the fact that he can secure Republican votes, offers the best opportunity to see meaningful climate legislation become law. 

During the primary season, a top priority of the environmental community was for candidates to raise the climate issue on the campaign trail. Senator McCain did just that. He was constantly raising the issue in the Republican debates—even when the question was about energy or the economy, he addressed the issue in speeches, he sent out flyers exclusively about climate change, and he made this issue a key part of his campaign.

As you might imagine, this was a first for a GOP presidential primary—and on top of that, he actually won.

Because of Senator McCain’s record of climate leadership, the fact that he elevated the issue in the primaries, and because he was clearly the greenest candidate in the GOP field, I had hoped that the environmental community would have celebrated, at least briefly, his winning the nomination.

Well, that didn’t happen. Instead our friends over at Sierra Club begin launching harsh attacks on Senator McCain as soon as it seemed likely that he would be the GOP nominee.

In February, when the League of Conservation Voters released its 2007 scorecard, Senator McCain was given a zero rating because he missed all of the scored votes. Sierra Club President Carl Pope issued a statement at the time saying that McCain’s zero rating “exposed a lifetime pattern of voting with polluters and special interests.”

Call me crazy, but I thought it just exposed the fact that he was busy campaigning for president and missed the votes.

Now, interestingly enough, just yesterday, LCV issued its 2008 scorecard. Senator Obama received a score of 18 because he missed 9 of the 11 scored votes while he was out campaigning.

I look forward to seeing Mr. Pope’s characterization of that score.

I mention this because I think such harsh partisanship from the environmental community serves to further polarize environmental issues along political lines at a time when bipartisan support is needed, just as it was when we passed the landmark environmental laws of the 1970s, if we are to enact climate legislation that can be sustained long-term, regardless of which way the political winds are blowing.

Senator McCain also has a long record of leadership on public lands issues.

Most of you probably know that Senator McCain’s hero and role model is Theodore Roosevelt. This is especially true when it comes to environmental stewardship. His close friend, the late Congressman Mo Udall, also shaped Senator McCain’s stewardship ethic.

Senator McCain and Congressman Udall worked together to protect 3.4 million acres of Arizona wilderness. Senator McCain has been a champion of the Grand Canyon, fighting successfully for legislation to protect the canyon from noisy aircraft overflights. He currently has the Fossil Creek Wild and Scenic River bill in an omnibus public lands package that the Senate plans to vote on in November.

Thus far, Senator Obama has not taken an active leadership role in wilderness, parks, or other public lands issues.

Climate change and public lands issues are areas where there is a clear difference between the candidates in experience, focus, and leadership, but there are also some real differences in policy direction that have gotten very little play in the media.

One of these has to do with the candidates’ approach to water projects.

In 2006 and 2007, Senator McCain, along with Russ Feingold, sponsored a bill and two legislative amendments to require independent prioritization and review of Army Corps of Engineers water projects. Lacking such prioritization and oversight, Corps projects are often wasteful, pork barrel boondoggles that destroy rivers and wetlands and siphon valuable dollars away from more worthy projects.

Senator Obama opposed the McCain–Feingold Corps reform amendments.

Senator McCain supports farm policy reform to address costly, outdated, and environmentally harmful subsidy programs. Senator Obama has supported the status quo.

Senator McCain opposes an effort to add wind damage coverage to the already financially troubled National Flood Insurance Program. Adding wind coverage to NFIP would put the program deeper in the red and encourage development in ecologically fragile, hurricane-prone coastal areas by having taxpayers across the country underwrite the risk of such development.

Senator Obama favors adding wind damage coverage to NFIP.

Senator McCain has promised to end the destructive practice of mountaintop removal coal mining, which—as has been highlighted at this conference—is destroying the Appalachian landscape and has resulted in thousands of miles of streams being buried by the overburden. 

Senator Obama has been considerably less committal about this issue.

Since energy has been such a high profile focus of the campaigns, I’m sure most of you are aware of the major distinctions between the two candidates’ energy policies. So, in the interest of time I’m just going to make a few points.

While much of the talk has centered around offshore drilling and nuclear energy, it is important to point out that Senator McCain has a very balanced energy plan that is fully integrated with his climate change policy.

He is committed to quickly shifting our transportation sector away from oil by dramatically improving fuel efficiency and relying more on alternative fuels. He believes that electric hybrids and flex-fuel capability are keys to this. He supports accelerating the development and use of cellulosic ethanol.

His support for nuclear energy is rooted is his commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He is not convinced that we can meet our energy needs in a climate-friendly way unless we expand our use of nuclear energy. 

Senator McCain opposes oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as does Senator Obama.

The Obama campaign continually attacks Senator McCain by claiming he opposes tax credits for wind and solar. While he has voted against specific bills for various reasons, he wants to rationalize the current patchwork of temporary tax credits and provide an even-handed system of credits that will remain in place until a cap on carbon emissions can transform the market.

Anyone who tries to compare Senator McCain’s stewardship ethic and his energy and environmental policies to President Bush is simply not being honest. The differences are dramatic, whether the issue is climate change, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, CAFE standards, Tongass logging subsidies, heck, even the role of science in informing public policy—and those differences have positively impacted the tone and substance of the GOP platform.

In 1908, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt was busy implementing his great conservation vision for America—and protecting our nation’s natural heritage more than any other president before or since.

Now, exactly 100 years later, we have an opportunity to elect another Republican, cut from a similar mold, who believes that conservation is conservative, who cherishes our public lands, and who is passionate about the stewardship obligation we owe future generations.

Thank you.