McCain’s Conservative Case for a Climate Policy

By JIM DIPESO, REP’s policy director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Jim delivered this speech at the University of Montana’s Center for Ethics in Missoula, on August 5, 2008.


Thank you, it’s a pleasure being here in Missoula.

In 2000, when our organization was in its infancy, we endorsed Senator McCain during his first campaign for president. Somehow, we were able to arrange a 15-minute meeting with him at the airport in Phoenix. Right after his thumping win in the New Hampshire primary, as he was on his way home, he came into the airport meeting room with a few of his aides.

After the initial pleasantries, the first statement out of his mouth was:

“Everywhere I go, people are asking me about global warming. What do I tell them about global warming?”

It was a request for help. So our top people looked at each other, gulped, and promised to write John McCain a position paper on global warming.

Which I did, after I kicked my kids off the home computer and told them that their game playing was over for the next several days.

We like to think that we played a small role in helping John McCain become a national leader on climate change. But the more important point of the story is that climate change intrigued him as far back as 2000, when there was no political advantage for him to push the issue or even take any interest in it.

Since then, McCain has done more to make the case for climate policy than just about any other member of Congress, Republican or Democrat.

As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee during 2001, he held real hearings designed to elicit real information from real scientists – not show hearings to trot out skeptics touting a predigested conclusion that fit with a pre-existing political agenda.

He and Joe Lieberman wrote a cap-and-trade bill and pressed for two Senate floor votes.

And he took congressional colleagues, including a few skeptics, to the ends of the earth – Alaska, Antarctica and Greenland – to let them see firsthand the impacts of climate change and convince them that it’s time to act.

That’s how you build support for passing difficult, complicated legislation – you work with your colleagues, the R’s and D’s, one at a time, year after year.

None of this hard work has gained McCain much support within his party, neither with the leaders nor the activists.


The politically correct stance about global warming among many who consider themselves “conservative” is a four-level hierarchy.

Level 1. Global warming is not real because Al Gore made the whole thing up.

Level 2. It might be real, but it has mostly natural causes.

Level 3. It’s probably real and human activities might have something to do with it, but there is nothing we can do about it without wrecking the economy.

Level 4. We probably ought to do something, but let’s wait for more research.


What’s interesting about McCain’s approach to this issue is that he dismisses the entire four-step hierarchy and reframes the issue in traditional conservative terms.

In a speech last year, for example, he said the following:

“Some urge we do nothing because we can’t be certain how bad the problem might become or they presume the worst effects are most likely to occur in our grandchildren’s lifetime. I’m a proud conservative, and I reject that kind of live-for-today, ‘me generation,’ attitude.”

That touches on an older sort of Tory conservatism that you don’t hear much about today. In today’s world, conservatism is equated with unlimited consumption and materialism.

As the conservative author Russell Kirk wrote in The Conservative Mind a half-century ago:

“In America, an impression began to arise that the new industrial and acquisitive interests are the conservative interest, that conservatism is simply a political argument in defense of large accumulations of private property, that expansion, centralization, and accumulation are the tenets of conservatives. From this confusion … the forces of tradition in the United States never have fully escaped.”

You won’t hear something like that on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program.

This is the traditional conservatism of Edmund Burke, who taught that society is an intergenerational contract in which the present generation has a duty to protect our inheritance for the benefit of the next generation.

This is a throwback to Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas about the duty that those alive today owe to those “within the womb of time,” as he eloquently wrote.

This is what McCain is getting at when he tells doubting Republicans in town hall meetings that climate change is real and that we have a responsibility to do something about it.

This is the traditional conservative rationale for dealing with climate change – that our moral responsibility to be good stewards must compel us to act.

That’s going to be a hard sell because contemporary ideas about what is and isn’t conservative are part of today’s mental furniture. But polling results from Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, show that a flanking maneuver may be the best way to bring conservatives along, by emphasizing the security and economic benefits of shifting to a low-carbon energy economy.

But why does this matter? So what if conservatives don’t believe the science and don’t want to act? If they don’t want to get on board, then next year, just pass a bill without them. If it’s on a party line vote, so be it.

The problem is that while that might be tactically smart, it would be strategically foolish.Deliberations on a cap-and-trade bill will be much more than a wonky debate about allowances, offsets, exemptions, and off-ramps, as important as those might be. It will amount to codifying a reordering of an energy economy that has been locked into a fossil fuel equilibrium for generations.

That fossil-fuel energy economy has delivered mobility, technology and wealth on a scale that our 19th century ancestors would have found unfathomable.

It also gave us greenhouse gas emissions, which no one thought much about when the first coal-fired power plants and gasoline-fueled vehicles were built.

Our friends in China, India, and elsewhere want that wealth and mobility. And they’re prepared to burn a lot of coal to get them if they have to.

There is a great deal of inertia behind our fossil energy system because of the economic and social benefits that it yields. Finding new energy choices that will enable us to retain the benefits and for others to gain them, but without the greenhouse gases, will not be a trivial undertaking.

You have here a convergence of inequities – the systemic threat of global warming, and hundreds of millions of people seeking an escape from poverty. It will take all of the moral, intellectual, and political capital that we can marshal to work our way out of this problem.

In this country, this will be a paradigm shift similar to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That law codified a reordering of social relations and racial attitudes that had been stuck in a certain equilibrium for lifetimes.

In 1964, Democrats held the White House and majorities in both the House and Senate. But President Johnson knew that he could not pass the Civil Rights Act without the help of Republicans, namely the Republican minority leader, Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois.

Dirksen had constitutional reservations about the civil rights bill, and the GOP caucus was not excited about helping a Democratic president achieve one of his top priorities.

Dirksen was a conservative but he possessed a canny pragmatism and a knack for working across the aisle. He hit on a clever strategy for working the Civil Rights Act that enabled him to modify the bill enough to build support but not so much that the meat of the bill would be fatally weakened.

On the day of the climactic vote to cut off a filibuster against the Civil Rights Act, Dirksen rose in front of packed galleries and, in his famously sonorous voice, quoted Victor Hugo:

“Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come.”

More than anyone else serving in Congress, Everett Dirksen cleared the way for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He brought along Republicans to join with Democrats in passing a bill that required bipartisan backing in order to achieve the broad, lasting social change that it aspired to.

In 2009 and beyond, we will face a debate of that magnitude. We as a nation will consider a bill that aspires to broad and lasting change.

We will need both Republicans and Democrats to cement the broad support that the bill will need to achieve its goal.

We will need conservatives to get on board. They may have different ideas about how the bill should be structured, and the location of the proper set point in balancing emissions reduction targets and minimizing economic pain. But their support, however grudging and tentative, will be necessary for making our retooling of our energy economy work.

That’s the real benefit of McCain’s candidacy. He is telling Republicans, using conservative language, that we must own up to our moral responsibilities. He is telling them that climate stewardship is an idea whose time has come. If he is elected president, McCain will be best positioned to push Republicans, some of them, no doubt, kicking and screaming, to vote for climate legislation.

But if McCain does not prevail, I hope that Barack Obama is wise enough to realize that winning the fight against global warming must be a victory for conservatives as well as for liberals.

Thank you very much.