Remembering Senator John McCain and His Position on the Environment

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by Alicia Legland

John McCain, a Vietnam war hero and beloved Senator from Arizona, passed away after a difficult battle with brain cancer on Saturday August 25, 2018; he was 81 years old.[1] As the nation remembers the astounding military and political legacy of Senator McCain, it is an apt time to reflect on the late politician’s stance on environmental issues.

Senator McCain was known as a straight-talking republican with unwavering values; but, he was equally admired as a republican who often crossed party lines to cooperate and compromise with democrats.[2] McCain began to take a public stance on climate change in 2000 when he partnered with then-democratic Senator Joe Lieberman to create the Climate Stewardship Act, which the New York Times called, “the first serious bipartisan bill to limit greenhouse gas emissions by putting a price on carbon.”[3] Senator McCain was not afraid to confront fellow republicans in demanding support for his climate initiatives. In 2003, he and Senator Lieberman “refused to support an energy bill Senate Majority Leader Republican Bill Frist and Senate Minority Leader Democrat Tom Daschle were trying to get passed until the Senate would allow a floor vote on their Climate Stewardship Act, which would have passed an economy-wide cap-and-trade program for carbon.”[4] Although the Act has not led to a comprehensive climate bill, Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp said “when we do get there, McCain will go down in history as someone who started that progress in a forceful way.”[5] More recently, in May of 2017, Senator McCain agreed to stand alongside Democrats in voting against the repeal of an Obama Administration methane emissions rule.[6] The rule that escaped repeal, “forces oil and gas companies to capture methane that had been previously burned off or ‘flared’ at drilling sites, [which], according to federal estimates, would prevent roughly 180,000 tons a year of methane from escaping into the atmosphere.”[7]

During his Presidential Campaign of 2008, he was endorsed by Republicans for Environmental Protection (renamed ConservAmerica) which believed the late Senator to, “know that the fight against climate change is a conservative cause.”[8] Additionally, McCain was, “praised by the National Park Service and the Grand Canyon Association for his work preserving the iconic Arizona landmark and by Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions for his work to fund fish hatchery repairs near Hoover Dam and water conservation at Colorado River reservoirs.”[9]

However, Senator McCain’s environmental record has not been without flaws. According to the League of Conservation Voters, the late Senator has a career-long pro-environment voting score of 22 out of 100.[10] Although not very high, Senator McCain achieved higher average scores during certain years of his Senate career. He earned his highest score of 67 out of 100 in 2004 when he voted for Nuclear Waste Cleanup, against an amendment undermining the National Environmental Policy Act, for reinstating over $1 billion in revenue from Superfund fees, and against cutting environmental funding.[11] Although 2004 was an active year for environmental votes in the Senate, there were years where the Senator’s National Environmental Scorecard registered at 0 out of 100; these included 1998, 2000, 2007, 2008, and 2012.[12] But nevertheless, Senator McCain was a rare republican voice that stood up for the environment at certain crucial moments, and unyieldingly stood up for morality even in the face of the currently sordid political climate.

[1] Robert D. McFadden, John McCain, War Hero, Senator, Presidential Contender, Dies at 81, The New York Times, August 25, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/25/obituaries/john-mccain-dead.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FMcCain%2C%20John&action=click&contentCollection=politics&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=47&pgtype=collection.

[2] Id. at paragraph 8.

[3] Olivia Rosane, The Environmental Legacy of Senator John McCain, 1936-2018, Ecowatch, August 27, 2018, https://www.ecowatch.com/john-mccain-climate-change-environment-2599542575.html.

[4] Id. at paragraph 8.

[5] Id. at paragraph 10.

[6] Juliet Eilperin and Chelsea Harvey, Senate unexpectedly rejects bid to repeal a key Obama-era environmental regulation, The Washington Post, May 10, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/05/10/senates-poised-to-repeal-a-final-obama-era-rule-as-soon-as-wednesday/?utm_term=.0c86d29541fe.

[7] Id. at paragraph 5.

[8] Grist Staff, Two enviro groups endorse their faves for U.S. president in ’08, Grist Magazine, October 15, 2007, https://grist.org/article/endors/.

[9] Rosane, supra at paragraph 18.

[10] League of Conservation Voters, National Environmental Scorecard Senator John McCain (R),http://scorecard.lcv.org/moc/john-mccain.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

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