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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

John McCain & Climate Change

Air Date: Week of

Senator John McCain held a hearing in the Senate this week on global warming, and environmentalists are singing his praises. Living On Earth’s Diane Toomey explores whether or not it’s a bit premature to put the environmentalist label on the senator.


CURWOOD: John McCain may not be running for president right now, but he's staying in the public eye. The Arizona Senator is capitalizing on the maverick image that captured the attention of many voters. Most Senators have said little about global warming in the past few years, except to oppose the Kyoto accord. But John McCain is stepping out to say now is the time to take a closer look at the possible impacts of climate change. Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports.

TOOMEY: As he campaigned for president, John McCain says he was asked time and again about his plan to address global warming. His response was simple, if less than satisfactory.

McCAIN: I don't have a plan. I'm sorry to say that I don't have a plan.

TOOMEY: So Senator McCain said he'd do his homework on climate change science, and a few days ago he made good on that promise in a very public way. In a hastily-called Senate hearing on the issue, John McCain spoke to a standing room-only crowd. He admitted he's concerned about mounting evidence that indicates, in his words, "something is happening."

McCAIN: I do not pretend to have the expertise and knowledge on this very important and very controversial issue. But I do intend to become informed.

TOOMEY: And when you're the head of the Senate's Commerce, Science, and Technology Committee, you can assemble the best instructors for your tutorial. McCain brought together four prominent climate researchers: three who believe global warming is a serious threat, and another who's a self-described agnostic on the subject. The scientists answered questions from both Senator McCain and two other members of the committee. In the past, Senator McCain has earned low marks from environmental groups. But less than half an hour into the hearing, the Senator seemed to have moved into their camp.

McCAIN: It's almost sort of like connecting the dots here. We see example after example, ranging from ice breaking off the Antarctic to the death of coral reefs to the inexorable increase in water levels. Does that make any sense, or is it just, are we being a little bit hysterical?

TOOMEY: No, said Neil Lane, President Clinton's point person on global warming. Mr. Lane added, the potential harm from climate change warrants real concern. After the hearing, advocates on both sides of the issue played up or played down its importance.

PASSACANTANDO: Clearly, Senator John McCain has forever changed the landscape on how American politicians are going to look at global warming

TOOMEY: John Passacantando is with the environmental group Ozone Action.

PASSACANTANDO: He sounded today like he thought there was a problem. You know, he is a maverick, right? So he gets out ahead of his colleagues, particularly ahead of a lot of his Republican colleagues. But they can't stay too far behind him. The rest of the Senate is going to have to follow along.

TOOMEY: Myron Ebel with the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute had a different take.

EBEL: Senator McCain is not taken terribly seriously in the Republican caucus in the Senate. He is not a heavyweight, and I don't think any opinions that the happens to be spouting today will carry much weight over the long term.

TOOMEY: Despite this hearing, Mr. Ebel says the Senate remains overwhelmingly opposed to the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty which seeks to reduce the pollution that causes global warming. While he discounts the significance of this hearing, Mr. Ebel is disappointed with Senator McCain's apparent shift.

EBEL: Clearly he seems to be on the sort of global warming hysteria bandwagon.

TOOMEY: Regardless of how much influence John McCain holds over the Senate, he does have the ear of the American people. And with that in mind, he says he intends to hold more hearings on climate change. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.



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