Confronting a Global Crisis

The longer we wait to take action, says Senator John McCain, the more difficult it will be to diminish the effects of global warming

04-01-2005 // Interview by Mark Wexler

IF THERE'S ONE THING that gets John McCain hot under the collar, it's the notion that global warming does not pose a serious threat to our health and the environment. The Republican senator from Arizona, who has long been at odds with the Bush administration over the issue, believes that the United States must take immediate steps to prevent the problem from growing worse. In 2003, along with Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), he first introduced into Congress a landmark bill that outlines a national climate change abatement plan. Among other things, the measure would require the nation's industrial facilities to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to 2000 levels by the year 2010. Not long ago, he spoke about the proposed plan and other related matters with National Wildlife Editorial Director Mark Wexler.

What motivated you to introduce the Climate Stewardship Act into Congress with Sen. Lieberman?
It was the accumulation of scientific evidence that climate change clearly is taking place. In my view, the evidence is very strong--and the effects of climate change are very alarming. The National Academy of Sciences has stated in unequivocal terms that the effects are substantial and, to quote a report, "the result of human activity."

In your travels, have you observed firsthand any of those effects?
I traveled to the 79th parallel in northern Norway last August and I was overwhelmed by what I saw there, particularly the drastic reduction in the glaciers. It was a remarkable experience to go on a small ship next to a glacier and see where it had been just ten years ago, and how quickly it has receded since then.

Given all of the mounting evidence of global warming, do you foresee that the president and some of your colleagues in Congress will take a fresh look at this problem, or do you expect them to continue to oppose any efforts to regulate the nation's greenhouse gas emissions?
I hope they'll take a fresh look, and I think some of them will. There's no justification for not taking action now. But we have a tough task ahead in convincing the administration. The White House stance on climate change is terribly disappointing. Unfortunately, the special interests rule in Washington, D.C. The major lobbies, including the utilities, wield enormous power on Capitol Hill.

Can the public make a difference on this issue?
The national interests can only overcome the special interests with the support of the American people. It's similar to what we went through a few years ago with campaign finance reform. Some politicians will say that climate change is not a priority issue for the American people. Well, according to many so-called experts at the time, neither was campaign finance. But that proved to be wrong. The ever-increasing body of evidence and scientific opinion means that we will prevail eventually.

What can a person reading this interview do to help?
We all must be involved in putting pressure on our elected officials, particularly those in the Senate because the House is even more beholden to special interests. We got 43 votes in the Senate in favor of passing the Climate Stewardship Act a year ago. Don't be surprised if we get fewer votes when the bill comes up again because of the changes in the composition of the Senate as a result of the recent elections. But we must get the members of Congress on record. We aren't held responsible for what we say, but we are held responsible for how we vote.

What risks do we face by not taking action now?
As I've said, the impacts already are incredibly damaging. The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be to mitigate the effects of climate change. Are we going to hand our children and grandchildren a world vastly different from the one that we now inhabit?

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