Remembering Senator McCain

On Friday, I will be among the thousands in Washington, D.C., who will line-up and pay tribute to Senator John McCain for his service, sacrifice and conservation leadership.

His life and legacy offer many lessons that I will try to take to heart, and that I hope serve as guideposts for more and more politicians in years to come. I didn’t know Senator McCain well personally, but during my career in conservation I had the honor and privilege of meeting him several times, the first of which took place in the early months of the President George W. Bush administration. Senator McCain, who had unsuccessfully battled for the Republican nomination, broke ranks with President Bush on several major issues including drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Senator McCain (lower right), the son and grandson of Navy admirals, was elected to the U.S. House in 1982, and served in the U.S. Senate from 1987 until his death in 2018. (Library of Congress)

Senator McCain, who had previously supported drilling in 1995 and as recently as 2000, changed his position and over the course of the Bush administration and during his 2008 run for president he spoke out against and voted to oppose drilling on multiple occasions. Here’s an excerpt from his April 2002 floor speech on the issue:

Most scientific analyses conclude that both the land and wildlife would adversely be impacted by development. The two Alaska Native communities most impacted by this debate are split in their positions on this issue. Even if ANWR were authorized for development, we would still rely on imported oil supplies and require other sources of energy development and generation…

Teddy Roosevelt, the champion of conservation, once said: “Conservation means development as much as it does protection. I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us. Mr. President, I have thought long and hard about this debate and the vote that I will cast. I still hope we can achieve a more balanced national energy strategy, but I am not convinced that a key component of that policy should be to drill in ANWR. I will vote against the motions to invoke cloture on these amendments.

In my brief interactions with Senator McCain at the time, it was clear he not only was a student of President Teddy Roosevelt, but also saw the GOP as needing to return to its conservation roots embodied by our 26th president.

Perhaps channeling Teddy, Senator McCain would speak even more forcefully for the Arctic Refuge in 2005 (at page S14110), when Alaska’s senior senator Ted Stevens, chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Appropriations, successfully jammed a drilling provision into the must pass Defense Department appropriations bill:

Division C of this conference report authorizes the exploration, leasing, development, production, and transportation of oil and gas in and from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, ANWR. This provision does not belong in an appropriations bill to fund our troops who are fighting the war on terror. Drilling in ANWR is, of course, the reason we are here today. When conferees tried to add these provisions to the reconciliation measure, they could not get the votes to include it in the final agreement without putting passage of the whole package in jeopardy. So instead the conference managers have circumvented Senate rules and added this unrelated and controversial measure to the Defense conference report.

Thanks to this additional language, enactment of the Defense funding bill has been needlessly delayed and continues at this moment to be the target of a filibuster. I strongly oppose this inclusion of this language in the DOD appropriations conference report, and I am appalled by the tactics that have been used to arm-twist and pressure Senators to choose between a drilling provision that they know is wrong and providing desperately needed funding for our Nation’s troops.

Most notably, Senator McCain maintained his opposition to drilling in the Arctic Refuge during his 2008 run for the White House throughout the Republican primaries and even after naming Alaska’s pro-drilling governor Sarah Palin to his ticket:

As far as ANWR is concerned, I don’t want to drill in the Grand Canyon, and I don’t want to drill in the Everglades. This is one of the most pristine and beautiful parts of the world.

When I was at National Wildlife Federation serving as its Sr. Director of Congressional and Federation Affairs, we presented Senator McCain with one of our highest awards for his defense of the Arctic Refuge, his efforts to reform the practices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and his then extraordinary leadership on climate change. The private conversation that preceded this was wide ranging but included a discussion of birds the Senator had seen on his ranch some of which may well have nested or staged on the Arctic Refuge coastal plain.

Senator McCain (center left) with then NWF President and CEO Larry Schweiger and Sr. VP for Conservation Jeremy Symons, and myself (far right).

Last October, Senator McCain surprised many of us by supporting the Alaska congressional delegation’s effort to include Arctic Refuge drilling in the tax legislation. He didn’t make any public statements regarding his Arctic Refuge tax bill votes. But Alaska’s junior senator Dan Sullivan takes credit as recounted in this January 2018 Alaska Journal of Commerce article, arguing McCain saw potential increased U.S. oil production as helpful in the power dynamics with Russia.

We’ll never know what truly persuaded Senator McCain, but we do know how strongly he felt about climate change and our dependence on fossil fuels, having authored the very first comprehensive cap and trade bill with Senator Joe Lieberman. He traveled around the globe – including to the Arctic – to witness and better understand climate impacts. And he was a decisive vote in the effort to retain regulations of methane – a powerful greenhouse gas – that were put in place during the Obama administration.

Senator McCain and climate change: a critical issue for our future. (YouTube)

My own belief is that Senator McCain – were he still with us – would have been increasingly uncomfortable by the way the Trump administration is rushing to drill in the Arctic Refuge. The administration is forsaking any meaningful new analysis of potential impacts (climate or otherwise), short changing consultation with indigenous communities and attempting to green light a fleet of immense seismic “thumper trucks” as early as this winter.

Whether I am right or wrong about that, it is certain that at the very least Senator McCain would have listened, considered the facts, and been willing to do what he thought was best. As George Bernard Shaw famously said, “Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

“If I might quote the punch line from an old joke, ‘You can believe me or your lyin’ eyes.’ These are facts…That is the Arctic Sea. That is the Arctic Sea. If you look at the red line, that is the boundary of it in 1979. Look at it now. You can believe me or your lyin’ eyes.”

For the GOP to return to its Teddy Roosevelt pro-conservation roots, we will need more politicians to change their minds and consider how their votes affect not just the next election but also the next generation. As Senator McCain said so well:

Some urge we do nothing because we can’t be certain how bad the (climate) 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. It is unworthy of us and incompatible with our reputation as visionaries and problem solvers. Americans have never feared change. We make change work for us.“ (Address at Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 23, 2007)

Thank you Senator McCain for all your incredible service and sacrifices for our country. Thank you for courageously speaking out, even when it cut against your own party’s orthodoxy. Thank you for giving all politicians an example of the kind of leadership so vitally necessary to restore faith in our Democracy.