POLITICS: How Green is John McCain?

If the polls coming out of New Hampshire are right, today’s primary vote should give John McCain’s presidential campaign a major boost: The Arizona senator looks well-placed to secure a victory that would catapult him back into the front running for the Republican nomination.

On the face of it, that’s good news for greens: McCain has made a Quixotic commitment to environmental causes - even in the face of opposition from his party - a part of his personal brand. His track record speaks for itself: In 2003, while most of the GOP was steadfastly denying the existence of climate change, McCain joined forces with Joe Lieberman to craft the Climate Stewardship Act, which helped pave the way for subsequent bipartisan efforts to address climate change.

That puts him head and shoulders above the rest of the Republican pack - though, of course, that’s not saying much. McCain’s main rivals, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, are barely willing to admit that human activity causes climate change, let alone take serious action to solve the problem; further down the food chain Mike Huckabee is more sympathetic, but has yet to offer any firm climate proposals. At this weekend’s Republican debate, nobody but McCain could bring themselves to even say the words “greenhouse gases,” let alone seriously discuss policy proposals.

In this context, the ascendency of a GOP candidate who takes the environment seriously can only be a good thing: It raises the possibility of a presidential race in which the environmental debate will rise above mere denial and rebuttal, and move towards a genuine discussion of the best way forward.

It does, however, bring a potential risk. Faced with Giuliani or Romney, the Democratic nominee would have a clear environmental advantage, and would simply need to drive his or her point home; running against McCain, it could prove harder to gain the upper hand. Rather than try to communicate the nuances of their climate position, the candidates would face the temptation to treat climate strategy as a moot point, instead shifting the focus to more fruitful issues.

That would be a dangerous mistake. One of the great successes of this election cycle has been the Democratic candidates’ willingness to stake out ambitious and clear positions on climate change; no Republican has come close to following suit - including McCain, whose reputation rests more on his past accomplishments than his present agenda. It’s vital that Democrats - and nonpartisan greens - don’t abandon the momentum they’ve built up simply because John McCain isn’t as awful as the rest of the Republican field.

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