McCain's environmental record

On environmental issues, the Republican nominee for president has gone from hero to zero.

By Ben Whitford

In January 2006, Brad Miller, a Democratic congressman from North Carolina, joined Sen. John McCain on a legislative fact-finding delegation to the South Pole. Miller recalls the lawmakers, still bundled in their emergency cold-weather gear, huddling into a tiny conference room a stone’s throw from the pole itself, where nervous climate scientists showed them ice-core data that a few months later would serve as the dramatic centerpiece of Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. “We were all fairly taken aback,” says Miller. But McCain was less interested in the science, which he seemed to accept at face value, than in finding ammunition to use against his opponents back in Washington; during the presentation, he bombarded the scientists with questions about whether the Bush administration or his rivals in the Senate had tried to suppress the researchers’ findings. “McCain absolutely grilled them,” Miller says. “He was really pushing these guys about whether they were allowed to say what they really thought.” Later that night, with the midnight sun still overhead, McCain buttonholed Miller in the dingy prefab hut that served as the research station’s bar and, over a beer, held forth about the importance of tackling climate change. McCain had recently read Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, and lectured Miller on the story of Easter Island, whose inhabitants wrecked their ecosystem and ultimately their entire society. “He seemed to be trying to impress upon me that he was a kindred spirit on the subject of the environment,” Miller says. “He said it needed to be our urgent business.”


Miller returned from the South Pole with a strong impression that McCain was sincere in his desire to tackle climate change, and serious about the necessity of putting science before politics. Lately, though, he’s started to have second thoughts. “I really worry,” says Miller, who now chairs the Investigations and Oversight subcommittee of the House Science and Technology committee. “I thought he’d be different, but now I’m not at all sure.” At the time of the South Pole trip, McCain was still being feted for penning the Climate Stewardship Act of 2003, the first legislative effort to reduce America’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Since then, though, McCain has refused to lend his support to other lawmakers’ climate legislation on the grounds that it did not include subsidies for the nuclear industry. He has repeatedly failed to support renewable-energy legislation, including a key bill that ultimately failed by just one vote. He has newly embraced off-shore drilling and adopted fossil-fuel friendly energy policies. And - the last straw - he’s appointed an oil-state governor who has denied humans' role in global warming as his running mate. “It’s hard to square the pick of Sarah Palin with a deep abiding conviction that the climate of the earth is changing,” says Miller.

William Buckley, a founder of the modern right-wing movement, famously described the two George Bushes as being conservative without being conservatives: they may have taken conservative positions, he said, but they lacked any serious philosophical commitment to the tenets of conservatism. By the same token, over the years it’s become apparent that while John McCain sometimes sides with greens, he lacks the ideological consistency that marks a true environmentalist. In the quarter of a century that he’s spent in Washington, McCain’s positions have been marked by a strange – some might say erratic – blend of idealism and opportunism: he’s fought for climate legislation, and almost single-handedly kept global warming on the political agenda after the failure of the Kyoto Protocol; but he’s also repeatedly sided with corporate interests and the energy sector on a wide range of environmental and conservation issues. Despite McCain’s efforts to halt global warming, his lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters is just 24 percent, on a par with some of the most right-wing lawmakers around. “You don’t just go out and get a 24,” says Tim Greefe, the LCV’s deputy legislative director. “You really have to earn that.”

A mentor named Mo

One of Sen. John McCain’s earliest television ads, dating from his first congressional campaign in 1982, shows the tanned young war hero driving down a desert highway and speaking earnestly of Arizona’s natural beauty. “I love it here,” he says, while an achingly beautiful desert sunset melts across the screen. “I enjoy every sunset and every sunrise. And I can tell you that if you go for six years without being able to see the sunset or the sunrise, like I did, you can truly appreciate the beauty of what we have.” The sentiment was genuine; to this day, given half a chance, McCain will wax lyrical about his state’s rugged scenery. Still, the ad’s subtext was clear. McCain, a former Naval lobbyist, had parachuted into Phoenix barely a year before, and had been dogged by claims that he was just a Beltway carpetbagger. By rhapsodizing about his adopted state’s natural splendor, McCain hoped to inoculate himself against such charges, and to cast himself as an authentic Westerner who shared his constituents’ love for the land and landscapes that surrounded them. McCain trotted out similar lines as he went door-to-door around Arizona’s first congressional district, says Jay Smith, who worked as a political consultant on the campaign. “This is the state with the Grand Canyon, and lots of federal lands, so it’s more important in Arizona than in other states,” says Smith. “It was very important, and obviously he communicated it well.”

McCain’s green gambit - along with his Naval record and his wife Cindy’s connections in Phoenix - netted him a solid victory in the 1982 congressional race, but McCain already had his eyes on a bigger prize. Arizona’s iconic conservative senator, Barry Goldwater, had announced his plans to step down, and McCain was already positioning himself to take his place. “Even before I had won that first election, I was determined to be his successor,” McCain later wrote in his autobiography. “Most of my time in the House was spent preparing for that event.” As soon as McCain arrived in Congress, he set out to cultivate genuine ties to his adopted home, persuading congressional leaders to appoint him to the House interior committee, where he could gain experience on the land, water and timber issues close to the heart of Arizonan voters. The appointment also gave McCain a chance to schmooze the committee’s Democratic chairman, a fellow Arizonan: the pioneering environmentalist Morris Udall. “Mo was a legend in Arizona in 1982,” McCain recalled. “If I was famous for anything, it was only for being an upstart … a relationship with Mo would be the biggest break I was likely to receive at the start of my career.” The two lawmakers weren’t an obvious match - one a former presidential aspirant known as the liberal conscience of the House, the other, in his own words, “a freshman right-wing Nazi” - but each could see the political value of cultivating a friendship. In a cordial private meeting after the Interior Committee’s first session, the two lawmakers pledged to work together for the good of their state.

Udall proved a generous mentor, inviting the young Republican to joint press conferences at which he encouraged McCain to take more than his share of credit for the activities of the Interior Committee; in return, McCain joined Udall in pushing for a million acres of Arizona land to be listed as protected wilderness. “My party’s general hostility to federal interference in questions of intense local concern, my pro-growth, free enterprise views and the local political and financial support they earned me, and my own uncertain future in Arizona politics all argued for a very studied, cautious response when Mo asked me to join his effort,” McCain wrote. “But I jumped at the chance … I trusted him completely and saw more opportunity than risk in being identified with his singular stewardship of Arizona’s public land.” In fact, backing Udall’s wilderness act posed few political risks for McCain, especially since Sen. Barry Goldwater had already given the plan his blessing; the move also helped McCain meet a pressing political need. “He wanted to cement his ties with the state, and this was part of that,” says McCain biographer Robert Timberg. “If he hadn’t done those things he’d have been out on his ass within two years."

By the time McCain launched his 1986 Senate campaign, he saw his collaborations with Udall as a major selling-point, and ran newspaper ads touting their joint wilderness legislation as a testament to McCain’s “keen sensitivity” to Arizonans’ needs. After winning Goldwater’s seat, the freshman senator remained close to Udall, and threw his weight behind a new conservation effort that ultimately saw another 2 million acres of Arizonan land registered as protected wilderness. On the national level McCain continued to toe the party line, but in his home state he carefully courted Arizona’s conservationists, a relationship that culminated in 1987 with the passage of legislation limiting noisy tourist flights above the Grand Canyon. Local activists were ecstatic: Edward Norton, then chair of the Grand Canyon Trust, declared McCain “the Grand Canyon’s best friend in Congress.” McCain embraced their adulation, self-consciously casting himself as a Republican in the mold of Theodore Roosevelt: a conservative counterpart to the liberal environmentalism of Mo Udall, dedicated to protecting the land and wildlife of the state he now called home.

The love-in didn’t last long. Looking back on McCain’s early years, Udall aides have since told reporters that they believe the young lawmaker was sincere, at least at first, in his efforts to emulate his mentor’s environmental activism. But by the late 1980s, as Udall’s health and political influence waned, McCain began to slip into a more conventionally conservative political groove. Finally, in 1988, the bubble burst: after a concerted lobbying effort by the University of Arizona, McCain threw his weight behind the plans to build an array of telescopes on the summit of Mount Graham, a fir-lined peak a hundred miles northeast of Tucson that was home to an endangered subspecies of red squirrel.

At the university’s behest, McCain pushed through a law exempting the construction project from the Endangered Species Act, a move that one university lawyer said meant the telescopes could go ahead “even if it killed every squirrel” on the mountain. The move outraged Arizona’s greens, especially after a series of reports from the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) suggested that the project’s environmental impact assessments had been watered down. Despite environmentalists’ pleas, McCain continued to lobby hard for the telescopes; when a Forest Service supervisor ordered a temporary halt to construction, McCain summoned him to his office and threatened to have him fired. By 1992, the year after Udall’s failing health forced him to leave Congress, McCain’s relationship with Arizona conservationists had soured completely; when local activists Robin Silver and Bob Witzeman visited the senator in his Phoenix office to ask him to change his position on Mt Graham, he lost his temper, yelling obscenities at them for several minutes, shaking his fists and throwing papers across the room. According to Silver, what angered McCain most was the implicit suggestion that the senator had betrayed his own professed values. “He said people were accusing him of being a liar,” Silver recalls. “He was really personalizing the issue.” The activists were ejected from McCain’s office, and the telescope plan went ahead. Moreover, the political tactic McCain employed - adding the exemption as a rider to unrelated legislation - ushered in an new method of getting controversial laws passed quietly and with little-to-no debate that's frequently been employed, to the detriment of environmental interests, ever since.

Those who hoped McCain’s cheerleading for the Mount Graham project was a one-off were quickly disillusioned; over the next two decades, McCain sided consistently with developers, business groups and the military on a wide range of environmental issues. He voted against establishing Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks. He's consistently opposed the Renewable Electricity Standard, a pet issue of Mo Udall's son Mark (a Congressman from Colorado). He helped scuttle a bill that would have raised corporate average fuel efficiency to 40 miles per gallon by 2015. He voted to confirm Gayle Norton, who everyone knew was going to do all she could to open public lands to the oil-and-gas industry, as interior secretary. Silver takes a certain bleak pleasure in rattling off a laundry list of McCain’s environmental faux pas in Arizona: supporting low-altitude military flights over sensitive habitats; backing developers whose wells have drained the south-west’s last free-flowing river; failing to push for mining reform; remaining silent on controversial efforts to extract uranium close to the Grand Canyon. “He’s never been a champion on these issues,” says Sierra Club state director Sandy Bahr. “I think he cares - I wouldn’t question that - but he’s been very inconsistent.”

Still, even as McCain drifted away from the ground he’d once shared with Mo Udall, he sought to stake a claim to the Arizona liberal’s legacy. When Udall was hospitalized, McCain continued to visit him regularly, chatting or reading him newspaper articles about environmental issues. A year later, McCain founded the Morris K Udall Foundation, which gives grants for environmental research and runs an environmental dispute mediation center, in his mentor’s honor. And in 1996, with the presidency already on his mind, McCain penned a New York Times op-ed citing Udall’s example and calling for the GOP to reclaim its “roots as the party of Theodore Roosevelt” and embrace environmental stewardship.

Not everyone appreciated McCain’s eagerness to namecheck his ailing colleague. The final straw came in 1997, when McCain allowed a reporter to accompany him on one of his visits to Udall’s hospital bed. As the reporter took notes, McCain tried to wake the dying lawmaker, but could get no response. For some of those who’d watched McCain reap the benefits of his relationship with Mo Udall over the years, the Arizona senator’s decision to bring a reporter to the legendary liberal’s deathbed was the final act of betrayal: a sign that, at the last, McCain cared more for his own political future than for the man who’d helped make it possible. “That was devastating to me, that he brought in a reporter,” Udall’s former top aide, Bob Neuman, told the Phoenix New Times. “I thought that was crossing the line, and it destroyed me.” A year later, Mo Udall died; McCain paid fulsome tribute, and marched on in pursuit of the White House.

Finding his religion

In January 2000, as John McCain made his way to the stage for a town-hall meeting at Dartmouth College, he noticed sitting in the front row a young man wearing yellow sunglasses, yellow galoshes, tights and a bright red cape: Matthew Anderson-Stembridge, or, as he explained to anyone who’d listen, Captain Climate, “a superhero sent back from the future to warn people about global warming”. Anderson-Stembridge and his friends had been bird-dogging candidates at campaign events across the state without much luck; they’d already been unceremoniously evicted from Bush rallies. McCain, however, proved more welcoming; when he spotted the hard-to-miss superhero, he grinned broadly and bounded over to him exclaiming: “Captain, it’s nice to meet you!” McCain beckoned Anderson-Stembridge up to the stage, pumping his hand, and introduced him to his wife, Cindy. “I was so taken aback by the fact that he knew who I was that I ended up not saying a thing to him,” Anderson-Stembridge recalls. The superhero activists met with a similarly warm reception from the McCain camp at other events across the Granite State. “I think he was genuinely moved by our youthful persistence,” Anderson-Stembridge says. That may have been so; barely a week after shaking hands with Captain Climate, McCain arranged a rushed meeting at Phoenix airport with the leaders of a recently formed pressure group called Republicans for Environmental Protection. The presidential hopeful skipped the pleasantries, and went straight to business: “Everywhere I go, people keep asking me about global warming,” he said. “I need a good Republican answer - can you help me?”

These days, when McCain explains how he first became interested in global warming, he almost invariably brings up the gaudily-clad campaigners who accosted him as he stumped in New Hampshire during the 2000 primary race. Captain Climate’s costumed antics aside, though, McCain knew his environmental record was a potential Achilles’ heel: Democratic nominee Al Gore had already announced his intention to attack either Bush or McCain on their environmental positions. McCain got a further nudge, were one needed, from Dallas billionaire and Bush fundraiser Sam Wyly, who on the eve of the Super Tuesday primaries paid $2.5 million to fund an unprecedented advertising blitz in Vermont, Ohio, New York and California. The ads showed McCain’s face superimposed on a backdrop of smokestacks belching out black clouds. “John McCain voted against solar and renewable energy. That means more use of coal-burning plants that pollute our air,” boomed the voice-over. “Bush clean-air laws will reduce air pollution more than a quarter million tons a year. That's like taking five million cars off the road … Gov. Bush: Leading so each day dawns brighter.” Wyly’s attack ads were laughably, demonstrably false, but for McCain, they drove home a bitter lesson in Rovian realpolitik. As the senator returned to the Senate, he knew that he would no longer be able to rely on a love of Arizonan sunsets and Mo Udall’s reflected glory to protect him from charges of environmental negligence.

In climate change, McCain saw both a pressing need and a potent political symbol; observers say it was the interplay of these two factors that spurred him to action, and that accounted for the subsequent ebb and flow of his environmental activism. Using his position as chair of the Senate Commerce committee, McCain angered industry groups by launching a series of congressional hearings into the science of climate change. The scientists’ testimony was enough to convince McCain that Captain Climate had been on to something. “He accepted what anybody who looks at the issue accepts - that there’s a scientific consensus that it's real and that the consequences range from terrible to nightmarish,” says former Senate Environment committee and Energy Department staffer David Conover, a McCain supporter with no formal ties to the 2008 campaign. “When there’s a real issue, if you’re intellectually honest, which he is, you take action.” McCain assigned staffers to attend international negotiations aimed at resurrecting the Kyoto Protocol, which the US Senate had preemptively rejected by a 95-0 vote; at many sessions, attendees recall, the only Americans present were McCain’s aides and those of Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, who’d shown a similar early interest in global warming. Following one such conference, the two senators’ aides floated the idea of drafting domestic climate legislation to force climate change back onto the political radar. Both McCain and Lieberman were immediately enthusiastic, staffers say, and in the August of 2001 they announced their intention to develop a carbon-trading system to reduce greenhouse emissions. “Purely voluntary approaches will not be enough,” McCain declared. “It’s time to take action.”

Over the next two years, McCain and Lieberman pieced together the Climate Stewardship Act, which aimed to slash emissions to 2000 levels by 2010, and to 1990 levels by 2016. The legislation didn’t have a smooth ride: it was branded “Kyoto lite” by industry groups and congressional conservatives, who published sheafs of frightening statistics suggesting the plan would cost America billions of dollars in tax revenues, endanger hundreds of thousands of jobs and bring about steep rises in energy and gasoline prices. To counter the resistance, McCain and Lieberman substantially weakened the bill’s emissions targets, scrapping the 2016 goals altogether. It wasn’t enough; even with the revisions, the bill slumped to a 55 to 43 vote defeat. Still, even defeat was taken as a victory of sorts by environmental campaigners: the CSA might not have passed, but it had triggered the first serious Senate discussion of climate change since 1997, when lawmakers had unanimously voted to scrap the Kyoto Protocol. By that standard, winning even just 43 votes seemed a major step forward, and a sign that more meaningful successes were sure to follow. By the end of 2003, the environmental crowd, along with most of the news media, were almost ready to beatify John McCain: the one green Republican, a climate-crusading maverick who understood and believed in their cause.

With hindsight, things aren’t quite so clear-cut. If you plot a graph of McCain’s League of Conservation Voters scores between 2000 and 2007, you get a perfect bell-curve. In 2000, McCain missed every major environmental vote and earned a zero-rating; he couldn’t have been less environmentally friendly if he’d tried. After the election, his scores began to tick up, driven by his efforts on climate change; in 2004 he scored 67 percent, his highest LCV ranking in almost two decades. After 2004, though, his rankings slumped; last year he earned a zero-rating again, missing every major environmental vote.

The backsliding arguably began in 2005, with McCain and Lieberman’s second attempt to pass the Climate Stewardship Act. At McCain’s insistence, the pair larded their bill with nuclear subsidies in the hope of winning over a few pro-nuclear conservatives. McCain had long been an advocate of nuclear energy - Arizona is home to Palo Verde, the nation’s largest nuclear plant - but the new strategy stunned environmentalists who’d help draft the original bill. In a tense meeting, environmental advocates asked McCain to reconsider, but he’d made up his mind. “You’re wrong and I’m right,” he reportedly scolded the assembled greens, wagging his finger at them. For all McCain’s certainty, however, the plan backfired: no new Republicans backed the legislation, and liberal Democrats who’d originally supported the bill dropped the revised draft like a radioactive potato. This time around, the Climate Stewardship Act failed, with five fewer votes than the original legislation had mustered.

Last year, McCain and Lieberman introduced their climate legislation for a third time, still spiked with nuclear subsidies with an estimated price tag of $3.7 billion. (A McCain spokesman was unable to explain to me how McCain reconciles his staunch support for nuclear subsidies and his equally entrenched opposition to subsidies for renewable energy.) The bill failed to gain traction, and was ultimately overtaken by new legislation Lieberman had drafted with Republican Sen. John Warner. McCain didn’t try to hide his disdain for the new bill; in the end, despite the fact that it would have mandated deeper emission cuts than his own legislation and stood a genuine chance of becoming law, he refused to back it on the grounds that it lacked specific subsidies for the nuclear sector. “In 2003, McCain was groundbreaking and very much a leader,” says Terry Tamminen, former head of the Californian EPA and the architect of the state’s pioneering global-warming program. “But now he’s somewhat less than a follower … We’ve all moved past that 2003 policy, and McCain hasn’t really evolved or advanced.”

Looking back, Beltway environmentalists don’t doubt McCain’s conviction that climate change is real. But they also say that it’s become clear that saving the planet was never his only, or even necessarily his first, goal. McCain began to focus on writing climate legislation after President Bush - under pressure from Dick Cheney, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and a posse of industrial lobbyists - reversed his campaign pledge to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. For McCain, who had already sought to shorten Bush’s honeymoon period by launching a popular bipartisan patients-rights plan that Bush was forced to threaten to veto, assuming the environmental high ground was a welcome chance to lord it over his former rival. Even before McCain began work on the Climate Stewardship Act, he’d given a snippy interview to the AP lamenting Bush’s lack of action and calling for the US to make unilateral emission cuts.

And if tackling climate change allowed McCain to thumb his nose at Bush, it also provided him with a new potential route to the White House. The 2000 campaign had made McCain the darling of moderate Democrats and the liberal media; in the months that followed, the senator began to quietly court congressional Democratic leaders, floating the idea that he might switch parties if the conditions were right. In the early months of 2001, a top McCain aide named John Weaver approached senior Democrats to broach the idea of a McCain defection. By early 2002, Beltway insiders were seriously considering the possibility that McCain might switch sides and seek the Democratic presidential nomination in a bid to dethrone President Bush. And as late as 2004, Weaver was jostling John Kerry to begin discussions about the possibility of picking McCain as his running mate.

As McCain flirted with Democrats, he sought to signal his centrist credentials by launching a flurry of bipartisan lawmaking on everything from fuel-economy standards to airport security. (“McCain is co-sponsoring so many major bills with Democrats that his has become the most hyphenated name in Washington,” wrote Ronald Brownstein in the LA Times in the summer of 2002.) Those who worked with McCain at the time reject the notion that he was using the climate battle for political purposes; still, coincidentally or not, McCain’s environmental effort allowed him to reach across the aisle and burnish his reputation as an independent-minded maverick. Crucially, too, since the Climate Stewardship Act was unlikely to pass the Senate and even less likely to be signed into law, it was a stand McCain could take without irrevocably alienating himself from his party’s conservative base. If McCain subsequently wished to return to the fold, the door would remain open to him.

A different kind of green

In the 2008 primaries, McCain looked set to continue where he’d left off with Captain Climate: at a New Hampshire campaign stop, McCain was cheered by environmental activists, and returned the complement, yelling: “Way to go, global warming folks!” McCain’s words were punctuated by a chunk of melting snow falling from a nearby roof. “That’s that climate change,” he laughed. But behind the scenes, the McCain camp was already beginning to distance itself from its former environmental allies. Sierra Club staffers quickly discovered that they were personae non gratae at McCain rallies in Iowa and New Hampshire: “McCain staff wouldn’t meet with us, and wouldn’t talk about the issues,” says Cathy Duvall, the group’s political director. “There wasn’t exactly a warm welcome.”

Things only got worse as the campaign progressed. During the primary season, McCain had positioned himself as the moderate to Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney’s conservatives; after securing his party’s nomination, though, he needed to bring the base back on board. With gas prices sky-high and oil sailing over $100 a barrel, McCain decided that petro-populism rather than environmentalism was the order of the day. “People were just furious over the price of oil,” says Kenneth Green, an environmental policy analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “The Republicans saw a chance to tap into that voter anger.” In April, McCain echoed Bob Dole’s 1996 call for a gas-tax holiday; his proposal was panned by both environmentalists and economists, who said it’d do nothing to alleviate gas prices and would amount to a massive handout for oil companies. Two months later, with gas prices still spiraling, McCain tried again: to end the energy crisis, he announced, he would push for expanded domestic oil production and an end to the moratorium on offshore drilling. It was a major-league flip-flop; in the 2000 campaign, McCain had scolded “special interests in Washington” for pushing for increased off-shore drilling. But it was also a move that struck a note with the Republican base, giving McCain his most enduring campaign slogan: Drill, baby, drill!

It’s perhaps not coincidental that McCain’s off-shore drilling announcement came in the same week that Barack Obama announced that he would not accept public funding, and would instead seek to steamroller his opponent with an army of small donors. Besides energizing the base, McCain’s change in tack helped him to tap traditional Republican fundraisers who had so far been reluctant to open their wallets for his campaign. Immediately after announcing his support for off-shore drilling, McCain began a series of fundraisers targeting Texan oil industry bigwigs. In the two weeks following his announcement, according to a report by the Public Campaign watchdog group, McCain and the Republican National Committee received more than $1.4 million in oil-sector contributions - comfortably more than the total amount McCain had received from Big Oil in the previous two decades. “There was a gusher of money,” says David Donnelley, Public Campaign’s national campaigns director. “It played a huge role in his embrace of off-shore drilling.”

And it wasn’t just McCain’s election campaign that benefited from oil executives’ largesse; according to Public Campaign, at least 43 of McCain’s staffers and major fundraisers have been on oil company payrolls, receiving upwards of $16 million in lobbying fees. Whether or not that directly influenced McCain’s decision to embrace Big Oil, it’s a sign of the degree to which McCain has staffed his campaign with oil-friendly advisers and campaign strategists. McCain has suggested that he’d seek to appoint both Democrats and Republicans to his administration; in hiring his campaign team, however, he didn’t have that luxury. It’s hard to find a genuine green on McCain’s campaign staff; his environmental advisers are mostly energy experts like former CIA director Jim Woolsey or conservative economist Doug Holtz-Eakin, many with ties to the Bush administration or to Dick Cheney’s energy team. Even the Wyly brothers, who funded the 2000 attack ads wrongly blasting McCain’s environmental record, are now major backers of the McCain campaign. “He’s surrounded himself with a lot of the same people - the same old DC insiders - and he’s adopted the policies they’re pushing,” says Duvall, the Sierra Club political director.

Some greens are hoping against hope that once in office, a President McCain would be free to shake off his party’s conservative base and return to his former advocacy of strong action on climate change. “It’s a commentary on the overall state of the Republican party,” says Jim DiPeso, policy director for Republicans for Environmental Protection. “You can’t underestimate the difficulty of moving an entire political party that’s spent the better part of two or three decades not getting it right on the environment.” Still, those who know McCain say that it’s unlikely he’d allow himself to be browbeaten by right-wingers on the campaign trail, and that we shouldn’t expect a major sea change following his inauguration. “There was no way anyone was going to bully McCain into any direction that he didn’t want to go,” says his biographer, Robert Timberg. “If he was persuaded that global warming was the threat, he wouldn’t pretend otherwise.”

As you’d expect, the McCain camp rejects any suggestion that his environmental positions have been shaped by political expediency. “Sen. McCain takes positions because he thinks they’re in the best interest of the nation,” says McCain spokesman Brian Rogers. “His record is that of a maverick - someone who takes positions because he thinks they’re right, and not necessarily looking at the political implications.” The effort to reconcile McCain’s environmental positions and his cheerleading for Big Oil have led to a curious doublethink, with supporters seeking to downplay the connection between energy and environmental issues. “The reality is that the issues of climate change and offshore drilling need to be separated,” says Rogers. “McCain has been the number one leader on climate change on the Republican side for years, and that commitment is unwavering.” Even McCain sometimes seems to struggle to reconcile his actions and his self-image; last spring, at the Aspen Institute, he announced that he had not missed “any crucial vote” on renewable energy. In fact, as Joseph Romm, a liberal blogger and former Energy Department staffer, takes pains to point out, McCain has failed to back renewable-energy legislation more than 20 times, including one occasion on which a major renewable-energy package failed by a single vote. “It’s somewhere between a fabrication and a delusion,” says Romm. “He thinks he believes in clean energy, and he thinks he cares about the environment, but there’s no evidence that it’s true.”

Still, if McCain’s actions sometimes fall short of his aspirations, the senator still continues to model himself on Mo Udall; in a recent interview with Grist, McCain cited his time working with the Arizona congressman as his proudest environmental achievement. “He was the most dedicated person to our environment that I have known,” McCain said. “History will show that he and his brother Stew, who was secretary of the interior for eight years, were two of the great environmentalists of the 20th century.” History may be less kind to McCain, however. Speaking by phone from his home in Santa Fe, Stewart Udall now says that while he counts McCain as a friend, he’s saddened by the direction the Republican’s 2008 campaign has taken. “I’m unhappy with McCain - he’s Mr Straight Talk Express, but he’s not doing much straight talking,” he says. “He’s doing what people are telling him he must do. I don’t like it.” Udall won’t say whether he believes McCain has abandoned the principles he once shared with Mo Udall. “He’s a friend,” he says. “That I’m not going to answer. You can say that I’m disappointed with him.” McCain, the former climate crusader, is surely correct that Mo and Stewart Udall will be remembered as titans of American environmentalism. Whether history will be as kind to him - and to his administration, if he wins next month’s election - looks rather less certain.

For more on Obama's environmental record click here.