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Senator McCain’s Early Climate Leadership Brought Lasting Results

Amidst the numerous laudatory eulogies and public statements being written about the life and career of Senator John McCain, it is easy to downplay his lasting impact on the climate change issue. Indeed, some dispute this impact, claiming he eventually abandoned support for a “cap and trade” solution to CO2 emissions and did not make climate change a top policy priority during his 2008 presidential campaign.

But as a Republican who reached across the aisle to his colleague Senator Lieberman and others to become a lead sponsor of the first major bipartisan Senate legislation to confront the global warming issue, he established a benchmark for prescience on this topic that none of his Republican Senate colleagues are able to match today. In addition, as those of us who worked on public policy dealing with renewable energy, energy efficiency and CO2 reduction were seeking to make the business case for pursuing those goals as a national priority, Senator McCain’s initiatives through hearings, proposed legislation and public commentary gave a credible underpinning for mainstream business and policymakers to take another look at this topic. For example, petroleum-based industries, though still opposing any kind of regulatory emission controls, recognized that, with someone of Senator McCain‘s prestige voicing concern about climate change, the issue would not go away. Energy efficiency industries were more prominently recognized for their critical role in reducing CO2 emissions, and those industries began to add that argument to the economic calculations of their products’ benefits. States, even those run by Republican governors, took another look at their own role in reducing CO2 emissions and began upgrading building codes and related regulatory approaches.

Business organizations such as the Business Council for Sustainable Energy became a growing force in educating international and national forums about existing technologies that could aid in CO2 reduction. Other groups, such as the American Chemistry Council, American Gas Association, and National Solid Waste Management Association, started to take a closer look at their own industry's CO2 emissions profile and begin an inventory of methods to reduce that profile.

Many of the topics that EESI views today as critical to understanding the challenge of climate change had their genesis in the 1990s and in the early years of the new century. Whether it’s the increasingly important role of renewable energy in freeing us from fossil fuel constraints and emissions or the significant challenge a disrupted climate poses to national security, the well-attended Congressional briefings that EESI has orchestrated over the last three decades have continued to examine the topics that were a focus of Senator McCain’s concerns about climate change when he chaired the Senate Commerce Committee.

McCain’s efforts to draw attention to this issue have helped carry us to the place we are today: the United States has reduced its energy usage and CO2 emissions while at the same time increasing its economic productivity. As did the Senator, the U.S. national defense establishment understands the threat of climate change. The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, recently enacted by Congress, calls climate change "a direct threat to the national security of the United States." And so the momentum towards clean, sustainable energy is pushing forward irrespective of the political paralysis caused by uncompromising ideology.

So as we say goodbye and thank you to this great American hero, those of us who continue to fight the climate change battle will remember Senator John McCain's leadership and accomplishments in this war as well.

About the Author: Jared Blum, is a BCSE Board Member and Board Chair, Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI).

Note: This article has been re-posted from the EESI website with the author's permission.