Improbable as it might seem, after all the talking points and speeches about Iraq and Afghanistan, domestic spying and torture, recession and mortgages and the rest, environmental policy might actually matter in the final stretch of this twisting marathon of an election.

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Back in March 2008, when John McCain clinched the Republican nomination and gas was only $3 a gallon, the 2008 presidential campaign was still going to be all about the surge, Petraeus, and timetables. Climate change, energy, and the environment (as usual) failed to top the agenda. But six months later, in a nation traumatized by a summer of gas spiking over $4 a gallon, voters are confronting the reality that the energy future is now. And when energy matters, so does environmental leadership.

Heading into the final weeks of the campaign, McCain has staked his political fate on eluding the relentless accusations that he represents nothing more than a third Bush term. And here, his reputation as a stalwart, latter-day Teddy Roosevelt who can reconcile Republican values and environmental principles has been an invaluable weapon. It's the reason he can charge up the hill with the battle cry "Drill here! Drill now!" one moment and then in the next declare himself to be "a leader on the issue of global warming with the courage to call the nation to action on an issue we can no longer afford to ignore." McCain is running for president as that rare thing, a conservative with conservation cred, but the mercurial Arizona senator's true green identity is a blur of pluses, minuses, contradictions, posturing, and spinning black holes.

It's not difficult to make McCain's environmental résumé sound pretty dazzling. As a member of the House of Representatives from 1983 to 1987, and later as a junior senator, McCain helped to create 3.5 million acres of federally protected wilderness in Arizona. It was his mentor, Democrat Mo Udall, an environmental titan who served as an Arizona congressman from 1961 until 1991, who ushered McCain into a bipartisan coalition that passed the bills, but McCain deserves credit for being on the right team. As charter member of the Senate Wilderness and Public Lands Caucus, McCain worked to ban sightseeing flights over the Grand Canyon, and in recent years he bucked the GOP by opposing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Since 2001, he's been the leading conservative voice in raising the alarm over climate change, and he has led fact-finding trips to Antarctica and the Arctic Circle. In 2004, his stance on the issue earned McCain the endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) in his bid for reelection; last fall he told automakers he'd push for higher auto mileage standards and made an earnest speech on climate change at a Danish-owned wind-turbine company in Portland, Oregon. He has declared that combating global warming will be one of the top three priorities of a McCain administration. The president of Republicans for Environmental Protection (a group whose membership includes Theodore Roosevelt IV) calls McCain "the greenest [GOP] nominee in decades."

To most environmentalists, however, that makes McCain merely "the best of the worst." His split with the White House over global warming is an exception; McCain's rule is a mixture of silent assent and loyal support for the cartoonishly malign environmental policies of the current administration.

In 1997 he opposed a chance to slice the Forest Service's budget for road-building. He voted against protecting lands in the California desert as wilderness and establishing Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks. He wants to build 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030 but has little to say about the dangers and costs of storing nuclear waste (other than that he doesn't want it going through Arizona en route to a storage facility in Nevada).

He voted to confirm Gale Norton as secretary of the Interior in 2001; Norton, a protégé of James Watt, Ronald Reagan's antediluvian man in Interior, devoted the next five years to revering extraction and recoiling from science. Even on climate change, McCain's targets for reducing greenhouse gas are softer than what scientific near-consensus (and his own crisis rhetoric) demands, and his plan for how to get there lacks details. He helped defeat legislation that would have required U.S. automakers to meet a 40-mile-per-gallon standard by 2015. And he voted against the renewable electricity standards, which would have set a deadline for the U.S. to get 10 percent to 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, five times between 2002 and 2005, and he didn't bother voting on them when legislation introduced by Mo Udall's son arrived in the Senate in 2007. In fact, McCain hasn't shown up for a single significant energy policy vote in the last two years. McCain denounced President Bill Clinton's creation of the vast Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in Utah in 1996 and has vowed to reverse the move – as well as Clinton's ban on road development in 50 million acres of pristine wilderness – if he becomes president.

Southwestern activist David Hodges, policy director of the Tucson-based Sky Island Alliance, recalls McCain working behind the scenes in 1988 to craft a rider that exempted the construction of a University of Arizona telescope facility, in the middle of habitat for a critically endangered subspecies of red squirrel, from the Endangered Species Act. It was an unprecedented tactic, and soon anti-environmental riders were being attached to all kinds of legislation in Washington. "I don't know that he knew what he was unleashing," Hodges says, "but we certainly did."

Hodges has been watching and dealing with McCain for two decades. He says the candidate inspires puzzlement. "He's done things that we've been extremely disappointed in and done things we've been very happy with," he says. "It's hard to say, ideologically, that he has a clear vision of the environment, or what that might be."

You've probably heard the one about the grizzly bear DNA study. In almost every campaign stop and town hall meeting, McCain loves to enumerate ridiculous examples of wasteful federal spending, and perhaps his favorite is a $3 million grizzly bear DNA research project in Montana. "I don't know if that was a paternity issue or a criminal issue," he invariably jokes. (A McCain campaign commercial characterizes the research as an "unbelievable" rip-off.)

It's a reliable laugh line, but it's also a cynical lie that parrots the Bush administration's war on science, as McCain surely knows. After the candidate began to trash the study in question (the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project), the 'Washington Post,' 'Scientific American,' the 'New York Times,' and Factcheck.org all investigated and found the opposite of a frivolous, pork-barrel boondoggle. The project's clever, low-tech methodology – using barbed-wire snags to collect griz fur for DNA analysis – provides, for the first time, a large trove of accurate population and distribution data. It's an innovative, cost-effective effort findings of which will be vital to managing the species' recovery plan mandated by the Endangered Species Act. To McCain, it's "a waste of money." Teddy Roosevelt, who once said, "When I hear of the destruction of a species, I feel just as if all the works of some great writer had perished," would not approve. Oh, and McCain voted for the study before he bloviated against it. From his perspective, it doesn't matter if the best joke is dishonest, if he can score points in his jihad against congressional earmarks.

When you search McCain's biography, his books, and the torrent of interviews for the essence of his green politics, you find a lurching tone, omissions, and late-breaking plot developments that raise serious doubts about the wisdom of entrusting the environmental fate of the country to a McCain presidency.

The peripatetic and eventful first half of the senator's life left him rootless and untouched by any connection to place, much less an environmental sensibility. Settling in Arizona after marrying his second wife, Cindy, he learned to love the scenic grandeur of Arizona. He was taken under the wing of Mo Udall in Congress, and he took a crash course in land issues as an Interior Committee member in the 1980s. But the depth of this education in western states' environmental politics and of his collaboration with Udall in setting aside public land as wilderness shouldn't be exaggerated. He remained a reliable Reagan Revolution foot soldier and an aggressive pro-business conservative.

The true story of McCain's environmental record is that he's more committed to the appearance of conservation than to actually conserving anything. McCain urged the Gingrich-era GOP to tone down its virulent anti-environmental rhetoric while making it clear this was an issue of better packaging rather than better policies. "We Republicans," he declared in 1996, "are responsible for much of the negative perception of our environmental record." The significance of his 2000 presidential bid for green issues would have been negligible – except voters kept asking McCain about global warming, so he looked into it, and, observers say, used it to exact a bit of political payback from Bush, who had trashed him in the primary. He held hearings in the Commerce Committee during which he acknowledged the real threats posed by climate change but lacked the vision or conviction to take it any further.

Just as he has been otherwise silent about Bush's ignominious environmental record, his adoration of Ronald Reagan was never tempered by any acknowledgement that Reagan was, in the words of Stewart Udall (Mo's brother, and secretary of the Interior for JFK and LBJ), "the first overtly anti-conservation president of  [the 20th] century." McCain never sees the bigger picture.

Even less diverting than the grizzly bear yukfest is McCain's opportunistic response to this year's soaring gasoline prices. In June, as part of his new "all of the above" energy policy, he announced a call to end the federal moratorium on offshore drilling in U.S. waters. Oil companies already have access to 34 billion barrels of offshore reserves; the areas McCain would open offer only an additional 8 billion barrels, and these reserves would not become available for many years.

"Anyone who tells you that this will bring down our gas prices immediately or anytime soon is blowing smoke," said California's Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Immediately following McCain's declaration, nearly $1 million materialized in his campaign coffers.

Then there's perhaps the saddest story of all: McCain's slow-motion retreat on drilling in ANWR. Like other McCain stands, this one has proven to be shallow and reversible. This summer, as the drumbeat for more domestic drilling became louder, along with false promises that doing so would lower gas prices, rumors flew that McCain would flip on ANWR. His staff was said to be studying the political calculus of pandering to credulous oil addicts. (In August, a poll in Arizona found that 55% of residents would rather reduce the price of oil and gas than protect the environment.) McCain himself floated cautious trial balloons, telling the 'Weekly Standard' he'd "continue to examine it" and call Alaska governor Sarah Palin, a strong proponent of drilling in ANWR, to discuss the issue. T. Boone Pickens reported that he had urged McCain to push for ANWR drilling and that McCain "said that he hadn't decided to do that . . . yet." On the eve of the Republican convention in Minneapolis, a provision promoting ANWR drilling in the GOP platform was grudgingly left out, but party officials expressed confidence that McCain, who has said his mind remains open "in light of this changed economic environment," would come around after the election – if not sooner.

Then McCain picked Palin to be his VP, another anti-environmental tell. Palin has dismissed the findings of Alaska's own wildlife scientists in the course of vehemently resisting the endangered-species designation of polar bears. The pick strongly suggests that the earlier gambit of having McCain swayed by Palin is definitely in play. To its proponents, the sacking of ANWR would deliver a political blow that far transcends the value of petroleum, and Palin speaks their atavistic language. "Drilling in Alaska is going to be a matter of life and death," she told CNBC in late August. "We're bursting with billions of barrels of oil." It will certainly be life or death to the Porcupine River caribou; the disputed "sliver" of coastal plain is the destination of the animals' 3,000-mile migration – the longest of any land mammal. Say goodbye to caribou calves and hello to a penny-a-gallon reduction in gas prices. In 2018.

Whether McCain surrenders on ANWR or just continues to wobble, this betrayal is personal. The refuge is a precious asset in Mo Udall's greatest achievement, the Alaska Lands Act of 1980, which also established 15 national parks, including Denali. Udall, who died in 1998, loved wilderness but knew politics, and words he once wrote should be ringing in McCain's ears today: "As America's finite resources and fossil fuels begin to run out, will ecologically aware legislators be able to resist the pressures . . . to exchange open space and free-flowing rivers, even the 'Crown Jewels' of Alaska, for jobs and highways and gasoline? I hope so, but it saddens me to say: I wouldn't bet on it."