At a bend in the creek, McCain has built a gazebo, where he often comes to relax and think, and here we stop. He points out a hawk's nest, the effects of recent flooding, his favorite trees and views. One of the more remarkable things about McCain is how his experience as an outdoorsman has affected the personal journey he's made during his years in public life. When he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1982, McCain was a hard-line, red-meat Republican conservative whose role models were Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater. Over the past 20 years, he has morphed into an unapologetic moderate – even a progressive when it comes to the environment.
Are you an environmentalist?
[Laughs] Oh, I think so. I think that as I have grown older, like most people I have grown to appreciate nature, and, being chairman of the [Senate] Commerce Committee, I got involved in climate change.
But when you were first elected to the House...
…I was certainly not an environmentalist.
So how did the transition take place?
I think it was gradual over the years. I just learned more and, you know, gained more knowledge and understanding. One of the great things about committee hearings is, if you do it right, you learn a lot. You just grow. But it was Mo Udall who took me as a junior member of the Interior Committee – and he was a powerful chairman – and educated me on the issues. He transmitted to me his genuine love for the environment and for Native Americans. He was responsible – and I assisted him – for taking 3 million acres of Arizona and putting it into permanent preservation as designated wilderness. That was a major, major thing. Mo and I traveled around the state, visiting the Indians, looking at land, and things like that. He was a great influence on me. Now I'm close friends with Mo's son Mark, who is in the House. [Udall, a Democrat, died in 1998.] He reminds me of his father – his mannerisms, his looks, his voice, that love of the environment. I take him on trips with me. I've told him many times how much his father influenced me.
You mentioned climate change earlier, but some of your colleagues have been reluctant to acknowledge that the phenomenon even exists. You seem to believe firmly that it does.
I know it does – it's not a belief – I know. There is overwhelming evidence.
What should we do about that?
We should be trying to reduce the greenhouse gases that are, according to the National Academy of Science, generated by human activity.
Isn't that what the Kyoto treaty was intended to do?
Yes, but they left out China and India – two of the fastest growing economies in the world! That's just not right. I believe we should have an alternative to Kyoto where China and India have to join, and the United States has to join, and a few other changes as well. We need to have an international treaty to bring the growth of greenhouse gases under control.
On a day-to-day basis, what should be done?
This is the key to winning the battle on climate change: convincing businesses that there is money to be made if they develop cleaner technologies and reduce greenhouse gases. Right now, too many companies, particularly utilities, but also others, believe it would be very harmful to them economically. We have to make it beneficial to them.
What has the Bush administration done? What will be Bush's legacy on the environment?
The administration has done…It's extremely low.... And I'm very sorry for that.
Does the influence of major corporations have something to do with that?
I'm certain that special interests play a role in this – as they do in everything else – but I'm not sure why there has been such great resistance in the Bush administration to doing, you know, almost anything. It's terrible.
Care to hazard a guess why?
Listen, the way democracies work is, you face a crisis and you fix it. The S&Ls collapse – you face it, you fix it. The problem with this crisis is, the consequences of it are not felt right away. So our failure to act is placing a huge burden on our future.
But aren't the polar ice caps melting now?
Sure they are. A couple of years back, a Congressional delegation was invited by the Norwegian government to the northernmost inhabited place in the world. It's a Norwegian territory, but there are eight other countries that are doing Arctic research up there, including the United States. So Hillary Clinton, Susan Collins, Lindsey Graham, John Sununu, and I flew up there on a military airplane, and officials of the Norwegian government showed us the visible effect of climate change. Both poles are experiencing far more of the effects of it because of the thin atmospheric layer there, and so you're seeing significant effects. We went on a boat with the Norwegians, and they stopped the boat and said, "This is where the glacier was five years ago." And then we went a number of miles farther up to get to the glacier. It had shrunk that dramatically in the past few years. When you see something like that graphically demonstrated, it increases your awareness. We were there on the last night of the 24-hour sun, and I sat outside my room and watched the sun dip down and touch the horizon and then go back up. It was a remarkable experience.
Seeing that must have really driven the point home.
Sure. The ice caps are the miner's canary of what is going to happen to the rest of the world. The Australians have said the Great Barrier Reef is going to die by 2050. Things are happening all over the world. I mean, Florida has four hurricanes in one season – I don't have the proof that climate change causes that, but scientists say that one of the indicators of climate change is violent climate activity.
What's the general feeling within the Republican Party about this issue?
Oh, I don't think they're focused on it. They're being convinced by others that it's not a big deal.
So basically you've taken an unpopular stance here in your own party.
I've done it before. You've just got to do what's right, that's all. You've got to do what you believe.
What do you feel when you hear someone like Rush Limbaugh call environmentalists – and you are one, as you say – "wackos" and "tree-huggers"?
None of that bothers me anymore. What took me some years to learn is that you can't take that stuff personally. You just recognize where they're coming from and, if you have to respond, do not get personal. I can get in the bitterest debates on the Senate floor now and walk away friendly. As long as you don't, you know, malign someone's character, you're going to be fine.
Part of your legacy, to date, is for being a crusader for change. In political fights like these environmental issues, how do you keep from getting frustrated?
I used to, but now I don't. I mean, you just do what's right. Most of the time, if it's the right thing to do, eventually you win – because the facts and history are on your side. You know, we will win on climate change. The question is, how much damage will be done beforehand? We won on campaign finance reform, but it took seven years. I won on setting up the 9/11 Commission, but it took a year. I won on setting up a WMD commission, but it took time, too. You've just got to keep fighting and fighting and fighting – that's it.