John McCain profile
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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 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.