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Election 2008: Politics
Q&A: John McCain
Q&A: Barack Obama

Both John McCain and Barack Obama see a more sustainable future. on closer inspection, it’s clear their visions come in different shades of green.

John McCain is a maverick environmentalist, a longtime conservationist who revels in bucking the Republican tide and doffs his hat to Teddy Roosevelt. Barack Obama, meanwhile, is a slick politico in bed with ethanol producers.

Or, if you prefer, Obama is a green street fighter with an asthmatic child who can rescue the United States and maybe the world from the dual crises of energy and climate change. McCain, however, is a cynical opportunist who selectively uses a lackluster Senate record on the environment to bolster his standing among independents.

What’s a voter to think? In the 2008 campaign it’s no simple task to shed light on the subject of the candidates’ environmental views. Unlike previous elections, where the Republican and Democratic nominees were dramatically different, this year’s choice is anything but clear-cut. Both Obama and McCain are fighting for the title of Captain Earth, and partisans on both sides can marshal compelling arguments that their guy best fits that role. 

After all, the two candidates support legislation to regulate the carbon emissions that are driving global climate change. Both want to decrease our dependence on oil through a combination of renewable energy, incentives, and conservation measures. Both say they back a toothier Endangered Species Act than President Bush does, plan to restore the scientific integrity of U.S. government agencies, and intend to protect—for now at least—the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling. That’s a far cry from Gore versus Bush 2000; this time it is the Republican candidate who has had a hand in protecting some national wilderness. “It is confusing,” says Jamie Clark, who directed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under President Bill Clinton and now is executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife in Washington. “At 30,000 feet the senators’ environmental records do look similar.”

To get to the truth, Audubon’s editors posed the same 10 questions to both candidates at the end of the primary season as they prepared to ramp up for the general election. Their answers offer revealing glimpses into how they would tackle everything from Alaska wilderness to the controversial border fence with Mexico. While Obama pledges to designate Teshekpuk Lake in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska as a national monument—bypassing Congress completely—McCain fudges on whether or not the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should remain forever protected. The Republican does promise that “sound science” will be at the core of his administration’s environmental policies, an implicit criticism of the Bush administration. And he says he supports clean water regulations, rebuilding the decaying national park system, and improving wetlands and fisheries management.

The least obvious differences are on global matters like climate change, where McCain and Obama alike want the United States to regain its international lead in that area and impose a cap-and-trade system to regulate carbon emissions. “It is hard to draw a distinction between the two,” says Ray Kopp, a senior fellow with Resources for the Future in Washington. He says that while McCain backs a 60 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 compared with Obama’s more ambitious 80 percent, the Democrat’s figure is more political posturing than sign of a real difference. And both McCain and Obama are proposing to auction carbon emission permits.

Even Democrats acknowledge that McCain has taken the lead among Republicans in addressing global warming. He has dragged skeptical colleagues from Greenland to Norway to Antarctica to win them over, and he cosponsored a landmark bill to propose serious carbon reductions to reduce greenhouse gases, a measure he has introduced with Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) every two years since 2003. He is a hiker who was personally close to Arizona lawmaker and conservationist Morris Udall; together they protected 3.5 million acres as wilderness in their home state. He publicly lambasted the right in a 1996 essay for The New York Times—famously entitled “Nature Is Not a Liberal Plot”—for attempts to dismantle clean air and water regulations.

Yet despite his leadership in global warming and his affection for Teddy Roosevelt, McCain’s record is a political Rubik’s Cube. The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) gives McCain just a 24 percent lifetime rating. He has rejected efforts to tighten environmental and energy regulations affecting issues ranging from clean air to fuel efficiency—anything, his critics contend, that stood in the way of industry profit. And the senator has not been a strong supporter of using presidential power to dictate land use; he harshly criticized the Clinton administration for using an executive order to ban roads in 50 million acres of nationally protected forests.

The depth of his commitment remains open to question. “Whether his views come out of genuine and sincere concern for the environment, or are part of a more cynical way to distinguish himself is hard to know,” says Kenneth Green, a scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington. If you talk to Republican conservationists who know McCain, they express as much concern as optimism about the Arizona senator. Phoenix environmentalist Robert Witzeman, a Republican who has river-rafted with McCain and his wife, has found him alternatively helpful and hostile to environmental issues. For example, in the 1990s McCain fought attempts by the Sierra Club and others to halt construction of a telescope on an Arizona peak, and he pushed through an exemption to the Endangered Species Act to ensure the facility was built. Yet he also was instrumental in cleaning up the dirty and noisy skies above such important sites as the Grand Canyon.

“He’s a man of mixed signals,” Witzeman notes. Although McCain has consistently voted to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, he implied that position could change, telling Audubon he doesn’t support oil drilling there “at this time.” He also backs “multiple use” in America’s wilderness areas, a loaded term in many green circles. What happens if gas reaches $7 a gallon? His full-throated reversal on offshore oil drilling (see “Squeeze Play,” Field Notes) has also earned conservationists’ displeasure.


As a freshman senator, Obama can’t match McCain’s quarter-century of national votes on major environmental issues that provide clear evidence of the Republican’s leanings. During the past four years Obama scores a top-of-the-class 96 percent rating by the LCV on issues ranging from fuel-efficiency standards to global warming. But as a first-term senator often on the campaign trail, Obama has not led as many high-profile environmental charges on Capitol Hill. A better measure may be his past as a community organizer and later as an Illinois legislator, which provide intriguing evidence of his likely approach if he reaches the White House. Raised in a time when the environment was already a hot political issue, he took part in an effort while still an undergraduate to encourage minorities in New York City to recycle. But his focus became economic opportunities for the inner city. In Chicago he worked at Altgeld Gardens, a public housing settlement also known as the Toxic Doughnut because it was surrounded by steel mills, slag heaps, and waste dumps. Jack Darin, director of Illinois’ Sierra Club chapter, who has worked closely with Obama, says it was that experience that opened the senator’s eyes to the impact of the environment on the poor. “He saw that it was environmental problems holding them back—asthma, lead poisoning, and the impossibility of attracting new business.”

When Obama arrived in Springfield to represent part of the South Side of Chicago, he called Darin and said that he could connect a minority constituency to the environmental community and get behind a clean air and water agenda. The state senate at the time was dominated by Republicans who favored the coal and nuclear industries, which wield enormous influence in Springfield. “I’ve seen him work in a legislature where the leadership was hostile,” Darin adds. “But doing the right thing is a core value for him. He gets it.” Some bills he strongly backed failed, such as one for wetlands protection. “But he was one of the more reliable legislators for standing up for a clean environment that we’ve seen in our state capital in a long time—and we miss him,” says Darin.

Obama won an award from the Illinois Environmental Council and another from the Sierra Club while working in Springfield, and he has trumpeted an environmental theme since before he began campaigning for the presidency. Last October Obama warned that “we are not acting as good stewards of God’s earth when our bottom line puts the size of our profits before the future of our planet.”

But is there a gap between the rhetoric and the reality? For example, the senator backs ethanol subsidies and a crippling tariff on more efficient Brazilian-made fuel from sugarcane, and his support for nuclear power discomfits some environmentalists. Obama voted in favor of the porked-up 2005 energy bill—which McCain rejected—that supported liquid coal research (Illinois is a big coal state), and he opposed a bill to reform the 1872 mining law. Says David Roberts of the liberal Huffington Post, “He’s given us both hope and reason to pause.”

The political stakes are high. Though polls show that the environment does not always rank near the top of citizens’ concerns, it could prove critical to swing voters across the country. “Both of these candidates really need the environmental vote to get over the finish line,” says Jamie Clark. And whoever wins the White House, the next president will almost surely face a Congress far more sympathetic to environmental concerns than the one McCain railed against more than a decade ago. Says the AEI’s Green: “It won’t be like the Bush days.” And that’s one analysis both sides can agree on.

Andrew Lawler is a freelancer and a staff writer for Science magazine. He lives in rural Maine.

For a Q&A with the presidential candidates, see "On the Record."

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