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John McCain: Climate Warrior

John McCain: Climate Warrior 


The Rev. Jim Ball, Ph.D.

This Friday my wife Kara and I plan on paying our last respects in the Capitol Rotunda to a great American hero and statesman, Sen. John McCain. We’ll be just two among many of our fellow citizens filing past. There are many reasons to honor him, but for me one is first among equals, and over time will grow in stature.

Over the weekend, as I read the obits and related news articles from major outlets one thing stood out for its absence — any mention of Sen. McCain’s efforts on climate change. This glaring omission perfectly captured who John McCain was: a true leader who sought out major challenges others ignored or found too daunting. The mainstream media still doesn’t get climate change, by and large. But Sen. McCain did.

That wasn’t always the case. Back in the year 2000, when he was running for President in New Hampshire, young climate activists were “bird-dogging” or following him around. One of them, my friend Matthew Anderson, dressed up as a super-hero, “Captain Climate.” Matt kept pestering him, asking if he had a plan to address climate change. Sen. McCain finally let Matt up on stage to make his pitch. It stuck with the Senator.

That spring, once his Presidential campaign was over, Sen. McCain held hearings on climate change, which I attended. I remember that for much of the time he was the only Senator there, but he was quite attentive and asked perceptive questions. The hearings were a prelude to the first major piece of legislation requiring reductions in climate pollution offered by a Republican, the McCain-Lieberman bill of 2003. As the bill was being put together, I and other religious community colleagues worked with Tim Profeta, Sen. Lieberman’s staffer, to include funding to help the poor in least developed countries adapt to the consequences. (In subsequent iterations of climate legislation we were able to point to this history to help make our case for its continual inclusion.)

The McCain-Lieberman bill did come up for a vote on the Senate floor, garnering an impressive 43 votes. That there was a vote at all was a testament to Sen. McCain’s doggedness. He wouldn’t let Majority Leader Bill Frist move forward on energy legislation unless he promised him a floor vote on McCain-Lieberman, including six hours of debate.

Because of his climate leadership, for a time in 2006 I thought seriously about becoming a volunteer for what I assumed would be his 2008 campaign for President. This would have broken my partisan neutrality, and eventually I decided it was best for me to remain at EEN. That I considered it at all I count as a testament to Sen. McCain.

Perhaps Sen. McCain’s last gift to us are words from his final memoir:

“I’ve lived very well and I’ve been deprived of all comforts. I’ve been as lonely as a person can be and I’ve enjoyed the company of heroes. I’ve suffered the deepest despair and experienced the highest exultation. … The bell tolls for me. I knew it would. … I hope those who mourn my passing, and even those who don’t, will celebrate as I celebrate a happy life lived in imperfect service …”

Sen. McCain’s words echo those of the Apostle Paul:

“I have experienced times of need and times of abundance. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing. I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:12-13).

May these words from Paul comfort us all as we mourn Sen. McCain’s passing, even as we continue the struggle for a better world.

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