BALTIMORE -- "Political realities," not denial of human-caused climate change, have prevented Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and many other Republican lawmakers from taking a stand on the issue, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Friday.
"As I talk to individual members of Congress from both sides of the political aisle, I would say that there is less debate on climate change, but we have a circumstance where it's not a popular topic in some parts of the country for people to bring up," Jewell said during a question-and-answer session with attendees of the National Wildlife Federation's annual meeting here.
Following a speech during which she named climate change as one of her top concerns as Interior secretary, Jewell offered McCain as an example of a politician who she believes has shifted his tone on the issue in response to his constituency.
"Sen. McCain, when he was running for president, I was on a round table with him in Washington state," Jewell said. "We were talking about solar energy, and there was no question about his position on climate change being real and on the need for renewables."
Jewell was referring to a day in 2008 when she and McCain appeared together on an environmental round table in North Bend, Wash. McCain then spoke forcefully about his ideas for a national program to lower greenhouse gases. His plan to place a price on each ton of carbon dioxide to encourage U.S. companies to reduce emissions was called cap and trade.
"We stand warned by serious and credible scientists across the world that time is short and the dangers are great," McCain said of climate change at the time.
The next year, after McCain had lost the election to President Obama, who campaigned on a similar idea, Republicans in Congress coined a new name for the bipartisan climate program: "cap and tax." In 2010, after Senate Republicans and several Democrats opposed a cap-and-trade bill, the idea was ejected from U.S. politics. No major climate legislation has seen congressional action since.
Concerns about being 'primaried'
Lately, Jewell said, McCain "hasn't talked as much about [climate change], or he has changed his position in a public way, and I think a lot of that just reflects the political realities of opinions out there."
Jewell said Friday that today's Republicans are worried about being "primaried" -- or challenged by conservative members of their own party. After the rise of the tea party, McCain saw this happen in 2010 when former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a Republican, sought to take the Senate seat McCain had held for 24 years.
In response, McCain seemed to shed his maverick reputation -- and his support for climate policies -- as he embraced conservative principles to outmaneuver Hayworth. McCain won.
This week, McCain said he still believes that Congress needs to act on climate change. That alone separates him from many members of his party, who often express skepticism about the threat of climbing temperatures. McCain, however, criticized environmentalists for pursuing some "lousy" ideas, like ethanol and solar power.
"I believe we ought to do something," McCain said of climate change. "But when [environmentalists] rule out nuclear power, we got nothing to talk about."
The senator was also less enthusiastic about the solar panels Jewell said he was bullish about in the past.
"All the solar panels on Earth would only supply about 2, 3, 5, 6 percent of our needs," McCain said. "Would these people [in environmental organizations] agree to build new power plants? Hell no. Include me out."
McCarthy suggests pending rule will respect state variations
Also at the NWF meeting Friday, U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy noted that her agency must contend with differing state-to-state politics when rolling out its rules to limit greenhouse gases in existing power plants.
When asked by Lisa Pohlmann, executive director of the nonprofit Natural Resources Council of Maine, whether EPA's upcoming rule would use as a model the Northeast's Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative -- a market-based regulatory program to curb carbon emissions -- McCarthy dodged the question.
"You're trying to get me to say something that I'm not allowed to say. Very tricky," McCarthy replied. (The EPA administrator played a pivotal role in crafting RGGI when she was head of Connecticut's Department of Environmental Protection.)
While McCarthy said she was "pretty excited" about RGGI, she added that "people are concerned that the EPA doesn't create a one-size-fits-all approach but recognizes the work of states and in regions and local communities."
McCarthy delivered a preliminary defense of the upcoming rule to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants.
"Do I think it's going to be controversial? Yes, I do," McCarthy said.
But she added, "We believe that we can put out a rule that listens closely to what states are asking us to do, show that energy supplies can remain robust and affordable, but we can begin to ratchet down the kind of emissions that threaten us."
McCarthy said that doing so will give the United States "a larger stature in the international community" when negotiating for global regulations to solve the climate problem.