The Senate stands at the cusp of passing legislation that would ramp up the production of American-made clean energy, lower costs for families, and help the US cut climate pollution. If we are ever going to break the grip of big energy companies on our wallets and our economy, then we need clean energy incentives like those included in the Inflation Reduction Act.
In a twist of fate, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) Is positioned not only to be the decisive vote on Democrats’ reconciliation package but also to fulfill the late Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) Climate legacy.
After all, it was McCain – whom Sinema has called her “personal hero” – that blazed the climate trail in Congress and brought climate change from out of the political shadows.
For years, there was an unspoken rule of the Senate when it came to climate change. Talk all you want and introduce whatever bills you like, the rule went – but never truly challenge the power of special interest lobbyists.
On a hot July day in 2003, McCain shattered that rule. With Senators itching to get home for the August recess, McCain saw an opening to flip the script – and he jumped at it. He wouldn’t let a popular bill advance, he told Republican leaders, unless the Senate would also vote for the first time on a serious climate bill (one that McCain wrote along with Democrat Joe Lieberman).
McCain prevailed in his defiant stance, securing a vote. At the time, I was supporting his work from the outside. We knew we didn’t have the votes to win. McCain said that wasn’t the point. He was tired of the fossil fuel lobby dictating its terms to Congress.
“You can believe me or your lying eyes,” McCain told Senate colleagues as he showed pictures of melting ice caps. “There are facts that cannot be refuted by any … special interest that is weighing in on this issue more than any issue since we got into campaign finance reform.”
The climate and clean energy policies the Senate is considering today have stronger public support than those McCain pursued so many years ago. Three-quarters of voters believe it is important to address our energy crisis by expanding America’s clean energy production.
Sinema lauded clean energy incentives like those in the Inflation Reduction Act when similar measures were proposed last year.
“We know that a changing climate costs Arizonans,” she told the Arizona Republic. “And right now, we have the opportunity to pass smart policies to address it – looking forward to that.”
I am not suggesting that McCain would support Democrats’ party-line effort at reconciliation.
McCain’s trail-blazing legacy was more primal than his support for any particular policy. His cause at its core was always about tackling the special interests that had kept climate change in the back rooms of Congress.
“We will overcome the influence of the special interests over time,” McCain proclaimed after his 2003 bill was defeated, 43-to-55.
Those special interests are still hard at work. Sitting on top of record-busting profits, the oil and gas industry opposed the Inflation Reduction Act as soon as a deal was announced. This despite the fact that the Inflation Reduction Act’s focus on clean energy incentives and investments are a soft touch relative to McCain’s earlier efforts, which would have held industry directly accountable for reducing emissions.
For once, the special interests don’t have to get the last word. Sinema now holds the power to deliver on her climate commitments and turn McCain’s maverick legacy on climate change into reality.
Jeremy Symons is principal of Symons Public Affairs. He was the project manager of Climate 21, a blueprint for “whole-of-government” presidential climate leadership. He previously worked at National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, as well as for Democrats in the United States Senate.