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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

News Roundup: Political Observer Mark Hertsgaard

Air Date: Week of March 10, 2000

Host Steve Curwood talks to Living On Earth’s political observer Mark Hertsgaard about the latest news on the political and corporate fronts. They discuss Bill Bradley’s withdrawal from the presidential race, Texaco’s departure from the industry-funded Global Climate Coalition and Mistubishi’s decision to cancel plans for a salt factory next to a habitat of the endangered gray whale.

Transcript

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As the Democrats and Republicans look ahead to the fall elections, it's not clear where environmental questions will fit on their agendas, even though Al Gore and George W. Bush both took some heat on the issue during the primaries. Joining us to discuss the latest twists and turns in the world of national and global politics is our political observer, Mark Hertsgaard. Hi, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Hey, Steve.

CURWOOD: Well, it's still a political season. And I have to say, though, that I'm going to miss the sparring that was going on between Bill Bradley and Al Gore over the environment. And I have to wonder if we're going to hear much about the environment from this point out.

HERTSGAARD: Good question. I think had Bill Bradley not entered the race on the Democratic side, Gore may never have mentioned it except in passing. Certainly, when Friends of the Earth endorsed Bradley back in the fall, that was a big wake-up call to Al Gore, saying you cannot take the environmental vote for granted. And Bradley made a good run at him there in the early primaries. But at some point, you know, his message never quite caught fire. And I think part of that is because of his tone. His tone was oftentimes very sharp, but the substance of what he was criticizing Gore on, you know, votes that took place 10, 20 years ago, seemed kind of odd. There is a lot to criticize about Al Gore's environmental performance in the White House years, and that would have seemed to have been a bit more relevant. In any case, at least, Bradley did force Gore to start talking about this a little bit. Now the question, as we look toward the rest of the political year: Will Gore start to talk about this more?

CURWOOD: It's ironic, though, that as the primaries were coming together, the Republicans ended up talking even more about the environment than the Dems. I'm thinking of that $2 million television ad campaign that ran in, what, California and New York and Ohio that praised Mr. Bush for cleaning up the air and criticized Mr. McCain for voting against renewable energy. What was going on there, do you think?

HERTSGAARD: Ironic is really the word there, Steve, that in the days leading up to the Super Tuesday primaries you had all of this talk about the environment. Important to note, though, that neither candidate was doing that talking. It was an outsider who put those ads on, so far as we know, a gentleman named Sam Wyly under the rubric of a group called Republicans for Clean Air. And you know, it now has come out that Mr. Wyly is a big contributor to George Bush, and yet I think his ads backfired on Bush because they've gotten him talking about an issue, air pollution, that is not a winning issue for George Bush. You know, Houston has the worst air pollution in the country, and Bush's program to fight air pollution in Texas was purely voluntary, written by the polluting companies as we talked about on the air a couple of months ago. This is not an issue that George W. Bush wants brought up, so not exactly a politically astute maneuver on the part of Mr. Wyly.

CURWOOD: Well, Mr. Wyly, who is Mr. Wyly?

HERTSGAARD: Mr. Wyly is a billionaire, made his money in the computer software business over about 20 years. Big contributor to George Bush, as I said. And also, the Sierra Club quickly revealed, a contributor to some of the most anti-environmental politicians in Congress. Just since 1997, Mr. Wyly and his family have given some $200,000 to a collection of representatives in Congress whose combined voting record was only eight percent pro-environment, eight percent according to the League of Conservation Voters. That's on a scale of zero to 100.

CURWOOD: I want to change topics here for a moment and go to Texas to the big oil company Texaco that recently pulled out of the Global Climate Coalition. This is an industry-funded group that has been pretty strident in its efforts to try and convince Congress and the public that climate change isn't a problem, and that the Kyoto Protocol should not be ratified. That's a pretty big step for Texaco to get out of this group. What do you think it means?

HERTSGAARD: I think it's interesting. Texaco, of course, is joining BP, Shell, Ford, Toyota -- these are some of the firms that have already left the Global Climate Coalition. And for pretty much the same reasons. They say that, look, we think that climate change is a serious concern. They want to differentiate themselves from the Neanderthals who are remaining in the Climate Coalition, companies like Exxon and Chevron, and to try and do a little good corporate PR. You know, when the Climate Coalition was formed in 1991, their internal memo said that they wanted to, quote, "reposition global warming as theory rather than fact," unquote. But now, nine years later, the scientific consensus is so overwhelming that it simply doesn't pass the laugh test any more to say that climate change is a joke, that it's not real. And so, these companies are trying to move off in that direction to keep their environmental image safe with the public. Now, it's important to note that this has not really changed their actual corporate behavior. BP, for example, is planing to spend $5 billion in the next five years exploring for oil in Alaska. So, it's important to put these moves into context. I think essentially this was a PR move on the part of Texaco to get away from being tagged as anti-environmental.

CURWOOD: Mitsubishi has also been under pressure, not for being in the Global Climate Coalition, but for having plans to build a giant salt plant down in Baja California, in the Sea of Cortez. But they've backed off of that because of pressure from activists. Do I have that right?

HERTSGAARD: Definitely. Mitsubishi admitted as much when they called off the deal. They said, "Look, we still think this is safe. Our environmental impact statements say there's no danger to the breeding grounds of the gray whale. But we were not able to convince the public of that." And that is a tribute to a rather extraordinary organizing campaign that was mounted by a coalition that brought together local and then national groups from within Mexico and international groups, pressuring, using all different kinds of tactics, and bringing in a rather extraordinary array of people, from very top scientists warning about the danger to the whales, to people like the Nobel laureate Jose Santamago, the great novelist from Portugal, opposing this. And I think in the end, Mitsubishi just realized that, you know, they could not win this battle.

CURWOOD: Mitsubishi's been in the sights of activists for years. Does this mean now that the activists will find another target?

HERTSGAARD: I'd be surprised, Steve. Mitsubishi is still very much in their sights. I just finished reading Peter Matheson's wonderful new book, "Tigers in the Snow," which talks about the efforts to preserve the tiger, the Siberian tiger, from impending extinction in the Russian Far East. And one of the major threats there is the clear-cutting of forests that Mitsubishi, along with Hyundai, the Korean conglomerate, is undertaking. And so, with that kind of activity, I think Mitsubishi is pretty likely to stay on the environmental hit list for quite a while to come.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.

 

 

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