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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

War & Environment Advocates

Air Date: Week of April 4, 2003

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What happens to coverage of the environment during wartime, and how do environmentalists respond? Host Steve Curwood talks with media experts at two national environmental groups about the delicate balance of getting attention without getting criticized.

Transcript

[THEME MUSIC]

CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's no secret that there's less media coverage of the environment during wartime. But the environment doesn't go away and neither do the groups who seek to protect it. So, what do they do during a war? How does their role change, and should it change?

Joining me to talk about the politics and perils of environmental activism in a time of war are Scott Stoermer, communications director with the League of Conservation Voters, and Allen Mattison, who directs media relations for the Sierra Club. Scott Stoermer, let's start with the basics. What's the first thing you thought about, or the first change you made, when the fighting in Iraq began?

STOERMER: We really tried to take an objective look at how the war was going to dominate the news cycle, so to see how we were going to fit into it. So, the first change that we made after that was to really make sure that we stopped a lot of our pro-active communication that was going out, a lot of the releases or a lot of our outreach, our regular outreach to reporters and producers and members of the media about politics and things that were going on on the Hill, simply because there wasn't going to be anybody there to listen.

CURWOOD: For some Americans, anything that's critical of the president right now might appear to be unpatriotic, even if it has nothing to do with the war. So, how do you avoid this without simply yielding on environmental policies you don't agree with? Alan Mattison?

MATTISON: Well, we can't let the Bush administration run roughshod on the environment. And I think that people recognize that parts of the administration, and the president himself, are very, very consumed with the war, and that's as they should be. Other parts, people in the Department of the Interior or the Environmental Protection Agency, are continuing with business as usual and trying to weaken some of the clean air standards we rely on, and trying to continue with their efforts to drill some of America's most beautiful places. And that's where we're focusing our efforts, making sure that when the public is distracted, the administration can't go ahead and do some of the things that they wouldn’t be able to do if the light of day were shone on them.

CURWOOD: What about taking a position on this war? Your two groups have taken different approaches to this question. Scott Stoermer, at the League of Conservation Voters, I understand you've chosen not to issue any sort of statement about the war, and I understand you issued a memo about this to your staff. What was the reason you gave for this?

STOERMER: I believe, and many of my colleagues at LCV believed, that in all cases, the first question we must ask ourselves whenever we engage in a public issue is does it make sense for us and our mission to engage? Does what we have to say add something to the debate, something new, something relevant? And we did not believe that a conflict in Iraq at this point really warranted that kind of activity.

CURWOOD: And Alan Mattison, the Sierra Club has taken a position on the war. Your website says that the Sierra Club is opposed to action without United Nations support. Why is the Sierra Club opposed and why did you decide to make such a statement?

MATTISON: Well, the Sierra Club is a small “d” grassroots democracy and we come up with our positions based on what our members want. So, the position that we took was sort of two-fold. One, disarm Iraq of any weapons of mass destruction using the UN inspectors process; and two, let's really implement a strong policy of energy conservation here in the U.S. through renewable technologies, renewable power, and things like higher fuel efficiency standards. And it's been received very well. Some people thought our position was too strong. Some people thought our position was too weak. Some people thought we shouldn't have taken a position at all. But the overwhelming consensus as we surveyed thousands of our members was, yeah, we need to take a position because this is really important and because of the environmental consequences of war.

STOERMER: It makes a lot of sense for groups like the Sierra Clubs or Friends of the Earth, who are large membership organizations, whereas LCV, we do have a lot of members. You know, our issue, we're focused on the issues that matter come election day, which is quite a long way to go until then. But there are other groups in the environmental community, like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups, that also haven't taken positions.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering what sort of change we're seeing here in the environmental movement. I mean, historically, environmental groups have been opposed to nuclear weapons, of course, and various chemical weapons and defoliants, for instance. But it's been less common in history for groups like the Sierra Club to announce their opposition to war in its entirety. To what degree do you think this stand marks really a change in the environmental movement?

MATTISON: Well, over the past 30, 40 years there have been a whole bunch of different positions. In fact, I just read earlier today a fascinating editorial that was written in 1940 by the head of the Isaac Walton League, which is a group of hunters and anglers who are also conservationists. And way back in 1940 they were saying that as we go to war, anticipating World War II, there are ways to build our airplanes without chopping down every forest. There are ways to mine the minerals that we need for guns and for ammunition without despoiling all of our streams. There are ways to grow the crops we need for our troops without creating another Dust Bowl, because that was very much on their minds in 1940. So, clearly, going back even before World War II, there were conservation groups speaking out against despoiling the environment in the name of war.

CURWOOD: But, in this case, you have environmental groups speaking against the war itself.

MATTISON: Absolutely. And I think that’s part of a natural progression, perhaps.

STOERMER: And frankly, Steve, I think it's a very patriotic thing. I think Teddy Roosevelt said that the second most important thing that you can do to serve your country's interests, other than putting on a uniform, is to protect the environment. I think that what you're seeing a lot in the environmental community nowadays is a recognition that we live in a global environment; that we can't just focus on the things that happen within our own country because they have global impacts, whether it's from global warming, or whether it's from clean air, whether it's from safe water. So, I think it's an interesting recognition of that.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you this, Alan. Most polls right now show a majority of Americans in support of the war in Iraq. How concerned are you that the Sierra Club will alienate itself by opposing the war?

MATTISON: I don't think that's really a concern. I think that one thing that probably surprised the administration is, as they're also looking at the same numbers you mentioned, Steve, they're holding a whole series of hearings on their plan to allow power plants to pollute more. They held them in places like Dallas and Salt Lake City and Michigan, Albany, New York. And the turnout that the Sierra Club saw at these events was in the hundreds at each one, to say we want clean air and we don't need to sacrifice our clean air because of anything else going on in the world. This is an important value. And both the Sierra Club activists and others from the community who showed up greatly outnumbered those from the power plant industry and the refineries who showed up on behalf of the Bush administration's plans.

STOERMER: But I think what you are seeing, that the real, practical impact of the war is that coverage of those Sierra Club members showing up at those events, coverage of what this administration is continuing to do to undermine our clean air laws and our safe water laws, those kind of things aren't making it into the newspaper. Those kind of things aren't making it into the evening news, if only because the people who would usually cover those issues are now assigned to the first infantry division.

CURWOOD: Scott, the League of Conservation Voters rates lawmakers based on their environmental record. How could you see this war affecting someone's environmental rating?

STOERMER: It all depends on what votes come up on the floor. The National Environmental Scorecard is totally based upon votes in Congress. There is one particular issue that could be related and sort of illustrates the point. The Department of Defense is looking at trying to get exemptions for military training activities that they say are being hampered by having to abide by things like endangered species protection or the Marine Mammals Protection Act. They're using as an argument that it undermines the readiness of American troops in the context of the conflict we are in right now. As Christie Whitman said, there has not been any military training or readiness that has been impacted whatsoever by abiding by these important environmental laws, and I can certainly speak from personal experience. I don't think any of the training I ever engaged in was hampered by it. And that's an issue that could come to the floor of Congress, that could be colored by our conflict in Iraq, and could have serious repercussions on the environment.

CURWOOD: One last question for both of you. And Alan, perhaps you would answer first. Whether the media is covering it or not, environmental policy obviously is still very much in play there on Capitol Hill and at the agencies, the administration. Can you give me a quick rundown of the issues you see as most important right now, issues that aren't getting much coverage in the mainstream press?

MATTISON: Well, and just to qualify that, I think that if you turn to the metro section of the newspaper, the environment is still getting a lot of coverage. It's that national perspective that's missing, and I think nationally the biggest issues are fuel economy standards, clean air protections from power plants, from refineries, protecting our beautiful landscapes such as our National Wildlife Refuges and our National Monuments from oil and gas drilling. And water protections, our clean water protections and whether or not polluters will be allowed to pollute those. And finally, Superfund. Are polluters going to be made to clean up their messes, or are those burdens going to be dumped on taxpayers, as the Bush administration wants to have happen?

CURWOOD: Scott?

STOERMER: I think that the main issue that is not getting covered that should get covered is what the presidential candidates are saying about it. I think that the single best thing that we can do in order to protect the environment is to make sure we elect a pro-environment president in November of 2004. We certainly don't have one right now. And I think all of those issues that Alan talked about, whether it's Superfund, or clean air, or some of the other issues, are ones that are going to be addressed by the presidential candidates, and probably going to end up being what we firmly believe are at the top of the vulnerabilities of President Bush as he runs for re-election.

CURWOOD: Scott Stoermer is communications director with the League of Conservation Voters and Alan Mattison directs media relations for the Sierra Club. Gentlemen, thank you so much for taking this time with me today.

STOERMER: Thank you, Steve.

MATTISON: It's my pleasure, Steve.

[MUSIC: Stella Rambisai Chiweshe “Chigamba” The Pulse of Life - Ellipsis Arts (1991)]

 

Links

League of Conservation Voters

Sierra Club

 

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