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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Presidential Politics and the Environment

Air Date: Week of

Announcements of candidacy have come from both presidential frontrunners in the past week. But when it comes to the environment, neither candidate has a clear platform. Steve talks with Living On Earth’s political observer Mark Hertsgaard about what’s at stake as Vice President Gore and Governor Bush jockey for the environmental vote.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Recently the Clinton Administration announced that it wants to push back the global warming treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, until the year 2001, a move it says will give negotiators more time to develop the treaty's "complicated compliance mechanisms." By then, a new President will be in office. And as the environment has become a more important issue to voters, the 2 Presidential frontrunners are finding that their positions on the issue are being watched more closely. Joining us now from the studios of member station KQED in San Francisco is Living on Earth's political observer, Mark Hertsgaard. Hi, Mark.


CURWOOD: Mark, it seems like every other country is ready for this convention to happen next year, and in fact nine countries have already ratified the treaty just as it is. Why does the US want this extra time? Do you think Vice President Gore is trying to push the big decision here past the next election?

HERTSGAARD: I suspect that's part of it. But it's also important to remember that the United States has been the main foot-dragger on the global warming issue throughout the 1990s, going way back to the Earth Summit in '92, when again, a vast majority of the nations around the world signed that treaty. But our government, led by then-President George Bush, declined to sign it. So this is part of a larger pattern.

CURWOOD: So, if this treaty does get pushed back, and under the rules I think the United States has the power to do this, it's going to be an issue for whoever gets sworn in as President in the year 2001. What are the politics of that?

HERTSGAARD: They're very interesting politics. Of course, most people would think, well, this is Al Gore's signature issue, global warming, and we know how he'll deal with it. But to me, the most fascinating part of this, is that Governor Bush of Texas, the presumed Republican frontrunner, has recently announced that he has discovered that global warming is real after all. At a press conference on May 12th in Austin, he told reporters that, quote, "I believe there is global warming," unquote. Now, this from a man who just a few weeks before had been saying that the science is still out on global warming, which was sort of the basic industry boilerplate position, marks a major shift. And I think it's something that the political reporters in this country have largely overlooked. But it shows that Governor Bush and his advisers recognize something about Presidential politics that the reporters don't. Which is that the environmental vote matters, and you cannot be elected President in this country, in this day and age, unless you at least sound like you're an environmentalist. And you cannot sound like you're an environmentalist if you're saying that global warming is not real.

CURWOOD: Interesting, then. You see the Republican frontrunner moving to a harder line on climate change, and some would say that the Democratic Administration, with Gore who's been so interested in the environment, is softer on this issue.

HERTSGAARD: It sure looks that way, and it's interesting. Bush is, in effect, saying to Gore: Look, you can't take the environmental vote for granted. And I think Vice President Gore has done that throughout most of the eight years in office. The assumption is that look, the environmentalists have no place else to go, I'm the guy who wrote the book on the environment, and they're going to support me. But when you look at Gore's record on this, it's not that strong. For example, the single greatest measure that the Clinton Administration could have taken against global warming would have been to increase the fuel efficiency standards in this country, up to 45 miles a gallon. That's what Bill Clinton promised to do when he was running for President in 1992, but as soon as he got in the White House that plan was dropped. And a whole other series of initiatives have also been watered down. So, I think it's going to be hard for Gore to say hey, I'm the guy who has delivered on this issue.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering if the reason that Gore backed away from this is the fear that it will be too costly economically to deal with climate change.

HERTSGAARD: I'm sure that's a large part of it. He relies on labor union support, he relies on donations from big companies, he doesn't want to look like he's an environmental extremist. But it's quite ironic, because he showed, Gore showed in his book, that he knows better than that. And the evidence is very strong from throughout the world that fighting global warming is actually good for economies. It makes you money. You can go to Germany and see that in Japan. And even here in the United States, there's a new book out this month called Cool Companies, by Joseph Romm, that shows how big American firms are actually making money, getting returns of investment 50% and 100% by reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. We're talking about companies like Compaq and 3M and Hewlett-Packard and Toyota. These are not marginal players in the world economy. And the political candidate who is smart enough to recognize how you can link the environment with the economy, which is the issue that really decides most Presidential elections, is going to have a very strong campaign. It remains to be seen whether George Bush or Al Gore or perhaps someone else will have the wit to do that.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. His latest book is called Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future. Mark, always a pleasure.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.



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