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

Green Omissions

Air Date: Week of

The presidential debates are over, but the post-debate wrap-ups are still going on in many communities. Some groups are satisfied with the coverage their issues received, while others could have stood to hear more. But there was little to be heard from either candidate about one domestic issue: the environment. Host Steve Curwood talks with Robert Borasage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, and to Washington correspondent Jeff Young, about the political ramifications from this omission.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

During the series of three presidential debates, incumbent George Bush and challenger John Kerry covered a wide variety of issues. In the final debate, health care, education and jobs in America were the big-hitters as the president and Senator Kerry sparred over their respective plans for domestic policy. But some analysts would say that one major domestic issue was largely missing from the debate lineup. Only the slightest mention of the environment was made during the final hour and a half exchange.

Joining me now is Robert Borosage. As co-director of the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for America’s Future, he’s lobbied both candidates to include labor issues and the environment on their platforms. Also, from Capitol Hill is our Washington correspondent Jeff Young. Hello to both of you.



CURWOOD: I want to turn first to you, Mr. Borosage. What’s the message that you take away from this – that in the last public debate of these two presidential candidates, neither one of them brought up the environment as a domestic issue? I mean, Senator Kerry did refer to the environment generically as part of his explanation of how his faith drives him. He said faith is why he fights to clean up the environment and protect the earth. But that’s hardly a policy or a plan.

BOROSAGE: Yes, I think they were driven by the questions, and the questioner, Bob Schiefer, decided not to ask a question about energy. I think that was a huge missed opportunity and really a disservice, because this is a fundamental question, obviously, that we have to turn our attention to as a nation. We’ve got young men and women dying in Iraq guarding pipelines, and in Uzbekistan and in Columbia. We’ve got gas prices up 33 percent. We’ve got the concern about catastrophic climate change which is, right now, a real danger, as we’re increasingly seeing. And we have a policy in Washington that’s really been asleep at the wheel, and so this would have been a question that a lot of Americans have a real stake in.

CURWOOD: Bob Borosage, yes, moderator Bob Schiefer didn’t bring it up. But is the media, in general, ignoring the environment as an issue worthy of presidential debate and discussion?

BOROSAGE: Well, I think that the media pays less attention to this issue than all of us would like. On the other hand, that’s been true of most domestic issues through this campaign. This campaign has been so remarkably focused on Iraq and the war on terrorism, which, of course, has been the president’s strategy, that it’s only with this debate that we began to look at domestic issues at all. And so, it’s not just the environment that’s gotten ignored. We’ve had very little attention to health care, to jobs, to wages, to retirement security. The whole range of domestic issues, which are very high on Americans’ agenda, has really gotten drowned out by the din of exchanges around the war in Iraq. I do think it’s interesting that it came up in Missouri when the people were in charge, and we did have the only exchange on it in response to a question in Missouri.

CURWOOD: But, as you point out, in the second debate, one Missouri resident asked the president how he would rate himself as an environmentalist. And here’s how he responded:

BUSH: I guess you’d say I’m a good steward of the land. The quality of the air is cleaner since I’ve been the president. Fewer water complaints since I’ve been the president. More land being restored since I’ve been the president. Thank you for your question.

CURWOOD: So, Jeff Young, I want to turn to you now. First of all, what’s the truth here? Is the air really cleaner since President Bush first took office four years ago?

YOUNG: Well, yeah. By most standards, by most measures, the air is cleaner, but the presidents’ critics would point out that that has little to do with any action that he’s taken during his administration, because there’s a significant lag between any policy action and any measurable difference in the air quality. So, the real question becomes how might air quality change down the road due to what the president is doing now. And that’s where the real debate is, and we heard a little bit of that in Missouri in the second presidential debate.

The president pointed out two actions: first one right off the top of his head was the off-road diesel rule, which is a good one for him to bring up because this is generally regarded as a very positive action. It regulates emissions from things like construction equipment, and one of those rare moments where the Bush administration gets applause from the environmental community. Bush also touted his Clear Skies Initiative. That’s pretty much gone nowhere in Congress because it is highly controversial, and Kerry pounced on that.

KERRY: Now when it comes to the issue of the environment, this is one of the worst administrations in modern history. The Clear Skies bill that he just talked about--it’s one of those Orwellian names you pull out of the sky, slap it on to something – like No Child Left Behind, but you leave millions of children behind. Here they’re leaving the skies and the environment behind. If they just left the Clean Air Act all alone the way it is today, no change, the air would be cleaner than it is if you pass the Clear Skies Act. We’re going backwards. In fact, his environmental enforcement chief air quality person at the EPA resigned in protest over what they’re doing to what are called the New Source performance standards for air quality.

YOUNG: Kerry makes reference there to Eric Schaeffer, one of several high-ranking career staffers who have left the EPA during the Bush administration. Eric Schaeffer now heads an environmental group, and it’s a group that has pointed out in an analysis of Clear Skies that just fully enforcing the Clean Air Act’s New Source Review standards for older power plants would do more to reduce air pollution than would the president’s Clear Skies proposals.

So, on policy points I’d say Kerry won this exchange. But when you step away from policy and you talk just pure politics, I think Bush actually fared better. Because if you think about the phrases, listen closely to the phrases that the president used there, he uses terms like “good steward of the land,” “common sense.” He called his Healthy Forests program “reasonable policy.” These are all good framing terms that resonate well with the public. So I think Bush did well on rhetoric.

CURWOOD: Now, let me turn to the question of the Kyoto Protocol. I find it interesting to note that it was mentioned both in the first and second debates – that is the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the international agreement. But global warming itself, actually, didn’t seem to be really discussed. Instead, it was used to score points on other issues. For example, Senator Kerry brought it up twice in the first debate as an example of the president turning his back on the international community; and then again, in the second debate, to imply that the president distorts or ignores science in making policy.

KERRY: They pulled out of the global warming, declared it dead, didn’t even accept the science. I’m going to be a president who believes in science.

CURWOOD: And then in response, President Bush shifts the focus towards the economy and frames the Kyoto, the global warming treaty, as a threat to U.S. jobs.

BUSH: Well, had we joined the Kyoto treaty, which I guess he’s referring to, it would have cost America a lot of jobs. It’s one of these deals where in order to be popular in the halls of Europe you sign a treaty.

CURWOOD: So, Jeff Young, what kind of play are these issues getting on the campaign trail?

YOUNG: Well I think that it’s clear that in that instance Kyoto here is – we’re not really talking about Kyoto. We’re talking about Kyoto as a symbol to score some points on whether we should be more engaged in the international arena or whether we should be more concerned about jobs back home, or these sort of things.

Now, Kyoto has been getting a little bit of play out there as the candidates go around the country. Vice President Cheney recently gave a sit-down interview to a chain of small newspapers in the Midwest, I think, and talked at length about the Kyoto accords. Again, putting the focus on Kyoto as a – and any action on global warming – that would harm jobs. Basically framed it in the same economic sense that the president did there.

President Bush, when traveling to the Southwest in Arizona and New Mexico, talked up his Healthy Forests plan. This is very controversial, and environmental groups are still very negative on Healthy Forests, but the Bush administration thinks it’s going to resonate well with the voters in the Southwest who are putting up with forest fires and want some action. And the president says, “here’s action.”

Energy issues, though, I think are getting some pretty good attention out there. Kerry, in New Mexico recently, took Bush to task for a local issue in New Mexico: that is, the federal plan to drill in an environmentally-sensitive area known as the Otero Mesa, drilling for oil and gas. But then he also took a couple of jabs at Bush on oil prices. You’ve got oil prices at about $53 a barrel. And he tied rising oil prices to some of what he called “miscalculations” in the war in Iraq, and also to the Bush administration’s general favoritism towards energy companies. Kerry called the Bush energy plan one that, quote, “warms the hearts of their powerful friends and leaves you out in the cold.”

I’m wondering, Mr. Borosage, what do you think of this particular line of attack – using the $2-plus price at the gas pump to address energy issues?

BOROSAGE: Well, there’s no question there’s been a failure in this administration about energy issues. And I think the gas prices at the pump concentrate peoples’ minds on what’s going on, and make it an issue in the campaign that you can get a handle on. And I think it’s a very effective line of attack because it’s something that people understand about Bush. They understand that he is very close to oil producers, and that’s where he comes from, he and Cheney, and that’s how they put together their energy plan. So I think it’s a very credible and effective line of attack for Kerry politically.

I think the other thing that’s worth commenting on is when the president links Kyoto or any action on global warming with the loss of jobs, what he’s describing is a real failure of leadership. There is absolutely no reason why the transition to a more sustainable energy base – to renewable energy, to more efficient buildings, to more efficient transit – that should be a massive jobs generator. You invest in renewables, you capture the markets of the future. You create more efficient buildings, you rebuild our built environment and create construction jobs. It’s a huge jobs generator. And to dismiss it, which is, of course, a poll-driven position – as well global warming, these environmentalists don’t know anything about jobs, they’re going to cost everybody jobs – is really describing the president’s own failure of leadership, I believe.

CURWOOD: But, wait a second here, I mean you can make this criticism of the president but what about Senator Kerry who seems to have the beliefs that you’re talking about here but isn’t making these points with the American public? Not debating the president, not confronting him on this?

BOROSAGE: Well, he has on the stump when he lays out his energy plan – talks about it creating 500,000 jobs, and that it can be a source of new industry here in America, and new invention and part of the dynamism of our economy rather than a wet blanket on the economy. And I think the contrast is there when he talks about the issue.

CURWOOD: But why not use this to make the point that he really can create jobs? He says he’s going to stop job loss, for example, Kerry does. But when he has, what, 20, 30, 40 million Americans more watching these debates, why not turn to the camera and tell America, look, one of the ways that we can have more jobs – and they’ll be at home – is with changing our energy mix which will help our national security.

BOROSAGE: If I were he I would have done that. I think it would have been a compelling statement of a contrast in leadership with the president, and very effective out there. And I do think, you know, from everything we’ve done in terms of polling and focus groups, Americans get this. They understand if you invest in this stuff you can create jobs here and they’re excited about the prospects. And so I do think it’s a missed opportunity for the senator.

CURWOOD: Robert Borosage is co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future. Jeff Young is our Washington correspondent. Thank you both for taking this time.

BOROSAGE: Pleasure.

YOUNG: You’re welcome, Steve.


CURWOOD: Just ahead: how drilling for natural gas in the west may be pushing some voters across party lines. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Charlie Musselwhite “Durant Station” CONNECTIONS 2 – A COMPILATION OF NORTHERN CALIFORNIA MUSICIANS (Jackalope – 2004)]



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