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

Enviros Re-group

Air Date: Week of

Several leading environmental groups invested heavily in making the environment an election issue to vote George W. Bush out. Now they're wondering what went wrong and where to go from here. Jeff Young reports from Washington.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Some of the country’s largest environmental groups had hoped their issues would help defeat incumbent George Bush and elect John Kerry as president. Now in the wake of a bruising partisan fight in which environmental issues were largely ignored by both the major presidential contenders, these groups are looking both at what went wrong, and a long four years on the outside. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young has our report from Washington.

YOUNG: Back in January, League of Conservation Voters President Deb Callahan was confident President Bush’s environmental record would so outrage people that they would vote him out of office.

CALLAHAN (ARCHIVE): It’s going to be a sea change for the environmental movement this election. And I frankly think that the White House has wakened a sleeping giant and it isn’t very jolly.

YOUNG: Callahan’s group spent 8 million dollars to sound the alarm, but that environmental giant never really woke up. Not only did the president win, his party expanded its control in Congress. Sierra Club President Carl Pope, whose group spent nine million in the election, says Senator Kerry should have made more of the issues.

POPE: I would rather have seen John Kerry talk more about the environment, particularly about the connection between our vulnerability in the Middle East and the lack of an energy policy to break our addiction to oil. I thought that was a major theme he sounded early, he came back to it occasionally, he didn’t really invest enough in it to break through that, and I’m not honestly sure whether he could have.

YOUNG: Pope doubts the national media focus on Iraq and terrorism would have shifted. Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund President Roger Schlickeisen agrees. His group jumped into partisan politics for the first time this year, only to see its issues largely ignored.

SCHLICKEISEN: I think this was an election determined primarily by fear, fear of external events and especially terrorism. And environment and conservation and a host of other domestic issues couldn’t play against that.

YOUNG: So Senator Kerry did not win on the environment. But the LCV’s Callahan says President Bush didn’t either.

CALLAHAN: The presidential election nationally was not a referendum on the environment, and so I don’t think the Bush administration should take it as such in their second term. I don’t believe people gave them a mandate to roll back and weaken environmental protections.

YOUNG: The administration, however, appears eager to put its new political power to work on environmental matters. Two days after the election, the president’s top environment official, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Leavitt, told reporters the vote was “a validation of our philosophy and agenda.”

Conservationists and their counterparts in industry expect the administration to now pursue an aggressive agenda and environmentalists like Callahan will have to decide between compromise and combat.

CALLAHAN: In politics you always are looking for common ground. That said, the kinds of proposals we’ve seen come forward from both the Congressional leadership and the White House in the last four years haven’t been trying to meet us in the middle. So we’ll look for compromise where we can, we’re prepared to fight where we need to.

YOUNG: Callahan says conservation groups might cooperate on some parts of the energy bill likely to return soon to Congress. But she pledges to fight any renewed attempts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

Schlickeisen at Defenders of Wildlife heard a call for compromise in the president’s acceptance speech, and his desire to be a president for all Americans regardless of how they voted.

SCHLICKEISEN: If he’s gonna be a president of all the people, he’s gotta take note of the fact that the vast majority of Americans out there care a lot about environmental protection and conservation. And, hopefully, he will have an opportunity now to show that in his policies in his second term. They certainly weren’t there in the first term.

YOUNG: Industry groups say the new political terrain compels environmentalists to reconsider some of those policies from the first term, and think about market incentives instead of strict enforcement.

Scott Segal leads a power industry lobby called the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council. He points to two air quality items nearing completion: the administration’s proposal to cut the mercury coming from power plants, and its interstate air quality rule aimed at sulfur and nitrogen emissions. Segal says both would reduce power plant pollution, though not in the way environmental groups prefer.

SEGAL: It’ll be a real test for environmental community to look with honesty and clarity at both the interstate proposal and the mercury proposal. If they still reject them on the fundamental basis that they are not circa 1980 command and control regulations, we’ll know that they have not come to be constructive. And that’ll be too bad.

YOUNG: Environmentalists say those proposals would take decades to cut pollution that could be reduced much sooner through enforcement of existing law.

The conservationists see one positive result of their unprecedented election year effort. By focusing on door-to-door canvassing instead of mass media advertising, they’ve reached a few million potential new conservation voters. They hope that network will help in the 2006 Congressional elections, and in state level politics where environmental issues enjoyed some attention and success—some of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak election year for environmentalists.

For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.



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