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Bush Unites the Enviros | The Nation

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Bush Unites the Enviros

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In early April an alert was sent out by a longtime oceans activist worried that the Bush Administration was about to reverse a program to establish marine protected areas. A number of green groups relayed the warning to their members. Within days Chris Evans, head of the Surfrider Foundation (made up of more than 26,000 environmentally concerned surfers), got a call from a top official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration begging him to stop jamming the communications system with protests. "You've made your point. Nothing's been decided yet," the official said.

Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

About the Author

David Helvarg
David Helvarg is an author and President of the Blue Frontier Campaign, a marine conservation and policy group. His...

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Bush's hard line on the environment, including decisions on carbon dioxide, oil drilling, arsenic, mining, forests, oceans and energy, as well as budget cuts that target agencies like the EPA and the Interior Department and laws like the Endangered Species Act, is mobilizing the environmental movement in a broader, deeper way than has been seen since the first Earth Day thirty-one years ago. "Bush said he'd be the great uniter, and he's united the opposition nicely in these early days," claims John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA. "It's better than I've seen it in years."

And while the environmental movement--some thirty large organizations with close to 20 million dues-paying members, along with thousands of regional and local activist groups--is raising much the same alarm it did in 1981, at the beginning of the "trees cause pollution" Reagan era, and 1995, when the 104th Congress tried to gut keystone environmental laws, it's discovering that many more Americans--including suburban "swing voters"--now seem to be listening. Over the past three decades environmentalism has evolved from a social movement to a societal ethic.

EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman tried unsuccessfully to warn Bush that backing off his pledge to reduce global warming CO2 emissions would not only hurt US credibility overseas but could also alienate a greening conservative constituency at home. The White House has since received protests from groups including the National Council of Churches, the Evangelical Environmental Network and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs. (The Catholic bishops are studying climate change and may take a stand this summer.) GOP moderates, having seen the public backlash against the anti-environment phobias of their colleagues undermine the Gingrich "revolution" (remember those shut-down national parks?), fear that their control of the White House, House and Senate could be jeopardized in 2002.

Another moderate Republican loser is Fred Krupp, head of Environmental Defense, a group that promotes market-based solutions to environmental problems. By refusing to attack Bush's anti-environment nominees, like former lead lobbyist (now Interior Secretary) Gale Norton, ED hoped to position itself to become the author of a CO2 pollution trading initiative. Instead Bush froze it out, turning to "free-market environmentalists" from the industry-funded libertarian right to defend his agenda.

While the Democrats' climate and energy proposals are only "a paler shade of brown," according to Sierra Club climate programs director Dan Becker, the Democrats have begun picking up on the growing public unease over Bush's green-bashing. On March 28 Senate minority leader Tom Daschle and House minority leader Dick Gephardt joined environmentalists for a rally and press conference, and three days later the Democrats dedicated their weekly radio address to going after Bush on arsenic in drinking water and other environmental issues. Among the most outspoken pols targeting Bush is Massachusetts Senator and presidential hopeful John Kerry, who has threatened to filibuster any effort to pass Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil drilling. With a majority of Americans opposed to the drilling and Bush lacking the Senate votes needed for passage, enviros see a chance of turning caribou in the Arctic into an early and major policy defeat.

A greater challenge for the enviros will be sustaining public interest in the trench warfare that will continue on Capitol Hill and in federal agencies now filling up with former oil, mining, auto, timber and biotech lobbyists. One suggestion initiated by European Greens (reflecting the EU's disgust with Bush's sabotage of the Kyoto agreement) is a global boycott of a US oil company. Forced to unify and coordinate strategies, US enviros are also working more closely with labor, civil rights, feminist and public health groups on areas of common interest. (The way Congressional Republicans rammed through a reversal of ergonomic workplace rules, for example, was seen as a potential threat not only to worker safety but also to a host of environmental protection rules.)

This breaking down of issue barriers is also finding resonance among younger people entering the ranks of the movement. "What began in Seattle represents the next generation that cares about labor, safety, trade and very much about the environment and its global connections," says Greenpeace's Passacantando, who invited 225 college students to bird-dog the US delegation at the last climate talks in The Hague. "The game now is, How much can we hold Bush's feet to the fire?" With the President, Vice President and Commerce Secretary all veterans of the oil industry, the Greens ought to find plenty of fuel for their fire this Earth Day.

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