What Happens Now?

Just three days after the presidential election, Sierra Club National Media Director Kerri Glover told E, “There is virtually no news organization that hasn’t called us and asked, ‘Don’t you think the environment is screwed under another four years of Bush?’” Glover says she wishes reporters and news anchors had made a bigger deal about environmental issues before the election, instead of after.


Now, grassroots activists and green membership organizations are trying to figure out exactly what happened on Election Day. Many agree with the New York Times, which recently concluded, “Nationally, the environment was a sleeper issue that never awoke.” Exit polls suggest the environment wasn’t even a consideration for most voters.

And despite record efforts by environmental groups to identify likely supporters and get out the vote, apathy surely raised its ugly head. Even in this election of relatively high participation, many, many voting-age Americans still shunned the polls. Many of those non-voters are likely among the ranks of the marginalized and disadvantaged, who, ironically, are often the first populations to suffer the brunt of environmental degradation and pollution.

Why do people stay home on Election Day? When I was in college at a large state school just a few years ago, less than 20 percent of the student body voted for student government. The student paper concluded that voters felt the system was antiquated and didn’t serve their needs. Can the same thing be said of the Electoral College and America’s two-party system? Incidentally, when I tried to vote for my college student president, the computerized ballot system locked me out, because it refused to verify my zip code.

In the days since November 2, a broad spectrum of people have spoken out on what four more years of George W. Bush will do to the environment.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Leavitt told the New York Times, “The election is a validation of our philosophy and agenda.” Representative Joe Barton of Texas (R), chairperson of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, told the Times he is eager to get to work on environmental issues. Republican leadership points to a few bright spots in Bush’s environmental record, such as diesel rules for off-road vehicles, and says they are working on new proposals they claim will clean up the Great Lakes, distribute money to private landowners to use for conservation projects, and promote a “cap-and-trade” approach to dealing with pollution levels.

Obviously, environmentalists are deeply concerned about a new mandate for the Bush administration, as well as an even more Republican Congress, and point to many threats, including a fossil fuel and nuclear power-driven energy bill and rollbacks of specific environmental protections. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (who’s new book is called Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals are Plundering the Country and Hijacking our Democracy) and Al Gore have called Bush the worst environmental president in U.S. history. The League of Conservation Voters’ (LCV) Deb Callahan says her group is “deeply disappointed in the results of the presidential race.” John Adams, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), concludes, “The president has prevailed, despite his horrific environmental record, which remains at odds with the views of the overwhelming majority of Americans.”

Just hours after hearing that Ohio was almost certainly in the red column, the EPA’s top science advisor, Assistant Administrator Paul Gilman, resigned his post. Although he cited positive accomplishments during his tenure and claims he is leaving to take a job in private industry, the timing of Gilman’s annoncement has not escaped notice.

The reporting website InsideEPA.com concludes, “Some career staff may also speed their departures from the [EPA] because of disappointment with the administration’s policy priorities and unwillingness to work again under what they consider an environmentally unfriendly administration, agency sources say.” One source told the website, “EPA staff are going to be jumping off buildings” because of Bush’s win. During Bush’s first term, a memo that had been leaked to the Times by a former EPA official had insisted that “science was not adequately considered” when the President decided against action on global warming.

America’s Green Party—which analysts say was not a factor in Bush’s victory—views this election cycle with a mixture of frustration and hope. On one hand, in a statement, Green Presidential candidate David Cobb argues, “It’s very possible the election has been stolen for the second time in a row and again the Democrats have conceded rather than standing up for the right to vote and the right for people’s votes to count.” On the other hand, many Greens have celebrated the fact that, nationwide, their party has picked up an additional 40 seats in local and state government. These wins bring the total to 240 seats, which is up from 40 in 1996. For the first time, the District of Columbia and Mississippi now have Green officials. Cobb-LaMarche Media Director Blair Bobier adds, “We’ve registered more Green voters, we’ve boosted local campaigns, we’ve garnered fantastic media coverage and we’ve put Instant Runoff Voting in the forefront as a solution for the ‘spoiler’ voting dynamic.”

LCV’s Callahan says, “We are enormously proud of the fact that LCV won seven of eight congressional races where we invested significant resources, including helping elect two pro-environment Republicans and five Democrats. In total, nearly 90 percent of our endorsed congressional candidates were victorious on November 2.” For example, Callahan says her group helped Ken Salazar of Colorado win a Senate seat because of focus on his opponent’s ties to polluters.

Furthermore, many environmentalists point to a number of victories at the local and regional level because of ballot initiatives. Montana voters rejected a proposal to overturn a ban on controversial open pit cyanide leach mining, even though mining interests outspent their opponents five to one. California’s Marin County successfully passed an initiative, with 62 percent support, to ban the planting of genetically engineered crops within county limits.

Colorado passed Amendment 37, the first-ever statewide proposition on renewable energy. The new law will require that a percentage of retail electricity sales be derived from renewable sources, beginning with three percent in the year 2007 and increasing to 10 percent by 2015. The initiative also requires utilities to offer customers rebates for solar electric projects and puts a cap on how much utilities can raise residential customer rates to pay for the renewable technology. Coloradans for Clean Energy calls this “a tremendous victory for clean air and energy independence. It sends the utilities a message that their customers want cleaner energy and will vote for it at the ballot box.”

In the days since November 2, E has received a steady barrage of official statements, letters and press releases detailing the response of environmental and progressive groups to the election. While these groups repres

ent different stakeholders and work on different issues, the one common thread is hope for the future. Some activists have pointed out that there are enough Democratic Senators to filibuster particularly egregious proposals, and many point to local and state victories. As with most issues, though, the best line of defense may prove to be a free press, citizen activism and the court of public opinion. As NRDC’s Adams puts it, “Failure is not an option.”