mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author


Big Win for Enviros

There’s no question that America’s environmentalists won big in the
midterm elections. “We picked up twenty new environmental votes in the
House of Representatives and five in the Senate, plus four
governorships,” says Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club,
who called 2006 “the most successful midterm election in the
environmental movement’s history.”


Whether the victory is big enough to change government policy during
the last two years of the Bush presidency, especially on the
overriding threat of global warming, is less clear. Much will depend
on how worried Republicans get about running on Bush’s environmental
record in 2008. “Congressional Republicans will adopt an ‘avoid
embarrassing Bush’ strategy,” predicts Brent Blackwelder, president of
Friends of the Earth. Now that Democrats enjoy majorities in both
houses of Congress, Blackwelder adds, “they could get a decent global
warming bill through the House and probably onto the Senate floor. If
Republicans conclude they can’t defeat the bill on a straight vote,
they’ll filibuster it to save Bush, and ultimately themselves, the
embarrassment of vetoing it.”

With a narrow 51-to-49 Senate majority, Democrats lack the votes to
block filibusters, much less override vetoes. But moving strong
legislation and daring Republicans to take the heat for scuttling it
would enable Democrats to position themselves as the party of
environmental protection and energy independence, two themes that
increasingly resonate with voters across the political spectrum,
analysts say, pointing to the Senate victories of organic farmer Jon
Tester in Montana, Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Sherrod Brown in
Ohio, all of whom spoke often about linking green energy development
and economic revival.

But this scenario is plausible only if Democrats act in unison and are
willing to take bold positions—no small assumptions. The temptation
will be to embrace incremental measures that can attract bipartisan
support rather than legislation strong enough to match the problems.
Future House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry
Reid boast strong environmental records, as do Barbara Boxer, the new
chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Nick
Rahall, chair of the House Resources Committee. But many rank-and-file
Democrats have been quiet during Bush’s six years of trashing
environmental protections. And John Dingell, the veteran Detroit
Congressman who regains the chair of the powerful House Energy and
Commerce Committee, has long been Congress’s most adamant opponent of
increased fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks—a key element
in any meaningful global warming policy.

Nevertheless, “going from a Congressional leadership that marched in
lockstep with Bush to one led by Pelosi and Reid will mean that
debates no longer start with proposals that would take us backward,”
says Anna Aurilio, legislative director of USPIRG. “We won’t have to

keep fighting to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; ANWR is
safe now. Instead, we’ll have an opportunity to bring forward policies
that could actually solve the problems we face.”

And lawmakers of both parties may now think twice before voting
against the environment, considering what else happened in these
elections. The Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and
other green groups targeted a bipartisan “Dirty Dozen” members of
Congress for defeat; nine were brought down, including the man
pilloried as Public Enemy Number 1: Representative Richard Pombo, the
California Republican who led the charge to drill in ANWR and gut the
Endangered Species Act.

“The defeat of Pombo sends a clear message to anyone who might share
his ideology: When it comes to elections, the environment is now a
giant killer,” says Pope. Pombo had won past elections with more than
60 percent of the vote, and Pope recalls that “nobody—not the
Democratic Party, not pundits, not even some of our own
people—thought we could beat him.” But environmental groups sent an
army of volunteers to Pombo’s district, made 643,000 phone or
face-to-face contacts with voters and poured in $1.2 million to help
elect—sweet irony—a wind energy specialist named Jerry McNerny. “The
unsung hero” of the victory was former Congressman Pete McCloskey,
says Pope, adding that, although McCloskey lost against Pombo in the
primary, he awakened Republicans to Pombo’s flaws and opened them to
making a different choice in November
[see Hertsgaard,
A Dragon Slayer Returns,
March 27].

Pelosi promises that in the first 100 days Democrats will rescind $12
billion in tax cuts for oil and gas companies and invest it in
renewable energy. But the energy that Democrats seem to have in mind
is corn-based (rather than sugar- or cellulose-based) ethanol, which
is as environmentally dubious as it is popular with Farm Belt
politicians and the agribusiness giants who pocket the subsidies. The
news is better on global warming. Boxer says she will introduce
legislation modeled on the law that California recently passed
requiring state greenhouse gas emissions to decline to 1990 levels by
2020. Pelosi, along with 109 others, has endorsed similar legislation,
sponsored by Representative Henry Waxman of California, that includes
a target of 80 percent reductions by 2050, which scientists urge to
avert the worst of global warming.

If Democrats can pass either of these initiatives, they could signal
to businesses, individuals and the rest of the world that a change is
coming to US global warming policy. Congressional Republicans would
then face a choice: Do they stick with the do-nothing policies of a
lame-duck President or try to reposition themselves in the run-up to
2008? Calculations on both sides of the aisle will be influenced by
the wild card of public opinion. The last year has brought a
reawakening of popular and elite concern about the environment in
general and global warming in particular, aided by the media attention
Al Gore’s movie generated. The challenge for environmentalists—allied
with a growing green business constituency—is to fan that mood into a
sustained bonfire that convinces incumbents they must take real action
or risk retirement in 2008. In that case, the next two years might
bring some surprises from Washington after all.



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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.