mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


Kerry is green, but brown is showing

If there is one issue that should favor John Kerry over George W. Bush
in November, it’s the environment. Even Bush loyalists concede the
point, privately.

The environment is probably the single issue on which Republicans in
general — and President Bush in particular — are most vulnerable,
warned Frank Luntz, a leading GOP pollster, in a confidential memo
last year.

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Americans across the political spectrum tell pollsters they want clean
air and water and that the environment matters when they vote. Yet, as
a Kerry campaign ad accurately observes, George Bush let corporate
polluters rewrite our environmental laws, and he wants to roll back
the Clean Air and Water Acts and drill in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge.

The problem for Kerry is that while the environment matters to
American voters, other issues matter more. The environment ranks
eighth among issues the public cares a great deal about — behind
Iraq, the economy, unemployment, terrorism, and illegal immigration —
according to a Gallup survey in June.

The Kerry campaign nevertheless hopes to reach voters by avoiding
abstract topics like species loss in favor of kitchen table concerns
like why their kids have asthma — and Bush’s policies have provided
lots of ammunition. One hundred million Americans breathe overly sooty
air, the Environmental Protection Agency recently reported, while 44
of the 50 states warn residents against eating fish from local
waterways because of high mercury contamination. A Pentagon planning
unit has cautioned that global warming could cause nuclear war by 2020
as nations fight over scarce water and food, yet a White House
environmental fact sheet boasts about the president’s growth-oriented
approach to global climate change, which actually allows greenhouse
gas emissions to keep rising.

Kerry, however, is no environmental saint. He voted against the Kyoto
protocol on global warming as a senator and continues to oppose it as
a presidential candidate. He rides a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He
and his billionaire wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, own five luxury homes
and an SUV — accoutrements of a high-consumption lifestyle at odds
with the environmental ethic they urge upon others. Kerry seems to
recognize the inconsistency; during the Democratic primaries, he tried
to deny to reporters that he had an SUV, a white lie he later
justified on the grounds that the SUV was registered to his wife.
President Bush gleefully milked that gaffe for laughs in a speech to
Michigan autoworkers — Mr. Flip Flop can’t even be straight about
what kind of car he has — and he will probably repeat the joke in the
months ahead. It’s not easy being green.

Yet no one outside the Bush PR apparatus would dispute that Kerry is
by far the greener of the two candidates. The League of Conservation
Voters, a non-partisan advocacy group in Washington, awards Kerry a 92
percent lifetime voting record on environmental issues but gave Bush
the first F in its history last year. Against Bush’s dismal record,
Kerry runs as an unabashed environmental champion. As one of his first
acts in office, Kerry says, he will reinstate the Clinton-era roadless
rule in national forests, which Bush has undermined. He will also
reverse Bush’s rollback of the Clean Air Act, ban snowmobiles and jet
skis from national parks and boost funding for environmental
enforcement.

Kerry would not sign Kyoto, but neither would he scrap it like Bush
did. I would reopen the negotiating process, fix the flaws and move
forward, he told Amanda Griscom of the on-line environment magazine
Grist. That approach may prove difficult if Russia delivers on
President Vladimir Putin’s promise to ratify Kyoto, which would bring
the treaty into force internationally without U.S. participation.
Allison Dobson, Kerry’s environmental spokesperson, told the Nation
that Kerry would nevertheless ask other nations to amend Kyoto so it
demands more from China and other developing nations whose emissions
are rising — China is poised to overtake the United States as the
world’s largest greenhouse polluter by 2020 — while Kerry works at
home to take first steps to address the problem.

Vehicles are the main source of U.S. greenhouse emissions; Kerry
promises $10 billion to subsidize consumers, autoworkers, and
manufacturers as they convert to making and buying fuel-efficient
vehicles. He is confident the United States can obtain 20 percent of
its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 if the federal
government simply shifts subsidies away from oil and coal to
alternatives like wind, solar and biomass. Perhaps eager to reassure
workers and business executives, Kerry insists his plan to retool the
energy system will create hundreds of thousands of good American jobs
[in the] construction, manufacturing, agricultural and transportation
sectors. While stopping short of a formal endorsement, Kerry looks
forward to working with the Apollo Alliance, a green jobs coalition
backed by the Sierra Club and Steelworkers Union that has proposed
similar initiatives. But bowing to electoral realities in West
Virginia and the swing states of the Midwest, Kerry also budgets $5
billion to develop clean coal, a technology most environmentalists
dismiss as a wasteful chimera.

Nevertheless, Kerry has won the endorsements of the Sierra Club and
League of Conservation Voters, and not simply because he isn’t George
W. Bush. Kerry has been active in the cause since the first Earth Day
in 1970. He even promises to promote environmental justice by
reinstating the keystone environmental principle of polluter pays.
Thus he would restore the tax on chemical and other corporations that
finances the federal Superfund program charged with cleaning up toxic
waste sites across the nation. These sites are often found in
non-white, low-income communities, and their clean-up slowed to a
crawl after Bush eliminated the tax in 2002.

It’s not clear where the money for this ambitious agenda will come
from. Kerry aide Dobson puts the price tag at $30 billion, though it’s
not clear why, and says it will be paid for from two main sources:
reinstating the Superfund tax ($17 billion) and cutting federal
electricity use by 20 percent in 10 years ($14 billion). This looks
like a combination of double counting — Kerry is relying on the
Superfund tax to finance both that program’s revival and his
alternative energy plans — and wishful thinking. Capturing $14
billion from reduced electricity use is possible in theory, just as
eliminating the age-old hobbyhorse of bureaucratic waste, fraud and
abuse is, but such savings rarely happen in the real world.

A bigger question is whether Kerry will turn out to be another Al
Gore: a politician who genuinely comprehends the immense environmental
dangers and opportunities facing human civilization but who shrinks
from doing much about them for fear of antagonizing powerful
interests.

Kerry promises that, unlike Gore in 2000, he will speak out about the
environment in his presidential campaign, and he has challenged Bush
to a debate on the subject. And Kerry is cleverly melding his
environmental goals with an economic message of prosperity for workers
and businesses alike. That tactic should defang Republican accusations
of environmental extremism and strengthen Kerry on the issue that
voters care most about (except for Iraq): the economy.

The real test of Kerry’s environmental commitment will come if he wins
in November. It’s easy to look good when you’re running against the
worst environmental president in history. Taking on the powers that be
is a lot harder, even from inside the Oval Office.

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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.

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