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Why the Environment Will Determine the Outcome of the 2004 Election

Why the Environment Will Determine the Outcome of the 2004 Election

While the candidates focus their comments and their pleas for support on issues of homeland security, the war in Iraq, the economy, jobs, health care and education, very little has been said about the environment.

As the polls indicate and the pundits acknowledge, this presidential election is likely to be very, very close. As evidence, the candidates are spending nearly all of their time in a number of “battleground” states that seem to hold the key to the election outcome.

While the candidates focus their comments and their pleas for support on issues of homeland security, the war in Iraq, the economy, jobs, health care and education, very little has been said about the environment. In three presidential debates, only one question touched on the environment – and notice that it wasn’t asked by a member of the media. So, does the environment matter at all in determining the outcome of the presidential election? I believe it does. In fact, it could be a key factor in determining who wins.

Obviously, in a closely contested race, any issue can make a difference. But, issues that permit voters to draw clear distinctions between the candidates should have a disproportionately greater effect on for whom they decide to vote. And, on the environment, the positions of the candidates could not be more different.

Take, as one indicator, the scores given the candidates by the League of Conservation Voters (LCV). The League is a bipartisan organization (its past president is the grandson of Teddy Roosevelt) which rates the candidates on their positions on the environment. Sen. Kerry was rated at 96 percent for his voting record in the Senate – a rating even higher than former Vice President Al Gore’s 64 percent. To President Bush, the League gave the grade of “F” – the first president ever to fail for his record on the environment.

The LCV, as you might imagine, has endorsed Sen. Kerry for President. But, if the LCV rating sounds biased, consider that the partisan Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP) decided that they could not endorse President Bush for re-election. They offered the following rationale: “Over the last four years, the Bush administration has compiled a deliberately anti-environmental, anti-conservation record that will result in lasting damage to public health and to America’s natural heritage.” In fact, REP President Martha Marks is working to defeat President Bush on the basis of his environmental record. In addition, Russell Train, former head of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality under Republican President Richard Nixon and an internationally known environmental scholar, is campaigning in support of Sen. Kerry.

A second factor that emphasizes the importance of the environment in this presidential contest is the states that are still in play and the environmental issues affecting them. In Pennsylvania, for example, the clean-up of toxic sites under the Superfund program has been stymied by a Bush administration decision to oppose renewal of a tax on polluting industries that provided clean-up funds. In Florida, restoration of the Everglades and the future of oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico are huge issues. In fact, some have argued that former Vice President Gore’s failure to more aggressively embrace and advocate for restoration of the Everglades during his campaign might have cost him Florida. After all, nearly 100,000 votes went to Ralph Nader of the Green Party. Gore lost the state and its critical electoral votes by less than 5,000 popular votes.

In the lake states of Minnesota and Wisconsin, airborne mercury from nearby coal-fired power plants is being deposited in lakes and streams. Mercury, a persistent and toxic pollutant, has accumulated in fish to such an extent that the Food and Drug Administration has warned that children, pregnant women, and those of childbearing age severely limit their consumption of fish. In states where fishing and enjoying the great outdoors are an integral part of the culture, that’s a big deal.

In Oregon, where decades of fighting over the future of old-growth forests and national forests was finally resolved under a plan developed by the Clinton administration, disgruntled timber companies and their lobbyists have convinced the Bush administration to reopen the plan and rollback protections for wildlife, roadless national forest lands, and salmon – the wild icon of the region. In fact, the Bush administration put a long-time timber lobbyist in charge of the Forest Service, the agency charged with the stewardship of these lands.

Similar examples exist in other battleground states – such as the fight over Yucca Mountain in Nevada and over oil and gas leasing along the Rocky Mountain front in Colorado and in the Valle Vidal in New Mexico.

The third reason why the environment is likely to decide the outcome of this election is that many remaining undecided voters are women and younger voters. Previous polls indicate that 60 percent of environmental voters are women, and young voters, whose education often has exposed them to environmental issues, are swelling the ranks of independent voters. If environmental quality is cast as a public health and safety issue in this election, as some have attempted to do, then concern for the environment is likely to translate into political action for women and younger voters.

So, in an election year in which a few thousand votes in a few states where environmental issues are of concern could determine who will become president, the environment will matter.

The only reason this wouldn’t be so, is if voters don’t know about the candidates’ positions and policies on the environment.

And, that could be a concern. In fact, it could be a strategy to keep voters focused on other issues so that they don’t have the time or the inclination to try to understand the differences between President Bush and Sen. Kerry on the environment.

Prior to 9/11, the Bush administration’s environmental policies were under tremendous scrutiny. President Bush’s flip-flop on global warming, resulting in his decision not to reduce the production of greenhouse gases, and his proposal to permit increased levels of arsenic in our drinking water are two of many examples. Republicans were so concerned about public perceptions of the president and his environmental policies that one of their leading strategists, Frank Luntz, stated that the environment is an issue on which the president and the Republicans are “most vulnerable.” To combat this, Luntz recommended that Republicans talk differently about the environment and use different terms to describe their views and characterize their policies.

After 9/11, the environment disappeared as an issue. And, true to his new environmental strategy, the president came out with new polices to promote “Clear Skies” and “Healthy Forests.” But while the names of these initiatives sounded comforting, the substance of the policies offered little in environmental protection. Said one Republican congressman, Chris Shays, regarding these initiatives, “The Bush administration has been masterful at framing its message on the environment with good titles like the ‘Clear Skies Initiative’ and ‘Healthy Forests.’ But the truth is that many of the initiatives proposed by the White House exacerbate, rather than improve, the problems they target.”

If, in this last week of the campaign, undecided voters get beyond the blitz of ads and admonitions about homeland security and give thought to the issues that affect the health of our land and our waters, of the outdoor places we love to explore, and, ultimately, our own health, then Frank Luntz’s warning could, in fact, come true. It won’t take many voters in any given state to affect the outcome of this election. Yet, the outcome of this election could decide the future health of our environment and, with it, the health of our children and theirs, for many, many years.

Jim Lyons is a lecturer and research scholar at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and co-editor of “Red, White, Blue and Green: Politics and the Environment in the 2004 Election.”

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