THIS HAS BEEN a grim year for environmental causes, with everything from the Kyoto Protocol on global warming to protections for public lands to critical wildlife habitat taking a beating from the Bush administration and its regulatory enablers. The nonpartisan League of Conservation Voters has given President Bush an unequivocal grade of F on his environmental policies -- worse than his father's performance and all other presidents since the league began keeping score in the Reagan administration. In the presidential campaign thus far, environmental concerns have largely been lost in the din of debate about the war in Iraq. But the league is vowing to change that, taking advantage of campaign finance laws that should enhance the role of advocacy groups as political parties face new spending restrictions.
Deb Callahan, the group's president, believes there is an untapped vein of political activism among the 11 million Americans who belong to environmental groups -- almost as many as the 12 million members of the AFL-CIO. "The green giant has been woken up, and he's not very jolly," she says. Callahan plans organizing drives for the 2004 election in Florida, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin -- four traditional swing states where environmental concerns rank high.
An environmental scorecard produced by the league places John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman at the top of the field of Democrats. Kerry is particulaly lauded for leading the opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and for pushing higher fuel standards for cars. Lieberman is cited for working to protect the Clean Air Act and reduce smog and soot.
Callahan is quick to add that any of the Democrats would be far superior to another four years of Bush. This administration has broken campaign promises to reduce power plant emissions and protect wetlands. It has abandoned the Superfund program to clean up toxic waste sites. This month it opened 300,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska to logging. It seeks ways to undermine the laws with regulatory sleights of hand: for example, limiting the Clean Water Act's provisions only to "navigable waters."
Environmental groups face many knotty problems, such as building alliances with labor unions, which too often see conservation policy at odds with economic growth. But the greatest challenge may be activating a demoralized constituency whose members don't traditionally see themselves as single-issue voters.
The league will be sponsoring an issues forum for the presidential candidates on Jan. 24, just three days before the New Hampshire primary. With relatively little dividing the Democrats and a chasm between them and Bush, the forum's true value may be underscoring the dire stakes for the earth if the green monster slumbers through another election.
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