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,
"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.
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 Protectiuon Angecy 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
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 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.
Mark Hertsgaard is a correspondent for The Nation, where this article will also appear, and the author, most recently, of "The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World."