Earth Day Politics

This Earth Day was all about politics. Fewer events were scheduled and coverage was less meaningful than in years past.

As the Santa Rosa Press Democrat noted: "Some environmental leaders concede Earth Day has lost some of its 70s-era urgency as the conservation ethic becomes part of American culture and environmental organizations work year-around on issues."

Indeed, where once Earth Day was an occasion to focus the federal government's attention on key environmental problems, today non-profits and private companies are leading the way. And while they often do it with the assistance of state and local governments, the feds lag behind or even undermine the victories of years past.

Yet the environmental culture in the U.S. may be a mile wide and an inch deep in these tough economic times. The public -- and voters -- seem to have other priorities. A record number of Americans now say that environmental protection should be trumped by economic interests when the two come into conflict.

When asked whether "protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth" or whether "economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent?" the country was pretty evenly split with 47 percent saying the environment should get priority, 42 percent saying the economy should be the priority.

But just four years ago 70 percent of Americans prioritized environmental protection and only 23 percent put the economy first over the environment. Indeed, this is the worst the environment has fared on this question since Gallup started asking it way back in 1984.

It could also be that environmental problems seem too big for us to overcome through individual action. The easy stuff has been done and now we're faced with problems of increasing size and complexity such as global warming and the destruction of the oceans.

As the Christian Science Monitor wrote:

"In the decade after the first Earth Day 34 years ago, people planted trees to fight smog, picketed toxic dumps...Being Earth-friendly meant giving $25 to save the whales...But in the new millennium...One of the planet's most pressing problems -- global warming -- looks to be one of its most intractable. And that is proving frustrating to would-be activists. Their challenge: How to get individuals to change their behavior for a problem that looms so large and is unlikely to be solved for generations."

If there was a single issue for this year's Earth Day event organizers to focus on, it was the 2004 Presidential campaign. A vote after all could make a big difference for the environment this year given the polar views of the two leading candidates.

President George W. Bush was in the wetlands near the family compound in Maine bragging about a plan to create and protect three million acres of wetlands in five years.

Sen. John Kerry noted that up until very recently the White House was pushing a change in policy that would have opened up 20 million acres of wetlands to development. Bush backed off that plan only in the face of a tremendous outcry from state governments, members of Congress and the public. Such turnabouts are likely to continue as Bush attempts to burnish his environmental credentials during this election year.

"But you know as well as I do, once they get re-elected, they'll walk away from that promise the same way they walked from all the others," Kerry said.

Bush touted a new Agriculture Department inventory of wetlands showing that there has been a slight net increase -- not a net loss -- of wetlands on private land thanks mostly to programs put in place by previous Administrations. Bush's wetland plan would provide no new effort, but would increase funding to those existing programs.

However, as The New York Times noted, "like much surrounding his environmental record, there is little agreement on the facts, much less the wisdom of his policies."

It turns out the touted Agriculture Department survey uses a looser definition of the term "wetland." It includes wetlands that are no longer wet -- also known as "dysfunctional."

In other words, there are more net wetlands out there, if you count the habitat that's been destroyed or drained. By contrast U.S. Fish and Wildlife surveys find ten million fewer acres of wetland habitat -- even when public lands are added in to the count.

If the environment isn't a priority for much of the public -- as the Gallup Poll suggests -- why all the Earth Day fireworks?

Bush knows that in key battleground states the environment can be the deal maker or breaker. Bush also has to worry about Republican moderates being turned off by his pro-pollution agenda. This presidency has gone out of its way to alienate moderates in its own party on other issues, but it knows that in key states like Oregon and Washington the environment could push swing voters to Kerry.

"When you drill down to swing states, such as Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Pennsylvania or Florida, Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry will spend a great deal of their time talking about the environment," said Jim DiPeso, policy director for Republicans for Environmental Protection told the Dallas Morning News. The Christian Science Monitor reported that the environment could also prove prime motivation for turning out college-aged voters.

Kerry says he'll attack Bush on the environment and try to make it major issue this year.

Al Gore had trouble discussing environmental issues in 2000 with Ralph Nader constantly attacking from the left. Nader's campaign also criticized environmental groups that offered support to Gore. This strategy helped marginalize the environmental movement with some Green supporters openly expressing hope that Bush would be elected -- thus drawing more disaffected voters from the Democrats. This time around the Greens aren't backing Nader, and environmental groups are united behind Kerry.

The White House has also done more than anyone to make the environment an issue in the 2004 campaign by attempting to change key environmental regulations that Americans have taken for granted -- the Clean Air act and the Clean Water Act are just two examples. Both are products of Earth Day efforts and critics of the White House point to 30 years of evidence in their favor. The burden of proof is on Bush then to explain just how weakening these laws is better for the environment than simply enforcing the existing ones.

Bush said this week that: "good conservation and good stewardship will happen when people say, 'We're just not going to rely on the government to be the solution to the problem.'" Environmentalists believe that as long as Bush occupies the White House, relying on the government isn't much of an option.

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