Red, Blue and Green

Since John Kerry's presidential drive shifted from the heated debates of the primary season to the more choreographed campaigning of the general election, the Massachusetts senator has begun his predictable move to the political center. Without Howard Dean on his case, Kerry's prescriptions for Iraq have become ever greyer, even as he criticizes the White House's handling of the occupation. With John Edwards out of the race, Kerry has dropped his populist (and crowd-pleasing) lines about "Benedict Arnold" corporations. He seems to prefer prudence over pugnacity.

This is not to say there is no difference between Kerry and Bush. On several issues -- including Social Security, health care, and reproductive rights -- Kerry's views diverge sharply from the current occupant of the White House. Another important topic on which Kerry could easily distance himself from Bush is the environment.

According to one poll, 62 percent of voters -- including 54 percent of Republicans -- want more environmental protections rather than less regulations. While the environment rarely ranks high on voters' lists of top concerns, the Kerry campaign, if it acts smartly, could use the Bush Administration's record to attract undecided but environmentally-conscious voters.

This isn't just a green pipe dream; it also happens to be a fear of some of the GOP's top strategists, including Frank Luntz, Republican über-consultant and architect of the 1994 "Contract with America." In a memo to Republicans, later leaked to some environmental organizations, Luntz warned: "The environment is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general -- and President Bush in particular -- are most vulnerable. A caricature has taken hold in the public imagination: Republicans seemingly in the pockets of corporate fat cats who rub their hands together and chuckle manically as they plot to pollute America for fun and profit."

Bush counsel Karen Hughes told Time magazine back in 2001 that green issues "are killing us."

Environmental concerns are poised to play a decisive role in an election that is likely to be a nail-biter. Though the soccer moms of 2000 may have morphed into the security moms of 2004, obsessed with shadowy terrorist threats, they still care deeply about the air their kids breathe and the water they drink. The Bush/Cheney campaign faces some high hurdles in convincing voters that this is an administration that really cares for the environment.

Rhetorically, the Bush environmental policies sound fine: The administration has gone to great lengths to trumpet its Clear Skies and Healthy Forests initiatives. As always, however, the devil is in the details, and critics charge that Bush's details have been devilish indeed. Environmental groups claim that the sweet-sounding programs are Orwellian masks for policies at odds with a healthy environment -- allowing more air pollution and paving the way for further deforestation. The drive to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling, the repeal of Clinton-era rules limiting arsenic in water, the reduction in protection for wetlands, and the resignation of EPA director Christine Todd Whitman have combined to give the Bush Administration a black eye when it comes to green issues.

It's unclear whether this will have any significat impact on voting behavior in different states, especially the battleground states which both the Kerry and Bush campaigns are targeting.

The White House's environmental policies are already igniting passions in local communities and increasing grassroots involvement in the political process. From the fight to stop mountain top removal coal mining in West Virginian, to sprawl battles in Minnesota, to forest-management issues in fire-prone Arizona, environmental concerns are energizing citizens in a lot of key states. These issues, among others, could end up hurting Bush at the polls if -- and it's a big if -- the Kerry campaign can take advantage of Bush's weaknesses and articulate a greener message.

One hot-button issue riling voters is the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada. For decades the nuclear industry has grappled with questions over the disposal of spent nuclear fuel which remains dangerously radioactive for millions of years. Industry and government officials figured the best plan was to just put all the hot stuff in one site, and picked the deserts of Nevada where the first generation of nuclear weapons were tested. Not surprisingly, many Nevadans did not take kindly to the idea of being the dumping ground for the nation's nuclear waste, and for years the proposed repository has been one of Nevada's most inflammatory political issues.

During the 2000 campaign, Bush and Cheney said they would not agree to open Yucca Mountain unless the science was sound and the site proven safe. Bush won the state by a margin of less than four per cent.

Four years later, Congress and the White House -- overriding the objections of most of Nevada's elected officials -- have agreed to start sending waste to Yucca Mountain. But according to Peggy Maze Johnson of the local environmental justice group Citizen Alert, a host of safety questions remain unresolved. "Two hundred and ninety-three scientific questions about Yucca Mountain are unanswered," Johnson told AlterNet. "If you weigh the options, it just doesn't compute."

The Bush Administration's support for Yucca Mountain has many Nevadans crying foul -- and it has provided the Kerry campaign with a wedge issue. In a recent visit to the state, Kerry said he wouldn't support opening the nuclear waste site, detailing his reasons in an Op-Ed in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Johnson said that the Yucca Mountain controversy will likely increase voter turnout this fall. Her group is organizing 25 town hall meetings across the state between now and November to discuss Yucca Mountain and other issues. "If people could have been shown that it was safe, they would have been OK with it," she said. "But the science is not there to support the myths that the administration is putting out. People feel that the science has been manipulated to give us Yucca Mountain -- and they're right, it has been manipulated. I think people in Nevada feel they were deceived."

The Bush Administration's proposed rules on power plant emissions are stirring similar passions in the contested states of the Midwest and Great Lakes region. Earlier this year, the EPA announced proposed rules that would give utility companies much more leeway in cleaning up emissions as they modernize older power plants. The proposed regulations have become a flashpoint for concerns over mercury contamination since mercury is a byproduct of coal-burning power plants. About half-a-million comments have been sent to the EPA opposing the rule change.

In the pivotal states of Wisconsin (which voted Democrat in 2000) and Ohio (which went for Bush), many residents are deeply upset by the new rules. Both states have a large number of coal-burning plants -- 17 in Wisconsin and 39 in Ohio -- and both depend on waterways (Wisconsin's maze of rivers and lakes and Ohio's Lake Erie) for commercial fishing, tourism, and recreation. Mercury contamination is destroying those waters: All of Wisconsin's inland rivers, lakes and streams are under a fish consumption advisory for mercury pollution, as is all of Lake Erie.

Erin Bowser, director of the Ohio Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), said that what the public demands is simple: "We want the Clean Air Act enforced."

The depth and breadth of public concern over mercury pollution from power plants is demonstrated by the fact that hunting and fishing groups -- whose members are usually self-described conservatives -- are also up in arms over the proposed rules. For the "bait and bullet" crowd, wilderness conservation is about preserving a certain kind of lifestyle, and transcends party loyalty. The League of Ohio Sportsmen and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation are working closely with environmentalists to beat back the Bush proposal.

"We are seeing a surge of people getting involved," said Sandy Buchanan of Ohio Citizen Action. "There's a lot of local organizing going on around the state."

In Florida, swing state of swing states, suburban sprawl is shaping up as a major concern of voters. With nearly 16 million people, the state is the fourth-largest in the nation. And it shows no signs of stopping; last year it had the highest volume of new home construction in the country. Florida's sprawl is both a quality-of-life issue and an environmental concern: The ever-increasing housing subdivisions threaten wilderness areas held dear by conservationists, while the mounting traffic gridlock infuriates all Floridians.

"Florida is just a giant battleground between developers and environmentalists and longtime Floridians who want to preserve a certain way of life," says Frank Jackalone, staff director of the Florida Sierra Club. "Those who really know, those who understand what's happening, they are very angry. They see that [sprawl] is leading to the destruction of Florida's remaining wilderness and agricultural lands."

As Jackalone explains it, the decades-long effort to clean up Florida's unique Everglades is closely related to the sprawl battles. In 2000 Congress passed legislation to restore the Everglades by overhauling an intricate system of concrete canals built by the Army Corps of Engineers. At first the Sierra Club gave conditional support to the plan, but has since announced its objection. According to Jackalone, the two Bush administrations (George W.'s in Washington and Jeb's in Tallahassee) have hijacked the restoration plan and are seeking to divert the Everglades water to support the sprawling urban areas. It's a case of suburban strip malls versus the swamp.

"If they proceed as they are now, then taxpayers will be footing the bill for more destruction of the Everglades," says Jackalone. "The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA are allowing the destruction of the wetlands without check. They're allowing developers to tear up our landscape and convert the state, coast to coast, into subdivisions."

When it comes to the preservation of local environments, Bush is clearly on the defensive. The question is whether Kerry will take advantage of this weakness and use the environment, public health and quality of life issues to go on the offensive. If he does, the environment could be, as Bush would say, "a game changer."

"We have seen a tremendous rollback in environmental and public health standards during the last couple of years," says Jennifer Giegerich, director of Wisconsin PIRG. "But unless someone offers an alternative, it won't become an issue. And that would be a shame, because people really do care."

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