The Presidential Debates are over. The election is two weeks away. Conspicuous, by its absence, has been any mention of environmental issues during this campaign. Not a discussion of policy differences. Not a debate over environmental protection or regulations. Heaven forbid, not a word about climate change. Not a peep from the pundits. Nothing! The discussion of environmental issues has not merely been marginalized in the current election cycle, it has been excluded.
Oh, the environment has been a bit player in the campaign. A mention of green jobs here. Used as a scare tactic there. The environment has been exploited in the pejorative sense when candidates are talking about jobs in coal country or “energy independence” in terms of oil and gas drilling. In the fight for votes in the all-important swing states, protecting the environment has no role. You would almost think that we have solved the great environmental challenges facing our country. We can move on to other more pressing matters and leave the annoying and vexing questions about the environment in our rear-view mirror.
Sadly, this is an indicator of just how far environmental protection has slipped in the hierarchy of political issues. Demonized by one major political party, abandoned by the other, the environment is an issue that has lost its patrons in the nation’s political leadership. In the cynical world of modern politics, attention to the environment produces neither the votes nor the money to warrant serious attention during the election cycle. We are left trying to deduce where candidates stand and hope that we can make an educated guess regarding which candidate will best serve environmental issues if elected. That’s a heck of a predicament.
To paraphrase the old man in A Christmas Story, What has brought us to this lowly state? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. There are some prime suspects. The difficult economy makes job creation a priority and environmental protection seem like a luxury. There is the obscene amount of money pumped into the electoral system, particularly from anti-environmental business interests, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission. A false debate over climate change has, to a great extent, neutralized it as an effective political issue. No matter what the root cause might be, the more pressing issue is that we are here. And, accepting where we are, the most important question becomes “what are we going to do about it?”
Where do we start? The scope of the task can seem daunting and there certainly seems to be far more questions than answers when it comes to figuring this out. However, we can’t be paralyzed by the sheer difficulty of the challenge. It was never politically acceptable for a candidate to be an opponent of protecting the environment. There may have been substantial policy disagreements between candidates over the nature and extent that environmental protections should take, but it was never O.K. to ignore the environment. It’s a sad state of affairs when Richard Nixon looks like an environmental champion when compared to most current day politicians. So task number one is clearly holding elected officials accountable for their positions, or lack of them, on environmental issues.
The days of the free pass for politicians, regardless of political affiliation, need to be over. There needs to be a renewed respect, not only for the protection of the environment, but for the political power of environmental issues. At first glance this may seem an impossibility. How can a sector of the electorate that is primarily characterized by enthusiastic, but chronically disjointed and underfunded champions make an impact? How can you fight the powerful monied interests that have captured the electoral process, particularly at the national level? How can you fight the financial power of the Koch Brothers and Super Pacs? The answer certainly lies in solidarity, organization, cooperation and pooling of resources and the power of the message and information. But it goes a little deeper than that. With a closely divided electorate, where one or two percentage points are everything, incremental shifts in support between candidates can have monumental consequences. If environmental issues are perceived to have the potential of changing a substantial enough block of votes, they will garner attention. Making candidates understand that the edge they seek may lie in adequately addressing environmental concerns is not a far-fetched goal. It can be achieved and, because of the importance of moving the needle of support just a little, can actually negate a good deal of the influence of the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into the election system by special interests. This can be accomplished on a very modest budget.
Making it clear that environmental protection is a bi-partisan issue is another important factor. Can you imagine a debate where the two candidates spend time going toe-to-toe trying to demonstrate which of them is a better choice for promoting protection of the environment? People who consider themselves environmentalists are well-aware of the importance of environmental issues and the long-term consequences of the continued failure to solve or prolonged neglect of the problems we are facing. Transferring that knowledge to political candidates, and translating it to political positions on issues, should not be a heavy lift. Raising awareness of environmental issues with the non-environmental voter is just as important. Making the environmental vote a sought after commodity is a big part of establishing the value of environmental issues. On a very basic level, protecting the environment is the right thing to do. Making it also the politically expedient thing to do is the key to success. No candidate, regardless of party, should be comfortable either neglecting the environment or taking positions that are detrimental to protecting the environment. This will not happen unless voters and candidates both value environmental issues and there are rewards, or consequences, for positions on those issues.
We’re a little late in the game right now for environmental issues to play a meaningful part in the electoral outcome. That doesn’t mean that an effort shouldn’t be made during the last two weeks of the campaign to demand responses from the candidates to important questions like climate change, air and water quality, resource extraction and other problems that we face as a nation. Thoughtful and intelligent consideration of positions on these issues by candidates should be a minimum requirement, regardless of where they may ultimately stand. However, with the debates over and the points of contention having already been defined, the prospects of the environment becoming a meaningful part of the debate are slim. One thing that should be clear, however, is that this must be the last election where environmental interests are not a major part of the political discussion. Left to their own devices, the candidates will not gravitate to this area of policy on their own. The issues are too complex and the answers too difficult for them to venture into the difficult realm of environmental policies without encouragement or the prospect of political reward.
The consequences of continued neglect of the environment are real and potentially grave. The environmental community needs to solve the puzzle of making environmental politics a factor in our electoral process and they need to come up with the answer sooner, rather than later. When it comes to policy, if you take care of the future, the present tends to take care of itself. Getting our focus on the future and adequately addressing environmental issues as part of that strategy can define our generation. We need to get the “missing” environment off the milk carton and into the mainstream of political discussion. Ultimately, it will be how our generation will be judged. -Ben Spinelli