Politics & Policy

The Disappearing Environment

Green groups failed to inject the environment into the election.

Green activists sought to make environmental protection a central issue in the 2004 presidential campaign. They spent millions on the effort, but have little to show for it. Environmental issues were scarcely discussed on the campaign trail, and President Bush was reelected. While marginally important in some local races, “the environment” did not even register as a national issue this year.

Environmentalist attacks on the president began early and were repeated often. The Natural Resources Defense Council compiled a list of several hundred alleged “major rollbacks” of environmental protection. The League of Conservation Voters endorsed Senator Kerry early in the year while giving the president’s environmental policies a failing grade. The activist-friendly Environmental Media Services launched Bush GreenWatch to disseminate “information on the Bush Administration’s assault on our environment and public health” to the press. Meanwhile, the Sierra Club’s Carl Pope and the Robert F. Kennedy Jr. began speaking tours promoting their respective books assailing caricatures of President Bush’s environmental record. The lion’s share of these attacks were misleading and exaggerated–just the sort of thing one might expect in a partisan political campaign–and they had little effect.

One of the larger efforts was the creation of Environment 2004, a new organization “dedicated to highlighting the environmental stakes in the next election and, by shining a spotlight on the anti-environmental record of President George W. Bush and his allies, to assuring their defeat in 2004.” Spearheaded by several former Clinton-administration environmental officials–including Carol Browner, Bruce Babbitt, and George Frampton–Environment 2004 sponsored ad campaigns and public events in battleground states, including billboards in Florida linking Bush’s global-warming policies to hurricanes. “People there need to know that Bush is doing practically nothing to prevent hurricanes from getting worse in the future from global warming,” explained Environment 2004 executive director Aimee Christensen. Floridians didn’t buy it, and Bush won the state handily.

Despite their best efforts, green groups were unable to make environmental protection a major issue. Environmental concerns were rarely debated in most states, as voters focused on national security, the economy, and various social issues. Shrill warnings that the environment was “under siege” garnered little public attention. After decades of apocalyptic predictions and scare stories, the public has learned to discount environmentalist hype. Few doubt that George W. Bush is a less zealous advocate of environmental regulations than John Kerry or Al Gore. But they won’t swallow over-the-top charges alleging Bush has declared “war” on the environment or is placing American families at risk. Environmentalists have cried wolf so many times that their direst warnings now ring hollow.

Although most pundits assume environmental issues always work to Democrats’ advantage, the Kerry campaign understood otherwise. Indeed, Senator Kerry shied away from making the environment a centerpiece of his campaign. While he often talked about energy, Kerry’s proposals emphasized oil independence, alternative fuels, and the economic aspects of energy policy, rather than the environmental aspects of energy policy. Kerry rarely mentioned global warming, air pollution, or new source review.

In many battleground states, Senator Kerry’s image as the “greener” candidate was less an asset than a liability. Michigan autoworkers did not want to hear that Kerry called for higher automobile fuel-economy standards, and support for a U.N. global-warming treaty would not sit well with coal workers in West Virginia. It is no wonder Democrats removed their platform’s endorsement of the Kyoto Protocol. Only where Kerry and his surrogates could tie Bush-administration policy to a specific local concern, such as planned nuclear-waste disposal in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, did they make environmental protection a central talking point of the campaign.

Of course the Bush campaign rarely discussed environmental issues either, instead emphasizing security, the war on terror, recent economic growth and the president’s plans for a second term. Environmental matters have never been a high priority in this administration. Yet it is simply false to allege that the nation’s basic environmental regulatory framework has been gutted under President Bush. In the end, such charges failed to resonate because they are not true.

Green activist groups not only failed to elevate the salience of environmental issues, they may have also hurt their standing in Washington. By aligning themselves so closely with partisan, anti-Bush efforts, D.C.-based environmentalist groups further cemented the perception that they are an arm of the Democratic party–at least when it comes to elections.

If their efforts had been successful, perhaps environmentalists would have been rewarded with administration posts and a seat at the table to propose desired policy reforms. But they weren’t successful, and now they’ll reap the consequences. As President Bush and the Republican Congress consider further reforms to the nation’s environmental laws, environmentalist groups may well find themselves on the outside looking in. And they will have only themselves to blame.

NRO contributing editor Jonathan H. Adler is an associate professor and associate director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

Jonathan H. Adler — Mr. Adler is an NRO contributing editor and the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. His latest book is Marijuana Federalism: Uncle Sam and Mary Jane.


The Latest