US Presidential Campaigns and the World – Part II

Environmentalists all over the world may be aghast at the US lack of concern about global warming, but the American electorate has been left blissfully undisturbed. This year's presidential candidates have been almost entirely silent when it comes to the environment, a politically divisive issue that – contrary to public belief in the United States – remains globally relevant. According to Alan Bisbort, the candidates’ silence on the issue is not accidental. While the Republican president has no interest in raising an issue that can hurt his business supporters, the Democratic challenger is shy of bringing uncomfortable and potentially costly issues to the fore. But the US will have a price to pay when environmental neglect comes home to roost and US businesses become less competitive as they fail to meet new global standards. Though the Kyoto Protocol has moved forward, the electorate has not been told that US failure to participate will handicap the fight against global warming - perhaps making the horrific hurricanes that lashed Florida this summer a norm. This year's presidential candidates have failed to restore urgency to environmental concerns despite the fact, as Bisbort puts it, "an informed electorate is a safer electorate." – YaleGlobal

US Presidential Campaigns and the World – Part II

The world may be worried, but the US presidential candidates are curiously mum on the environment
Alan Bisbort
Wednesday, October 20, 2004
What global warming? US presidential Candidates' reluctance to talk about environment cannot help to lift the smog

CHESHIRE, CONNECTICUT: When a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, has it really fallen? This twist on an ancient philosophical conundrum may sum up the status of the environment in the 2004 American presidential campaign. Is environment really an issue if the electorate does not hear about it?

From climate change and overpopulation to deforestation and species loss, glaring environmental issues of unprecedented global impact need America's commitment. But the silence that has greeted them, from both major parties, is deafening – particularly considering the wider-than-usual difference between the two parties' environmental philosophies. While the candidates' reticence may be politically expedient, the failure to educate the electorate on these issues will come back to haunt the winner.

The only time the environment was discussed in the three presidential debates was when a member of the town hall audience asked about environmental policy. After Bush made a xenophobic jab at the Kyoto Protocol as "one of these deals where, in order to be popular in the halls of Europe, you sign a treaty," Kerry failed to deliver a strong rebuttal.

Losing his chance to differentiate himself from Bush on this matter, he stopped short of really connecting with environmental supporters.

The low priority that George W. Bush has given the environment was no surprise, nor was the effort over the past four years to roll back environmental regulations to favor corporate donors. Take, for instance, the administration's 200l rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, which is now the most politically and globally potent environmental concern. Though Bush publicly cited avoidance of job loss as the primary rationale for its rejection, the bottom line is that big businesses – his major supporters – balked at the costs of Kyoto's implementation.

More surprising is the hesitancy of Sen. John Kerry, better known than Bush for his environmental concern and voting record, to use it as a way to clearly differentiate himself from the incumbent. His reticence echoes Al Gore's during the 2000 campaign. If ever a candidate had the bona fides to make political hay out of the environment, it was Gore, author of Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. But he barely mentioned this, his strongest suit, in 2000.

How can something that is so important to all Americans, and all humans on the planet, be almost ignored on the campaign trail?

Perhaps it has to do with the nature of environmentalism itself. The issues involved do not lend themselves to slogans or campaign rhetoric; rather, they are often complex and technical and, thus, require more context and nuance from candidates in order to connect with voters. Indeed, Democratic spokesman James Lyons, former Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment in the Clinton administration, acknowledged, "Climate change may be hard for people to relate to. They hear about problems that they don't feel personally and they don't get it."

Senator Kerry may also feel that he already has the votes of those Americans to whom the environment is a top priority. Thus, he avoids discussing the environment in favor of more immediate, crowd-grabbing issues like the Iraq war, job losses, and a potential public health crisis over a shortage of flu shots.

Echoing this, Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway insisted that the environment resonates as a polling issue, but only to a certain extent. Because most Americans favor stringent environment standards, any loudly partisan attacks on President Bush in this regard, no matter how justified, can backfire. This, according to Conway, is because people often have trouble believing that anyone, or any government, could be as bad as the attacks indicate. In polling circles, it's called the "Too bad to be true" syndrome. That is, poll respondents instinctively recoil from overly harsh-sounding indictments of candidates.

Daniel Esty, a former deputy chief of staff at the US Environmental Protection Agency, speculated as to why the environment has not resonated louder in the campaign. "Maybe it's a sign of how we've become ruled by polls," Esty said. "There is a very politically polarizing climate around the environment, which is deeply troubling."

It's hard to see how the environment can "play strongly" if it is seldom mentioned on the campaign trail by either candidate. This hands-off attitude, even if it doesn't cost Senator Kerry any votes now, has some risks down the road. Traditional supporters – of any voting bloc – grow disenchanted when candidates become complacent toward them. This explains in part the dismal voter turnout in the past several national elections or the drift toward third-party candidates who are more overtly "green."

Beyond domestic political consequences, the silence on the environment has global implications. Other nations are presently moving forward to address global warming in a substantive way, and it's not clear how eager they'll be to halt progress to make concessions for a single nation. Kyoto, in fact, made its most dramatic step forward without US involvement on Oct. 1, 2004, when Russia's cabinet endorsed the protocol. Up to this point, Kyoto had been ratified by 120 nations. To go into effect, the treaty must be ratified by nations responsible for at least 55 percent of the 1990-level emissions of greenhouse gases. Russia's OK meets that requirement.

The importance of this role reversal – the former heart of the Soviet Cold War superpower being more environmentally progressive than the United States – can't be overstated. Nor can the importance of educating the public about the links between current practices and policies and future disaster.

Kyoto would be considerably more effective if the United States, which has the world's highest fossil fuel consumption rate, participated. According to the World Resources Institute, without US participation in Kyoto, greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced by 0.6 percent by 2012; with participation, it would be 5.2 percent.

It's clear that Bush's rejection of Kyoto has, like his unilateral rush to war in Iraq, isolated the United States from the world community. Even among America's traditional allies, the Bush environmental record has created friction. Margot Wattstrom, EU environmental commissioner, told Reuters that President's voluntary measures to cut emissions are "very little above business-as-usual and they allow emissions to grow by 30 percent." Unilateralism is politically dangerous to consensus building – a necessity in a globalized world.

Many American environmentalists, scientists, policy makers and leaders now fear that Bush's unilateral approach has damaged America economically, too; the money saved by corporations now due to rolled back regulations will be off-set by larger, graver costs in the future. Democratic congressman Jeff Bingaman warned, "We are putting our economic security and competitive edge at risk every day that we delay in addressing this issue."

In short, keeping quiet does have a price. The Kyoto Protocol may not just be about the distant future. For instance, recent studies reveal that the increasing frequency of hurricances, like those in Florida this year, may be linked to global warming – a result of greenhouse gases. Regardless of who is to blame for the absence of environmental issues in US political discourse, the silence will have serious consequences. An informed electorate is a safer electorate.

Alan Bisbort is a regular contributor to Yale Environment: The Journal of the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Yale Medicine, and The New York Times.

© 2004 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization