Whether Obama or McCain, the next president will inherit an environmental crisis like none before him. This is due in no small measure to the Bush administration's outright assault on environmental law but also, more fundamentally, to a large flock of chickens now coming home to roost.
In past elections, the environment has been viewed by some voters and most media as "fringe", "soft," or "marginal." During Clinton's campaign, it was "the economy stupid." Al Gore ignored the environment while running in 2000; in 2004 it cost John Kerry West Virginia. Republicans and Democrats alike say they are "pro-environment." Who wants to be pro-polluter? While dismantling the EPA, President Reagan often "wore green," usually holding an axe or sitting on a horse. Even George W. Bush claimed the title.
But not this time. The environment is primed to be center stage in November. The debate will not be about saving pelicans -- or even polar bears. It will be about saving ourselves. Floods in the Midwest, droughts from Georgia to California, a disappearing arctic, $5.00 a gallon gasoline -- and radically different visions from the candidates - are combining to make it a wedge issue.
The first salvo in this battle has been fired.
Trying to be all things to all voters, McCain gave a major address (rightly) urging that global warming is real. Then he changed his spots -- from bright green to oil black -- supporting widespread offshore drilling, seeking NASCAR dads from Ohio (where there are no coastlines). He was forced to pick his side of the wedge.
Truth be told (in elections it is in short supply), McCain's environmental record has always been spotty. His political ads urge that "energy conservation is no longer just a personal virtue." Yet McCain the Senator often missed critical votes on tougher fuel efficiency requirements.
Obama really has no environmental record. But "green jobs" are a central part to his economic program as is massive investment in alternative energy like solar. He opposes more drilling -- whether off the Alaska or Miami coastline. This week, he was endorsed by Al Gore.
For either President McCain or President Obama, the environmental challenges will be daunting. The Bush assault on environmental protection was unprecedented, far worse than during the Reagan years. It reached deep into a host of government procedures and regulations, included rampant cronyism in key agencies and open hostility on Capitol Hill.
Here is just a spattering of what awaits the next Administration:
-- Climate Change. Throughout our nation's history, for all pieces of crucial legislation (the 1933 National Recovery Act, the 1964 Civil Rights Act), there was a fleeting legislative moment. That moment is here for climate change. The scientific evidence is overwhelming, the inter-generational impacts make action a moral imperative. Waiting is just not an option. The Bush Administration squandered the last decade. The Obama or McCain Administration cannot squander the next.
-- Natural Resources. Where to start? The Bush White House declared open season on the nation's resources. There was the Orwellian "Healthy Forest Initiative" that reduced wildlife protection, open contempt for the Endangered Species Act, repeal of the Roadless Rule protecting public lands, a U.S. Navy sonar assault on whales, and a "stream buffer rule" allowing Appalachian hilltop mining. Repair of these and many more offenses will require an Interior Secretary of historical significance (think Gifford Pinchot).
-- Public Health. OSHA has been decimated, with only one new standard issued in eight years. Permissible exposure levels for numerous contaminants were weakened in the workplace, drinking water and air. We had lead in toys, formaldehyde in trailers, and biphenyl in baby bottles - as well as pathogens in our spinach, lettuce, beef, and now tomatoes. Most American public health statutes are woefully outdated and in need of complete overhaul, starting with the Toxics Substances Control Act ("TSCA").
-- Water. From Georgia to California, climate change is bringing increased drought and water shortages (and ironically, elsewhere flooding). T. Boone Pickens is now buying up most of the aquifers north of Dallas for good reason. Salmon and other fish are disappearing in droves (if fish travel in droves). In cities, the most favored solution to drinking water shortages seems to be recycling sewer water - shades of Solvent Green. Current water policies, such as providing subsidized irrigation water to agri-business giants, need fundamental reform.
-- Global Reach. The greatest environmental threats at home now are from abroad. Nearly half the mercury in Midwestern lakes comes from Chinese coal fire power plants. China's global warming gas emissions now exceed the U.S. From food to pharmaceuticals, imported consumer products present unnecessary health risks. Through far more aggressive trade policies and tougher domestic laws -- on what is allowed within our shores and within our stores -- we can better protect both the planet and our own citizens.
This election season, there will be no ducking (no pun intended) the environment. Both Obama and McCain will be required to address -- with specifics -- how they will clean up the Bush mess - and, where they intend to lead the country. FDR had his New Deal in the 1930's. What is the Obama or McCain Green Deal for 2008? Are their promises of change real or illusory?
If fate and the voters give us President McCain, one hopes for the leadership of Republican Teddy Roosevelt, not the "wink and nod" environmentalism of either Bush. If it's President Obama, one hopes for the political skill of Lyndon Johnson -- since that and more will be required to navigate the Washington, DC special interest thicket. The essential question both will need to answer was posed nearly a half century ago -- by Rachel Carson: "Man's attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we now have acquired the fateful power to alter and destroy nature. The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself."
Past Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council ("NRDC") Public Health Program, Al Meyerhoff is an environmental lawyer (firstname.lastname@example.org).