11/11/2011 03:14 pm ET | Updated Jan 11, 2012

What Election Day 2011 Means for the Environment

This week's election offered something America desperately needs right now: hope. I know there weren't many marquee names on the ballot and I know the presidential primary season is getting more attention. But if you look closely at Tuesday's results, you see a few clear lessons that we should all take to heart.

People Overwhelming Rejected Overreach
Voters almost unanimously rejected overreach by members of the Tea Party. In Maine, voters rejected the Tea Party members' attempts to end same-day voter registration; in conservative Mississippi, voters rejected attempts by these radicals to define "personhood" in such a way as to prevent many forms contraception; and in Ohio, voters overwhelmingly rejected the Tea Party's weakening of collective bargaining for teachers, cops, firefighters, and other public employees. The defeat of these initiatives indicate a mounting public rejection of the radical Tea Party agenda. Although environmental initiatives were not on the ballot this week, clean energy and public health safeguards have been top targets of the extremists and we should redouble our efforts in light of this weeks' tide turn. Tea Party champs who have kept the current Congress in a constant and chaotic unproductive state should take note that the public is growing tired of the antics.

The Presidential Race is Still Up for Grabs
Every race in recent memory has been an expression of a frustrated electorate. Tuesday night's results confirmed the trend. Although some would say that this is just reflective of the country's anti-incumbent mood, I don't think it is that clear. Many incumbents won on Tuesday while many extreme ideas were overturned. Outrage is seemingly being applied deliberately. Therefore, those who have already written their "day after election 2012" stories about President Obama's defeat should keep watching. It is going to be a long trudge between now and Election Day and it is anyone's game.

And most importantly,

Dogged Persistence and Old-Fashioned Pavement-Pounding Get Results
Look at Ohio. Last March, Governor Kasich spearheaded a law limiting the bargaining rights of 350,000 public workers. Public employees were pegged as some kind of fat cats whose benefits were the cause of the state's fiscal trouble (rather than the global economic crisis).

Van Jones recently told a group of NRDC staffers, "When I was kid, we didn't have 'public employees.' We had police officers who kept us safe. We had teachers who taught us how to do math. We had emergency responders who never abandoned us in a crisis." In Ohio, though, Tea Party rhetoric beat down these folks.

But they didn't stay down. They put a measure to repeal the law on the ballot. Then they canvassed, rallied, and got out the vote. And once they brought their case directly to Ohio citizens, they prevailed. On Tuesday Ohioans voted to repeal the bill 62 percent to 38 percent.

You may not agree with their position on bargaining, but you have to admire their perseverance. Here was a group cast aside by the Tea Party, the state legislature, and the financial downturn. But they rebounded, they brought their fight directly to the people, and they won.

It's a lesson I already knew, but I appreciate the reminder. NRDC had a similar success last year. After the U.S. Congress failed to pass comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation, pundits claimed climate action was dead in the water. Yet when Texas oil interests tried to use a ballot initiative (Prop 23) to block California's groundbreaking Global Warming Solutions Act, we demonstrated just how much voters care about the issue.

NRDC and our able allies mobilized public health advocates, concerned parents, clean energy executives, green collar workers, national security hawks, Latino community leaders, and others to come out and defend their right to a cleaner, more sustainable future.

Californians defeated Prop 23 by a ratio of 2 to 1. More people voted on Prop 23 than on anything else on the ballot, including the gubernatorial and Senate races. Even counties that backed Republican candidates shot down Prop 23. This was the first time climate solutions were put to a public referendum, and voters sent a resounding message to political leaders.

The lesson I took from that success is the same one I see in Tuesday's result: you win by showing up and doing it again and again. We won't get a national climate bill passed in one session. We won't get California's law off the ground in one year. But if we keep at it, we will prevail.

And so the environmental community is going to keep showing up until we secure cleaner, smarter solutions for America. We are going to keep defending the health standards from Tea Party attack. We are going to keep promoting smart clean energy solutions.

And we are going to reveal our strength. When I looked at photos of 12,000 people standing in a ring around the White House in protest of the Keystone XL pipeline last Sunday, I saw one giant backbone.

I think President Obama saw it too as evidenced by him sending the State Department back to the drawing board on the Keystone XL pipeline today. I know some folks have given up hope for him, but the book on Obama hasn't been written yet. His decision to delay stronger smog standards was a huge disappointment, but his clean car standards will slash our oil dependence and cut vehicle carbon pollution in half. His EPA just announced it will set carbon limits on new power plants for the first time ever. And on top of all this, he still has several opportunities to make the right choices.

I still have hope in the President. And I still have faith in the political system. Tuesday's election results confirmed once again that, as Woody Allen famously said, showing up is 80 percent of success.

That gives me tremendous hope. It shows me that even with a Congress paralyzed by dysfunction and a political system distorted by big money, ordinary citizens can affect change.

Tuesday's election showed us: This is what engagement looks like. This is what you can achieve when you show up and work an issue until you carry it over the finish line. This is how you win.