Understanding the Electorate's Support for the Sustainability Agenda

11/04/2010 08:34 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Steven Cohen Executive Director, Columbia University's Earth Institute

While most of the national attention devoted to California's ballot propositions this year focused on the failed effort to legalize marijuana, Californians also voted to retain their cutting edge effort to curb greenhouse gasses. Proposition 23 was defeated overwhelmingly with over 61% of the electorate rejecting a well-funded, but misguided, attempt to turn back the environmental policy clock.

As the Republicans celebrate their recent electoral victories, they would be wise to keep in mind that the effort to sell anti-environmental legislation as job-killing government intrusion is not taking hold. The country is frustrated with its institutions, and that is why it continues to toss out whichever party controls the government. The Republicans felt that sting in 2006 and 2008, and the Democrats are feeling it today. But support for environmental protection, renewable energy and energy efficiency remain strong in the American electorate. The sustainability agenda is taking hold in blue states like California and New York, but is also gaining strength in other parts of the country as well.

A posting on the environmental web site Grist reported that environmental ballot initiatives were approved in:

• Georgia where Amendment 4 will now permit multiyear state contracts for energy efficiency and conservation projects.
• Iowa where Measure 1 sets up a fund to improve water quality, protect ecosystems and establish parks.
• Maine where Question 3 established a $9,750,000 bond to invest in land conservation and waterfront and parks preservation
• Oregon where Measure 76 continued lottery funding for parks, beaches, wildlife habitat, and watershed protection.
• Rhode Island where Question 4 will allow land purchases to protect Narragansett Bay

This is not to paint a picture of electoral unanimity. The nation's anti-tax fervor resulted in the State of Washington's rejection of a $505 million energy efficiency bond issue and a tax on bottled water. It is also true that many of the Republicans that ran successfully this year campaigned on an anti-environment, anti-tax and anti-government platform. The public's anger with government and established institutions is a clear signal sent by the 2010 election. However, Republicans are mistaken if they think they have a mandate to destroy ecosystems in the blind pursuit of short-term economic gain.

As President Obama learned on election eve and as the new Speaker of the House, John Boehner, will learn in a hurry, this is a centrist nation. Environmental protection and sustainability is a mainstream centrist issue. This election provided no mandate to pursue deep water oil drilling, natural gas hydrofracking and mountain top removal for coal. The American public is still trying to make decisions about those issues, but the anger they directed at big government on November 2 can easily be redirected to big business and their political allies. Ask BP if you think I'm wrong. The conservative impulse in American politics is not simply anti-government, it favors conserving the American way of life. For some conservatives, that means the preservation of the natural environment. Conservative hunters are one of the primary constituents of wildlife and habitat conservation. The National Wildlife Federation's work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove Yellowstone's Grizzly bear population from the endangered species list is an example of a conservative part of the environmental movement that John Boehner and his pals would be wise to remember.

The underlying issue in American politics today is that people feel helpless and unable to control their destiny in the face of large, impersonal institutions. The American public does not want to trade off clean water, land and air for economic development. They are starting to suspect that this is a false trade-off, but do not know where to turn for unbiased environmental information.
As better run and profitable American corporations adopt sustainability as a core management principle, akin to sound financial controls and enlightened human resource management, the companies that want to destroy ecosystems to extract wealth are starting to lose credibility. As the corporate mainstream shifts, the politicians talking about job killing environmental regulation may find themselves conversing with a dwindling constituency.

Since the core beliefs of the average American voter do not change very quickly, it may seem difficult to understand the see-saw motion of the national political power equation. George H.W. Bush is elected in1988 and then loses to Bill Clinton in 1992. Newt Gingrich takes the House in 1994 but then Clinton is re-elected in 1996. George W. Bush sort of wins in 2000, is reelected in 2004, but loses the Congress in 2006. Barack Obama wins in 2008, and then loses the House in 2010. Based on the acceleration of the political cycle we have seen in the past two decades, one can almost bet on President Obama's reelection in 2012.

My explanation for these rapid shifts of political fortune is that they are caused by the vast increase in the volume of political information and dialogue that bombard us through the 24-7 global cable news media and world wide web. America is a centrist country, but the political center is being redefined every 18 months. Nevertheless, no matter how the political center shifts, support for clean air, water and land remains strong and fundamental. We saw that in the midst of the conservative wave this past Election Day. When Americans had clear environmental issues on the ballot on November 2, they typically supported protection.