11/28/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Local Politics, Global Change: Vote Democrat

On November 4th, Americans will cast their vote for our next President. In doing so, they will cast a vote for a candidate not on the ballot -- America's next environment.

In this election, national environmental discussions have focused on energy independence over climate change, and on the risks of ethanol over the economic benefits of a low-carbon economy. This has confused the underlying issues. Americans have not yet witnessed a nuanced debate in which climate, energy and food are discussed for what they are: independent yet interconnected national issues of global consequence that must be met with local action.

Consider that while climate change is global in cause and consequence, international climate agreements such as The Kyoto Protocol have proven difficult to negotiate and nearly impossible to enforce. As such, many international climate agreements remain largely symbolic arrangements. Meanwhile, in the United States, 25 states have committed to mandatory caps on their greenhouse gas emissions, and over 800 mayors have signed a climate protection agreement. In the race to reduce emissions, our states are far ahead of our nation state.

This makes sense. It is our local officials -- our mayors, governors, congressmen and senators -- who are closest to the localized effects of a changing climate. They can see the erosion to their shores, and they feel the effect of declining fish stocks on their economies. Many of them grew up in these places; they know those who are bearing the burden of climate change.

Moreover, it is these local officials who can do the most about it. Local governments have an advantage over national governments in that they have not only more familiarity with the local constituents, but more flexibility in providing a solution. They are less bureaucratic, and more likely to respond a timely manner with a tailor-made solution.

And so, for those of us who care about environmental politics, November 4th means choosing not only a national environmental leader, but local environmental leaders as well. In some states, the choice may not seem simple.

Take my home state of Maine, for instance. The choice between the incumbent (R) Susan Collins and (D) Tom Allen, a five-term congressmen, appears, at first, to be a difficult one. Both Collins and Allen have served their country with distinction.

Moreover, their environmental records appear to be remarkably similar. In 2007, both Tom Allen and Susan Collins received a 100% record from the League of Conservation Voters. Looking at their lifetime score clarifies the choice a bit. Allen has a lifetime score of 93%. Collins's lifetime record is significantly lower at 68%.

In this instance, a consideration of the candidate's party is helpful. And it is here that, for those Mainers who care about the environment, the choice becomes clear.

Over the 20th century, Republicans have based their platform on the promotion of economic growth, often at the expense of national environmental integrity. This has created a Republican legacy that favors production over protection, often regardless of the cost.

The Bush policy of the last four years has been the most extreme translation of this doctrine. The President has gutted environmental law, only regretfully acknowledged the reality of climate change, and mined natural resources with little regard for stewardship. Many agree that President Bush has the worst environmental record of any modern President, bar none.

But what, you say, does this have to with Maine's election? What to do with Susan Collins?

It's important to recall that in environmental politics, all politics are global, not local. With air pollution blowing across national boundaries, climate policy is not limited by traditional geographic boundaries. American environmental policy directly impacts the rest of the world with its disproportionate carbon emissions, and influences the rest of the world with its example.

And so, let me offer an analogue. It was the case that in the 2000 election, voting for a moderate Republican was tantamount to enabling a radical religious right. In this election, voting for a moderate Republican will be tantamount to enabling a radical environmental right that misconstrues energy policy and denies the fundamental science of climate change.

Consider that while McCain has worked his crowds into chants of "Drill, Baby, Drill!", his running mate and so-called energy expert questions the role of human activity in climate change. For those who care, the call for drilling will come at the long-term expense of our shorelines, with no short-term reduction in energy prices. Furthermore, humans are unquestionably contributing to climate change. It's not about belief; it's about empirical evidence.

And so, if you care about environmental politics, vote for Tom Allen. His lifetime environmental record far exceeds that of Collins. But the same is true across the country. The Democratic party is the party that promises to match environmental renewable with economic renewable through an investment in green jobs, green tech and green policy. It is a generational challenge, and a great opportunity.

We can't afford eight more years of Republican failures. We need Democrats locally, as much as we need them nationally. Let us not forget that on November 4th.