The environmental community has real reason to celebrate: a regime in Washington set on wrecking or reversing decades of hard-won progress on the environment has been replaced by a president who at least appears committed to a green agenda. Given the sad record of failure, obstructionism and outright hostility compiled by the EPA over the last eight years, the need to act on this new agenda is urgent. But during this transition, while rancor over foreign policy and fiscal issues has yet to dispel completely the aura of good feelings, perhaps the smartest thing we can do in the environmental community is to reach across the aisle to find common ground with like-minded citizens (regardless of party affiliation) who share our concern for the environment.
Along with vocal opposition to George W. Bush's environmental policies, many environmentalists disagreed with other of his administration's actions. But I wholeheartedly believe that viewing someone as an environmental ally should not be contingent on their subscribing to a particular set of positions on the Iraq War, gay marriage, taxes, or abortion.
Unfortunately, in recent years the environmental movement has too often been equated with the Democratic Party and its entire platform. This dilutes rather than strengthens our movement. It makes us a partisan appendage and precludes our appeal to the broadest possible spectrum of Americans. Democrats, Republicans, Independents--anyone who cares about the future of the planet and our children - should feel welcomed in the environmental movement.
I don't want to minimize the strong environmental records of many Democrats. They've won support among environmentalists the old-fashioned way: they earned it. But Republicans have many achievements they can be proud of too. In fact, it was President Theodore Roosevelt who brought land conservation to the national forefront. And President Richard Nixon helped enact numerous federal environmental laws, as well as created the EPA. (Yes, he also vetoed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act - which was then overridden by Congress 247-23 with the help of some prominent Republicans of the day.)
To this day, there are leading Republicans who have continued to honor their party's tradition of environmental activism. Senator Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) lost the 2006 election because of his party affiliation, but no one can deny his solid stance on environmental issues. He showed true grit, for example, by opposing President Bush's Clear Skies Initiative, which would have undermined the distinguished environmental legacy of his late father, Senator John Chafee's (R-RI). Representative Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) won regular praise from grassroots activists for his work in restoring Chesapeake Bay. And Governors Schwarzenegger (R-CA) and Crist (R-FL) have shown real leadership in promoting solutions to climate change.
Leaders within the Democratic Party are quick to point out that Democrats haven't co-opted the environmental movement; rather, Republicans abandoned it. In some respects, they're right. During President Bush's disastrous tenure, he consistently chose corporate cronyism over environmental protection, promoted loopholes and roll-backs as "innovative" solutions, and adopted the approach that if we can't meet certain standards, then let's lower our expectations.
The failure of the Bush administration, however, does not mean that Republican citizens have abandoned the environmental movement. Republicans from all walks of life, all across America, are fighting to save, protect and restore our environment. I see it all the time in the Waterkeeper movement: Republican Waterkeepers and their supporters are as deeply committed as Waterkeepers of other political stripes to creating a world in which clean air and clean water are the birthright of every child--and one in which the potential for global catastrophe inherent in our current environmental policies is confronted and solved.
Fiorello LaGuardia, a Republican considered by many to be one of the greatest mayors in the history of New York or any American city, famously remarked, "There's no Democratic or Republican way to pick up garbage." So too with the environment: There is not--nor will there ever be--an answer to our immense and complex environmental crisis that can be devised by one and only one political party. None of us has a monopoly on good ideas.
What matters is not what party you are in, but whether you're willing to join the fight to save our water and air. If you are, welcome aboard. We're glad to have you. A broad-based environmental movement made up of people concerned about issues rather than party purity is our best chance for positive change. I guarantee that when confronted by a broad coalition of Americans united in their determination to find pragmatic solutions to real problems, politicians will follow.
That coalition is already forming. Four out of five Americans want stronger environmental regulations or stricter enforcement of existing laws. The electorate is growing increasingly intolerant of candidates who espouse hatred toward the planet, regardless of tempting positions on other issues. We saw evidence of this in the ousting of Representative Richard Pombo (R-CA) in 2006. Why should there ever be another election where the environment loses?
The rapidly increasing gravity of the global environmental crisis demands that we act now. If we don't, no one will be immune to the consequences. Just as important, no one should be barred or discouraged from taking an active part because of their party affiliation (or lack of it). We're all in this boat together. Our survival will depend largely on our willingness to do what is best for the environment that sustains us all and on our ability to put aside our differences. There's no Democratic or Republican way to save our planet.