Democrats on the Environment

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, July 26, 2004)


There’s no question John Kerry is more likely than George Bush to do something –anything!–about global warming. But conservatives are noting how little his platform mentions the issue.

A phrase conspicuously absent from the Democratic platform drafted for this week’s convention is “global warming.” Nor does the document specifically call for the U.S. to ratify the Kyoto Protocol or adhere to its proposed emission reductions.

That’s a noticeable change from 2000, when concerns about climate change dominated the platform’s section on the environment:

“We must dramatically reduce climate-disrupting and health-threatening pollution in this country, while making sure that all nations of the world participate in this effort. Environmental standards should be raised throughout the world in order to preserve the Earth and to prevent a destructive race to the bottom wherein countries compete for production and jobs based on who can do the least to protect the environment. There will be no new bureaucracies, no new agencies, no new organizations. But there will be action and there will be progress. The Earth truly is in the balance – and we are the guardians of that harmony.

“Eight of the ten hottest years ever recorded have occurred during the past ten years. Scientists predict a daunting range of likely effects from global warming. Much of Florida and Louisiana submerged underwater. More record floods, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires. Diseases and pests spreading to new areas. Crop failures and famines. Melting glaciers, stronger storms, and rising seas. These are not Biblical plagues. They are the predicted result of human actions. They can be prevented only with a new set of human actions – big choices and new thinking.”

With the Democrats emphasizing party unity, conservatives like William Safire see the relative lack of specifics on the environment as a potential wedge to divide the left:

“Unaccountably, the only Democratic group left out in the cold … is the tree-hugging set. Can you imagine a Democratic platform document without a single mention of global warming?

“I’m told that there was quite a struggle over that litmus-test phrase, but the smokestack set won out. That hands Ralph Nader an opening to exploit here in Boston. He will surely find the pragma-greens angry at him for being the skunk at the garden party and will use global warming to embarrass them, which is precisely what he needs to stir up a modicum of news-making controversy in this frozen sea of tranquillity.”

Christopher Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s anti-environmental offshoot, the Cooler Heads Coalition, joined in, arguing in a UPI column that the two parties don’t differ greatly in their view on the environment:

“With the Democrats in retreat on the issue, as can be seen by the aforementioned dropping of Kyoto from the party platform, it should be clear to all concerned that any purported differences simply do not exist beyond rhetoric. Now that the Democrats have quietly abandoned the signature issue of their last candidate for president, it should stand as verification that the Republicans and Democrats do not differ on ratification of Kyoto as a matter of policy. The have both put it on the back burner.”

Of course, it’s ridiculous to suggest that George Bush, with unquestionably the worst environmental record in U.S. history, has no differences on the subject with Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush. Or with John Kerry, who has an extremely strong record on conservation. As Sen. Hillary Clinton told the Massachusetts Sunday Telegraph, Bush’s track record has already galvanized green voters in support of Kerry:

“Because of the cutbacks and the cavalier attitude of the Bush administration, in general there is a much greater awareness of how important environmental issues are. This is an issue not just for Democrats but it is also important to independents and Republicans who care about the environment.

“This administration is hostile to environmental protection. It has been brazen in its disregard for the environment on many different occasions. The balance that we tried to achieve between protecting the environment and growing the economy … has been superseded by their very one-sided, unbalanced view of the environment.”

True, the 2004 Democratic platform doesn’t expressly mention “global warming” or “Kyoto.” But the document is far shorter than its predecessor, and much of it, naturally enough, is given over to war and terrorism (got a problem with that, conservatives?).

But despite the short length of its environmental section and its sometimes tentative language, the platform does say “climate change is a major international challenge that requires global leadership from the United States, not abdication.” It also advocates a number of clearly anti-Bush stances like cleaner air and water, restoring a “polluter pays” approach and protecting public lands from commercial interests.

Conservatives might hope the platform’s relative lack of focus on the environment damages the Democrats’ credibility with greens. But considering the alternative, such voters have nothing to gain by leaving Kerry’s camp.

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