Sierra Club: The Planet--1996
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The Planet
Environment: New Third Rail of American Politics

by Carl Pope
Sierra Club Executive Director

On the morning after Election Day, Stan Greenberg, Clinton's former pollster, greeted me before a joint press event. "Well," he said, "they're not going after you again soon."

Only hours earlier, as the returns were coming in, asked what Republicans in the new Congress would do differently, Arizona Sen. John McCain said without hesitation, "We're going to be more sensitive on the environment."

McCain's comment shows that Greenberg is right. But it doesn't take a pollster to see what was, in the end, the most important outcome of the Sierra Club's 1995-96 campaign to defend the environment. Public sentiment for environmental protection -- strong and steady for a decade -- has now been wired to the political process in a way that has electrified the environment as the new third rail of American politics.

Two statistics demonstrate this most clearly. On Election Day, only 18 Republican House incumbents were defeated. And 14 of them were in races where the Sierra Club made a major investment to inform voters that their representative had voted against environmental protection during the 104th Congress. In seven of nine congressional districts polled on election eve by the Club and the League of Conservation Voters, the environment outranked Social Security/Medicare as a reason for voting against an incumbent who had failed to support both.

But this new, energized connection rests on the foundation of an informed, engaged public -- a foundation that requires continuous investment, encouragement and conversation between environmental activists and the American people. Our approach to the last two years -- go out into our communities and tell our stories, over and over again -- must be continued, sharpened, intensified. Our audience is not Bill Clinton, or Trent Lott, or even Newt Gingrich. It is our neighbors.

At the same time, the fundamental flaws in our political process -- the role of campaign contributions, public cynicism about government and politics, and the excessive role of lobbyists and insiders in the political process -- have not gone away. Corporate interests invested close to $2 billion to influence the 1996 elections.

One of the keys to the success of the Sierra Club's educational efforts over the past two years was our ability to get our members and other environmentalists actively involved in their communities. The key to future success will be to further empower these activists -- with organizing skills, timely information and the resources and means to work together with other volunteers, staff and their community. We need to grow healthy Sierra Club chapters and groups.

We also need to reinforce our messages by telling and retelling stories that illustrate the link between politics, public policy, and places and values Americans hold dear. Rep. Jim Longley (R) lost in Maine. Why? Because for 18 months the Sierra Club talked to local citizens, civic groups and the press about the pride most Maine residents take in the cleanup of the Kennebec River over the past 20 years, and contrasted that with efforts by Longley and the 104th Congress to weaken the Clean Water Act that made the river's recovery possible.

Broadening our base is another critical ingredient. For the past two years the Sierra Club has reached out to three targeted constituencies: young voters -- informed, sympathetic, but disconnected; women 25 to 40 years-old -- looking for involvement with issues that affect families and children; and hunters and anglers -- the original conservationists, now estranged by 20 years of careful political work by right-wing ideologues in the National Rifle Association and its allies. We need to continue to reach out to these constituencies, and add new ones, such as rural Americans and progressive farmers.

In addition, we need to share information more broadly, rather than focusing it on inside players. There is a profound difference between a half-dozen Sierra Club leaders meeting with a member of Congress in Washington to talk about the Utah wilderness bill, and those same six showing up at a town meeting in the district to express their passion for the preservation of the state's redrock wilderness.

One is a power relationship between an elected official and the Sierra Club, in which the Club's key lever is detailed and specific knowledge of a place. The other is a power relationship between the official and his or her constituents, in which the key lever is the values of the people in the district. This public-values lever is stronger; we need to wield it.

We will need to rethink our strategy in the next two years. The new Con-gress is in a centrist, mainstream mood. The rules of the Senate will continue to stymie major legislative initiatives. This may mean that demanding strengthened enforcement of existing laws will work better than demanding stronger laws.

Americans are also seeking an end to confrontation. They prefer that environmental protection be advanced through collaborative as well as regulatory approaches -- particularly where private lands are involved. There has been a drumbeat of argument from the opposition that the Endangered Species Act and federal wetlands programs are all stick and no carrot. Our response: carrots mean money. Implementing incentive-based environmental protection requires financing such programs as the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Wetlands Reserve.

We must remind the American public that there continue to be powerful incentives for shortsighted or irresponsible behavior by private companies. Powerful corporate coalitions have already been built to undermine and weaken key environmental standards. We need to continue to shine the spotlight on these "bad actors," to encourage responsible firms to dissociate themselves from these efforts, and to hold politicians accountable when they become beholden to campaign contributions from these polluters.

It's a massive task. But it's certainly no tougher than what we've accomplished in the last two years. And we start from a far stronger base of public commitment and political respect -- thanks to your work.

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