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  January/February 2003 Features:
'Aren't We the Lucky Ones?'
Becoming a Player
The Energy Bill that Wasn't
Unmasking Pretenders
We Know How
We the People
Higmans Awarded for Outstanding Philanthropy
Ten Reasons Things Aren't as Bad as They Seem
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The Planet
We Know How

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The sky is not falling. Support for environmental protections remains strong.

By John Byrne Barry

Bush Has the Congress, Sierra Club Has the People:

Ken Midkiff, director of the Clean Water Campaign, and Betsy Bennett, Cumberland (Kentucky) Chapter conservation shair, are a happy antibiotic-free pig and chicken at the Old MacDonald Conference in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Natalie Foster, voter education organizer, inspires a crowd during a morning rally in Altanta, Georgia.

Sierra Club leader Mike Rentz in costume - gave a talk about forest restoration at a fair in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Althea Finch-Brand, age three, is a convincing clean-water advocate at a Cincinnati Earth Day rally.

"If Florida can clean up its coal-fired power plants, why can't Georgia?" So asked Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope at a recent national planning meeting in Airlie, Virginia. "Most power plants are clean. Why not all of them?"

Pope's message was simple: Despite the bleak political landscape, we've got to raise the bar.

We know how to break our dependence on foreign oil and slow the course of global warming. Automakers have known for years how to make cars go farther on a gallon of gas, which is the single biggest step to cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

We know how to clean up dirty power plants and how to build much cleaner new ones, thereby reducing the pollution and asthma that plague many communities.

We know how to reduce the risk to communities from wildfires by thinning forest brush and small trees near settled areas, not by logging in remote wild forests, which is what the Bush administration's fire policy advocates.

Yes, the Bush administration seems to attack another environmental law almost every week. Yes, the Bush administration wants to weaken the Clean Air Act by allowing old heavily polluting power plants to expand without implementing pollution-fighting technologies.

Yes, the Bush administration seeks to undermine the National Forest Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Water Act.

Yes, leaders of the 108th Congress have set their sights on drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But the sky is not falling.

The 2002 election was not a mandate to pollute our air and water and cut down our national forests. Americans did not say they want to breathe more polluted air. Americans didn't say they want more animal feces in their drinking water.

The president is popular, but his environmental policies are not. A New York Times/CBS News poll (November 29, 2002) found that by a two-to-one margin, Americans say that protecting the environment is more important than producing energy. Fifty-five percent say they disapprove of White House efforts to drill for oil in the Arctic Refuge.

The Sierra Club's message was not repudiated in the election, it got trumped. And just barely. According to elections analyst Charlie Cook, "A swing of 94,000 votes out of 75,723,756 cast nationally would have resulted in the Democrats capturing control of the House and retaining a majority in the Senate on November 5. If that had occurred, obituaries would have been written-inevitably and prematurely-about the presidency of George W. Bush."

When voters had a chance to support environmental ballot initiatives, they did so, approving 79 of 99 state and local measures to preserve wildlife habitat and open space, and authorizing $2.6 billion for land acquisition.

Club President Jennifer Ferenstein was also at the planning session in Virginia. "We have to engage and enrage the American people," she said. "Cleaning up 70 percent of the air is not acceptable. Manufacturing cars that get nine miles to the gallon is not acceptable. We want more than this. We deserve more than this. But we have to fight for it."

It will not be an easy fight. The American people may support the Sierra Club's position on protecting the environment, but unless they stand up for it, the oil and auto and timber industries and their ilk will continue to set and dominate the agenda. The Sierra Club's tall order is to mobilize the citizenry and encourage Americans to demand the environmental protections they support. We may know how to clean up power plants, but unless we counter the financial power of the coal and utility industries with people power, the dirty power plants will keep on polluting.

The Planet is a cheerleader, so it's our job to look at the bright side of things. That's easy on the one hand. The Sierra Club has a great team-our volunteers and staff are just as dedicated and arguably more focused than ever. But we can't underestimate our opponents, who are not only powerful, but ruthless and determined.

In this year-in-review/year-in-preview issue of The Planet, we're not going to dwell on the losses of 2002 or torture ourselves with potential scenarios of environmental disasters to come. Acknowledge them, yes, but not wallow in them. Despite some egregious losses at the federal level, like the Senate's rejection of an increase in fuel-economy standards, the Club achieved many victories, large and small, in 2002, from passing the nation's toughest motor vehicle emissions standards in California to passing a clean-power-plant bill in Connecticut. We celebrate those and dozens more victories on pages 6 and 7. On page 12, we share 10 reasons things aren't as bad as they might seem to be. On pages 4 and 5, we review the Club's national priority campaigns' activities in 2002 and preview what's to come.

Undoubtedly, we will have to dig in and mount a spirited defense in 2003 and beyond. But we know how to do that too.

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