Turning the Page
After making the rounds at Democratic parties in swank Washington hotels on November 4, one gaggle of environmentalists spontaneously trooped down to the White House and ended up dancing in the streets amid an ecstatic crowd of thousands until well after midnight. That celebratory evening marked the start of what many environmentalists nationwide hope will be a drastic U-turn in government policies on issues ranging from habitat protection to greenhouse-gas restrictions.
Within weeks of the election, a coalition of environmental groups presented a report to President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team, outlining specific steps the new administration should take to protect the nation’s air, water, land, plants, and animals, and to undo eight years of mostly harmful regulations and legislation. With public funding scarce and the stock market in free fall, this campaign may prove as long and difficult as the 2008 election races. But leading environmentalists are optimistic. “The economy is the biggest problem, and the main way to fix it is to create a new energy future,” says League of Conservation Voters (LCV) president Gene Karpinski, who is confident that Obama understands that global change, energy policy, and economic health are inextricably linked.
Obama pledged during the campaign to tackle global warming by instituting a cap-and-trade program designed to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. He also promised that a million new hybrid cars would hit the road by 2015 and that renewable sources would account for 10 percent of energy production by 2012. John Podesta, co-chief of Obama’s transition team (which includes Carol Browner, ex-chief of the Environmental Protection Agency and Audubon’s outgoing board chair), sought to reassure conservationists just days after the election that the economy won’t torpedo those plans completely. Podesta also sent an experienced and eco-conscious team, including environmental lobbyist and former EPA deputy director Robert Sussman, to review the EPA.
Friendlier faces will also dominate Pennsylvania Avenue’s other end. “Not only is there a president who is more pro-environment, there are House and Senate lawmakers who actually campaigned on these issues,” adds Karpinski. Two-thirds of the Dirty Dozen—congressional candidates who consistently vote against environmental issues like clean energy and conservation—failed to win the support of voters. Gone, for instance, is North Carolina Republican Senator Elizabeth Dole, a friend of oil and gas interests. Tom Udall, son of the former Interior Secretary and nephew of famed environmentalist Mo Udall, won a hotly contested New Mexico race to replace powerful Republican Senator Pete Domenici. His cousin Mark Udall, who also embraces the family conservation ethic, took a Colorado Senate seat. Across the aisle, Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins, whom the LCV backed over her Democratic opponent, was reelected.
But the jockeying for key committee posts among congressional Democrats is already proving contentious. For example, Representative John Dingle (D-MI), the longtime chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee and a staunch defender of Detroit, lost his chairmanship to Henry Waxman (D-CA) by a 137–122 caucus vote in November. And Obama’s support for corn ethanol and “clean coal” is likely to rub some Democrats on Capitol Hill the wrong way.
What’s clear is that voters aren’t willing to sacrifice the environment for potential short-term gas savings. “This election replaces ‘drill, baby, drill’ with a new model of efficient and renewable energy,” says Betsy Loyless, Audubon’s senior vice president for policy. The challenge now is whether those swept into office in this decisive election can ensure that the three E’s—environment, energy, and the economy—work together in harmony.—Andrew Lawler
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