Environmental issues have barely registered a blip on political radar screens this campaign season. Sure, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had a notable bickering match about drilling on public lands in their town hall debate. But it devolved into a game of one-upmanship as to who would drill more. Yes, Obama continues to promote clean energy when he talks about his energy strategy and the economies of the future. But rarely does he mention that political boogey man: climate change. As the pundits say, it really is the economy, stupid.
Of course, the lack of real discourse about our environmental problems -- and the merits of liberal versus conservative solutions to them -- doesn't mean the 2012 elections will be inconsequential for air and water, birds and bees, not to mention our own health and well-being. Far from it.
The nail biter of a U.S. Senate race being fought between Republican Denny Rehberg and Democrat Jon Tester in Montana, for instance, could very well determine just how hostile Congress is to forward progress on environmental policy. Republican Senator Jim Inhofe from Oklahoma visited Montana this week to campaign with Rehberg. He brought this message: A vote for Rehberg could help Republicans take hold of both the House and Senate, and when that happens, we won't have so much trouble rolling back environmental regulations.
Specifically, Inhofe railed in Montana against controls on mercury and other toxic gases spouted from coal-fired power plants. Tester voted against an Inhofe-sponsored bill this summer to whack new limits on mercury pollution from coal plants, and Rehberg has labeled him a job killer for it. (At least one coal plant in Montana says it will close to avoid retrofitting to control its pollution.) Nevermind that the whole point of the limits is to reduce premature deaths and asthma among kids. As our contributing editor Judith Lewis Mernit wrote so eloquently earlier this year, "Unfortunately, in politics, death seems to be the accepted consequence of protecting industry's bottom line."
Environmentalists are working hard for Democrats in a few key Senate races, including the one in Montana, in order to maintain a firewall against bills coming out of what's been called the most anti-environmental U.S. House in history (we'll have more on the spending strategies of environmental super PACs next week). But, as Brendon Cechovic, executive director of Washington Conservation Voters, told me recently: "Even if we re-elect the President, and hold on to the U.S. Senate, there's still not a lot of prospect for forward progress in Congress."
Yet that doesn't mean environmentalists have been reduced to playing defense in perpetuity. "We believe in the power of the states to drive progress," says Cechovic. That's why his group, with a big financial assist from the national League of Conservation Voters, is going to bat for Jay Inslee, the Democratic candidate for governor in Washington, who is considered one of the greenest candidates running for any office anywhere in the country. Inslee is the first gubernatorial candidate to earn an endorsement from the national League in about 30 years, an indication says Cechovic, that the race is "a big priority for the national environmental community."
Inslee, a former congressman, is a tireless clean energy advocate -- it's the issue he built his political identity around -- and growing clean energy is central to his plan to correct Washington's economic course. He's running against the state's attorney general, Rob McKenna, who is to the left of his party on environmental issues -- he believes climate change is real, and in the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases, for instance. This -- along with the fact that Washington is home to many fiscal conservatives but social liberals and has a libertarian streak -- helps explain why he's running neck-and-neck with Inslee in a state that seems to go consistently blue in statewide contests. (Obama has Washington tied up, and so does Sen. Maria Cantwell, D, who's up for re-election this year.) "Everyone is an environmentalist (in Washington)," says pollster Stuart Elway. "So the Republican candidates are more moderate," on both the environment and issues like abortion (McKenna is also pro-choice). But this also means that environmental issues don't tend to play prominent roles in campaigns, he says. "(They) are largely taken for granted in the Pacific Northwest. Unless there is a focusing issue, like shoreline management, it doesn't rise to the level of political debate."
In Elway's estimation, that's been the case in the 2012 governor's race. "Jay Inslee is a pretty strong environmentalist -- it's part of his whole package," he says. "But in terms of specific issues in his campaign, it hasn't been much of a factor." Instead, he says, "the economy dominates, and education is right behind it."
Still, even if the environment isn't at the forefront of the debate between the candidates, environmental policy would inevitably be more central to an Inslee administration than a McKenna administration. "A Jay Inslee in the governor's mansion is our best shot at moving forward," says Cechovic of Washington Conservation Voters. His group's political action committee will spend at least $500,000 to help elect Inslee this year, he says. "Four years ago we spent $50,000 in the governor’s raise. It’s a reflection of how pumped the environmental community is about the race."
Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.
Photo: Democrat Jay Inslee, left, and Republican Rob McKenna, right, debate in the lead up to the Washington gubernatorial election. Courtesy flickr user JacobMetcalf.