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On the Issues: Protecting the planet

Candidates aren't talking much about the enviroment, but their positions are surprisingly similar

POSTED: December 21, 2008 5:00 a.m.
The Associated Press/

A giant glacier is seen making its way to the waters of Croaker Bay on Devon Island in Northern Canada. John McCain and Barack Obama agree that human activity is a cause of global warming, and both support a system to control emissions of greenhouse gases.

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As the seemingly endless presidential campaign season winds down, attention has focused on bread-and-butter issues: the economy, jobs, taxes, health care.

No one is uttering a word about clean air, water, land conservation, global warming, endangered species. But when a new president takes office in January, his involvement will be pivotal in shaping the nation's environmental policies.

The two major presidential candidates, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, haven't been discussing environmental issues on the campaign trail recently, but they've outlined their proposals on their campaign Web sites.

And in some cases, their views are surprisingly similar. Both agree that human activity is the main cause of global warming, and they both advocate a "cap and trade" system to control emissions of greenhouse gases.

McCain and Obama agree on the need to rehabilitate our crumbling national parks, to preserve wildlife habitat, and to protect wetlands.

But Obama calls for a much tougher regulatory approach, seeking new federal standards on energy efficiency for buildings and vehicles, and tighter controls on air and water pollution.

Obama also wants to expand environmental policy beyond America's borders. He proposes to create a "global energy forum," working with the world's largest energy-consuming nations to hammer out a new international agreement on climate change.

"The rest of the world is waiting on us," said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for several Georgia environmental groups.

Herring notes that while the United States has steadfastly refused to sign a treaty on climate change, other countries have been developing new technologies to address the problem. That gives them an advantage in the emerging field of "green" industry.

If the U.S. finally gets on the bandwagon, Herring said, "we can implement all the things we should have already done."

Buzz Williams, director of the Chattooga Conservancy in Rabun County, called global warming "the most important issue, aside from the economy, that I can think of."

On a regional level, Williams wants the new president to permanently protect 58 million acres of inventoried roadless areas in our national forests, including about 63,000 acres in north Georgia's Chattahoochee National Forest.

These areas were identified during the Clinton administration, and the U.S. Forest Service adopted a rule in 2001 to protect these sites. But the Bush administration has fought against carrying out the rule, and the case has bounced in and out of federal courts for seven years. Bush wants to let state governments decide how the roadless areas should be managed.

"McCain is in there with Bush. He thinks it should be a local decision," Williams said. "I believe it's a national issue. You can't have different policies in every state. Ecosystems and watersheds need to have one management plan that's contiguous and consistent."
Williams also thinks it's inefficient to have a hodgepodge of federal agencies managing public lands.

"There's no reason to have both a Forest Service, which is under the U.S, Department of Agriculture, and a Bureau of Land Management, which is in the Interior Department," he said. "Plus we have the National Park Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In a time of slim budgets, maybe we could combine some of these agencies and save money."

But whichever agency is in charge, advocates say federal employees need the resources to carry out their missions.

"There's no money for enforcement, so the laws may as well not even be on the books," said Patty Durand, director of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club.

Herring said there's nothing wrong with the major environmental statutes - the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act - that were passed more than three decades ago.

But he said sometimes it seems as though these laws don't exist. "We just need to do what the law says. Just straight enforcement would be a huge step forward."

Sally Bethea, director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, agrees. "We need to invest in enforcing these laws," she said. "Not doing so would be penny-wise and pound-foolish."

Jill Johnson, political director of Georgia Conservation Voters, cites the Clean Air Act as an example. She thinks the law should be used as the basis for regulating greenhouse gases.

"The Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide was a pollutant but left it to the (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) to make the decisions, and the EPA has been stalling on that issue," she said.

If the EPA is stalling, it may be because roadblocks have been placed in the agency's path. Many people say that what bothers them most about the Bush administration's handling of the environment is not a specific issue, but rather a culture that puts politics and ideology ahead of science.

"There are multiple stories about scientific papers and testimony before Congress being edited to reflect the administration's point of view," said Johnson.

Durand goes further, calling the Bush administration's actions "criminal."

"They put lobbyists in charge of the very agencies they're supposed to be regulating," she said.

Bethea said because of this situation, Riverkeeper groups have compiled a list of priorities they'd like to see carried out in the new president's administration.

"First, we need to secure appointments of people with strong environmental credentials," she said. "What we've got to avoid are corporate appointments from industries that have a clear anti-regulatory or enforcement bias.

"Second, we'd like to see congressional hearings that could address current and past EPA and Interior Department complaints about improper political influence over decision making," Bethea said. "That includes the rewriting of scientific recommendations, and the disregard for sound science."

Reports from oversight agencies have found that the Bush administration repeatedly tried to remove from EPA documents any references to global warming.

Herring complains about an "anti-science mentality" that has inhibited the work of agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. "They've been poisoned by politics, just as the Justice Department has."

The Justice Department is currently under investigation for allegedly hiring and firing employees for political reasons.

Durand said all these political shenanigans are wasting valuable time that could be used to protect the environment.

"Our forests are disappearing, our fisheries are declining," she said. "We're spending down our environmental capital faster than it can regenerate."

But Bethea believes that regardless of who becomes the next president, the future of the environment is looking brighter.

"We have lost so much ground over the last eight years," she said. "But I'm feeling optimistic that things will change. We can go nowhere but up."




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