Can environmentalists be swing voters?

A campaign to limit Americas contribution to climate change will draw a wide spectrum of voters.

In his State of the Union address President George W. Bush grabbed headlines by stating that the United States was ìaddicted to oil.” The president correctly identified our addiction to oil as a threat to national security, but he missed the other reason we need to cut back on oil consumption ó global climate change. Unless Democrats speak up and make the connection between the need to kill our addiction for the sake of national security and the environment, they run the risk of losing a block of loyal voters.

The issue of climate change is ripe for Republicans to pick ó and this is not a far-fetched idea. In the past week, 86 evangelical Christian leaders have come out to fight global climate change. More and more of the voters they represent have allied themselves with environmental groups calling for Americans to be better stewards of the environment. Since the Kyoto Protocol has come into effect, businesses (especially trans-national businesses) have come to realize carbon regulation is around the corner in the United States. Initiatives to curb carbon emissions already are moving forward at the state level. These businesses know it will happen sooner or later, and would prefer to ìget on with it” and reduce the costs associated with trying to do business in an uncertain regulatory environment. If Republicans are the first party to connect the dots between oil addiction and the environment, there will be one less reason for environmental voters to stick with Democratic candidates.

But Democrats have not missed the boat yet. Historically, environmentally conscious voters have been firmly rooted in the Democratic Party. These voters have been asking their politicians to campaign on climate change for years. By making oil and carbon reduction an election issue, Democrats can strengthen their base, pull votes from Republicans and hold Bush to his promise.

To take the lead, Democratic candidates will have to promise to work more effectively with Republicans like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and make things happen. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., already has. Leaders of the Democratic Party need to communicate their long held belief that proactive climate policy is good environmental policy, good economic policy and good for all Americans. This would help the opposition party in fighting an obstructionist, messageless image.

But this bipartisan approach could just as easily come from Republicans eager to differentiate themselves from the president on the campaign trail. It would be a welcome subject change. Environmental stewardship hardly can come in the same breath as Washington corruption.

Skeptics like Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., will argue that climate change is a hoax or suggest it will put a drag on the economy. Others will say global climate change does not interest voters. All these arguments are wrong. The debate on the existence of climate change is over. It exists and is happening. The overwhelming evidence indicates that carbon released by humans into the atmosphere is changing the Earthís climate. This carbon is the direct result of burning fossil fuels, including oil. Additionally, the economy already is suffering because we have not taken action on climate change. Private-sector renewable energy investment is growing in Europe and not in the United States. Even with the presidentís proposal to add government money to research and development, the United States will not see any new private dollars until the government requires companies to implement new technologies. Finally, voters are, and will continue to be, concerned about environmental quality for our sake and for the sake of future generations.

With less than eight months to go until the midterm elections, Democrats are feeling weak and voiceless. Environmentally conscious voters are not only concerned that Americaís addiction to oil is dangerous for the economy in the short run, but that changes in the Earthís climate also will be detrimental to the American economy and our well-being in the long run. Without strengthening their voice on the relationship between oil, security and climate change, Democrats might feel even more weak and voiceless come November. A campaign to limit Americaís contribution to climate change is an issue that will draw voters from across the political spectrum, now more than ever. The question is, Who will take the first step and make environmental voters their voters.

Charles Hernick is a University alumnus. Please send comments to [email protected]