Blue + red = the new shade of green

A greener Congress has the opportunity to make meaningful global warming legislation.

Holly Lahd

The new 110th Congress turned a new leaf this month with the first Democratic control of both houses in 12 years. A greener leaf, it turns out. And environmentalists around the country let out a cautious cheer.

After years of tiring efforts to prevent damaging legislation, environmentalists are on the offensive. New representatives and leaders are now in place behind a solidly green platform. Is this green shift simply a byproduct of voters’ dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq? Or can a green platform in its own right propel a candidate to office? And either way, will this translate into new environmental laws? I will optimistically say yes.

Being green quit being extreme in 2006. With corporations such as Wal-Mart unveiling their new environmental and energy initiatives and Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” reaching people across the country, it’s no wonder that politicians picked up on this. From Main Street to Wall Street, people are thinking of how to fit green ideas into their lives. Grabbing on to the buzz words of energy independence, national security, stimulating rural economies and American know-how, speech writers and strategists packaged these themes with energy policy to shape the new green movement.

A poster child of this new green movement is Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), a freshman Congressman from California’s 11th District. In a district that leans Republican, this wind energy engineer and consultant defeated the incumbent, Richard Pombo, by a healthy margin of six percentage points. Along with a growing number of corruption allegations, Rep. Pombo is best known in environmental and conservation circles for his repeated attempts to rollback the Endangered Species Act.

McNerney outlined his position on a variety of issues in his campaign, but his experience and commitment to renewable energy really gave him a strong platform to win on.

The change in power couldn’t be more evident than in the chairmanship of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee. The former chair of the Committee, Sen. James Inhofe, has publicly called global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” He is now replaced in that position by the Toyota Prius-driving Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Chairwoman Boxer has outlined that one of her first orders of business is to hold hearings on global warming.

We’ve heard talk of achieving energy independence before, with little action. But already in this session bills have been introduced that signal a real commitment.

The Democrats have turned this green platform into an agenda, making a bill to end some subsidies to big oil companies in favor of investing in renewable energy as part of their 100-hour legislation agenda. In both houses of Congress, representatives are planning committee hearings specifically on climate change legislation.

Both parties and ambitious representatives are fighting to get their name on these popular pieces of legislation. Global warming has brought together an odd trio of Presidential-hopeful Senators – Lieberman, McCain, and Obama – as co-sponsors of a climate change bill that would reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions two-thirds by mid-century.

Remember ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? After years of close votes to open the area to oil drilling, a bill to permanently protect ANWR as a wilderness area is co-sponsored by Minnesota’s own Rep. Ramstad (R-Minn.).

And even Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a staunch ANWR pro-drilling advocate, is surprising environmentalists with his proposal to increase the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard, the average gas mileage of passenger vehicles, to 40 miles per gallon by 2017.

It’s more than a stretch to say that the environment won the election for the Democrats. But voters are making the connection between our oil dependency and national security, rural economies, global warming, and even the national deficit. Voters, along with a growing number of leaders in the business community, are seeing the interconnectedness between their interests and these issues. Who knows if the intrinsic value of the environment could ever make it to the first tier of issues for voters in its own right? But I contend it’s a null point if the right policies are pursued anyway.

Why am I optimistic that this time it will be different for the environment? Because, to use a line from the political sphere, renewable energy advocates have a “big tent.” National security hawks, peace advocates, environmentalists, investors and policy wonks want new renewable energy and climate legislation for different reasons, but are united on this goal.

Any politician who doesn’t get in the tent is going to find him or herself without a tent and without an office.

The devil may be in the details of these bills, but after years of environmental setbacks under Republican control, a new majority of legislators who understands the need for environmental change now are in leadership. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed that this session things are accomplished.

Holly Lahd welcomes comments at [email protected]