Earth '06 An Election Guide

(Because the planet really is in the balance)

New York GOP congressman and longtime eco-warrior Sherwood Boehlert talks with Plenty about his impending exit from Washington, An Inconvenient Truth, and why Republicans don’t care about the environment

By Richard Bradley

Over 24 years in Congress, you’ve become perhaps the best-known green Republican. What made you an environmentalist?
When I was elected county representative back in 1979, there was one guy who had been the chairman of the board of legislators, John Plumley. John was a great outdoorsman—loved to fish, loved to hunt. And one day he was saying to me, “The Adirondacks are just beautiful,” and I said, “I know, I’ve loved them since I was a kid.” And he said, “But there are hundreds of lakes up there where fish can’t live. There’s this thing called acid rain….” So when I ran for office for the first time, one of the planks in my platform was to do something about acid rain.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?
The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which were signed into law by George Herbert Walker Bush in November 1990, and launched the nation’s war on acid rain. That was my addition to the Clean Air Act. The second thing I’m most proud of is the coalition of Republicans who are dealing constructively with the environment. I’m privileged to be acknowledged as the Republican point person on the environment, but I’m hardly alone. You look over the past 20 years in Congress and you will see Republicans made the difference time after time.

Really? A lot of people would find that hard to believe.
Republicans are a majority in the House, but by a slight margin. So if you have a hardy band of 25 or so moderates, they have to be dealt with. Last year, we were able to do a lot of things. We were able to get ANWR [oil drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge] out of the budget last year, despite the fact that there’s a clear majority in the House that wants to drill away. Our successes have been defensive in nature, but I consider it a great success if you prevent something from happening that would do great damage to the environment.

Now I will acknowledge that most people would say more in the Democratic Party are friendly to the environment than in the Republican Party. But that doesn’t mean it’s the exclusive domain of the Democratic Party.

The GOP has a bad rep when it comes to the environment, but green Republicans insist that the GOP is the original party of conservation.
Theodore Roosevelt—a Republican—was the first truly great environmentalist. Do you know how the Environmental Protection Agency came about? Because Richard Nixon created it. Republicans are prominent in environmental history. People like [former New York governor] Nelson Rockefeller—I can remember Rocky campaigning for reelection with these colorful posters that said, “If fish could vote, they’d vote for Rocky.”

But now green Republicans are almost extinct. What happened?
When we poll [in Congress], we ask the open-ended question, “What concerns you most?” Invariably, the environment is way, way down the list of most frequently mentioned topics. It’s the war on terrorism or the state of the economy or health care. And that’s what we concentrate on.

But that doesn’t explain why the party is so hostile to environmentalism.
Let’s take a hot topic: global warming. I point out that even President Bush has acknowledged that global climate change is for real, and that man has contributed significantly to it, and we must do something about it. So we’re making progress. It’s the story of the tortoise and the hare.

What do you make of Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth?
The problem with An Inconvenient Truth is that the science is sound and the story is well-told, but a lot of people will be turned off immediately because it’s a movie featuring Al Gore. If you dislike Al Gore, you’re going to question the movie. Which is unfortunate. I applaud him for what he’s done: raised the public consciousness about the subject.

Whether it’s the scientific community, the American public, or leaders overseas, no one seems to doubt the existence of global warming anymore— except Republicans on Capitol Hill.
This is a clear example of an instance where the public is ahead of the legislative bodies that represent it.

It sounds like it takes a lot of patience to be an environmentalist Republican.
It takes a lot of patience to be a legislator, and some people are just offended by the proposition that it takes awhile to get something done in a national legislature. There are always simple answers to complex questions, and that’s just wrong.

Perhaps the most anti-environmental member of the House’s GOP is
California’s Richard Pombo, who once suggested that we should sell off national parks to make up for revenue lost by not drilling in ANWR. Tell the truth— would it break your heart if Pombo lost his reelection campaign?
It would break my heart if any Republican lost a race because I want to see the Republicans retain the majority. Do I think the Republican approach to environmentalism is better than the Democratic one? That’s another question. But maintaining the majority is more important than any individual member of that majority.

What sense do you get of President Bush’s feelings about the environment?
People often ask me, “How do you get along with the President on environmental issues?” I say that every time I talk to the President one-onone, I feel good after the conversation. It’s his staff that screws it up. He is surrounded by people who do not place the environment high on their agenda.

Such as his vice president?
Everybody working for the executive branch is a staff member of the president.

The environment needs you. Why are you leaving?
I’d rather go out when people want me to stay than stay when they want me to leave.

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Issue 25

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