The Environment: A Debate
What happens when you take two people with passionately opposing views, put them on a river in the middle of nowhere, and tell them to go at it? Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Christine Todd Whitman debate the issue that no one's talking about.
WITH ALL THE SHOUTING over military records, terrorism, and wartime leadership during this year’s presidential campaign, it’s easy to forget that there are issues besides defense. National security is obviously a major concern right now, but many domestic agendas—including health care, education, and one we’re especially fervent about, the environment—have gotten less attention than the fine print on a rental-car contract.
Robert F. Kennedy, JR. & Christine Todd Whitman
Robert F. Kennedy, JR. & Christine Todd WhitmanOutdoor Leadership School: Whitman and Kennedy square off at Shepp Ranch, on the Salmon River, July 19, 2004.
Robert F. Kennedy, JR.Kennedy hammered relentlessly on Bush
Christine Todd WhitmanWhitman emphasized using the carrot as well as the stick.
Christine Todd WhitmanCTW taking a break from debate on an OARS dory
Robert F. Kennedy, JR.RFK Jr. cooling off in the Salmon near camp on Lower Rhett Creek
Robert F. Kennedy, JR. & Christine Todd WhitmanWell played: Kennedy and Whitman wrapping it up at Shepp Ranch
Regardless of who wins in November, it’s time to put green issues back on the front burner. Over the past three and a half years, the Bush administration has, for better or worse, executed the most dramatic shift in environmental policy in nearly a quarter-century. The White House has radically reshaped the Clean Air Act, ramped up logging in national forests, opened potential wilderness lands to oil and gas drilling, and walked away from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global warming, which has been ratified by more than 100 countries. These changes affect the air we breathe, the water in our rivers, and the land on which we hike, ride, and climb.
So, this past summer, we invited Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Christine Todd Whitman, environmental advocates from opposing sides of the political aisle, to meet over a campfire in Idaho’s Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness for a no-holds-barred debate about the state of America’s natural resources. As chief prosecuting attorney for Riverkeeper and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Kennedy has emerged as the most strident green critic of the Bush administration. His new book, Crimes Against Nature (HarperCollins), is a comprehensive indictment of this White House, charging Bush with eviscerating the landscape to pay back his big industrial campaign contributors. After serving as governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001, Whitman became Bush’s first Environmental Protection Agency administrator and was the White House’s most visible environmental official until her resignation in May 2003. Many political observers have claimed that she was frustrated with the administration’s environmental policy, but Whitman has always maintained that she left for personal reasons. Though she defends Bush’s record, she’s also writing a book—It’s My Party Too, to be published by the Penguin Press early next year—that advocates a Republican return to more moderate values, including the party’s spirit of Teddy Roosevelt–style conservation.
For three days in July, Kennedy, Whitman, and their families joined Outside editors Hal Espen, Elizabeth Hightower, and Bruce Barcott, along with river guides from top western outfitter Outdoor Adventure River Specialists (OARS), for a float down Idaho’s Salmon River. Every evening, we led the two adversaries to a quiet spot along the riverbank, turned on the tape recorder, and invited them to sound off. The result was a frank, impassioned discussion. There were pointed fingers and raised voices, harsh accusations and angry rebuttals. And there were also—surprisingly—some major points of agreement.
Wilderness has a way of pushing the essentials to the foreground. Without aides, cell phones, or 24-hour cable news, public figures are forced to knock off the posturing and talk more like ordinary human beings. That, at least, was our hope. The Whitman-Kennedy wilderness summit is our contribution to this fateful political season—a shadow debate about how we use our land, air, and water.
OUTSIDE: On Election Day, how important will the environment be to voters?
WHITMAN: If you ask voters to name their top issues and don’t specifically mention the environment, it may not even make the list. It might be 20th. If you give them a specific list, the environment still barely makes the top ten. The war, the economy, and people’s jobs are going to be at the top.
WHITMAN: A lot of reasons. Everyone assumes they’re going to have clean air, clean water, and better protection. Other things become more important: making your payments, giving your kids the things you’d like to give them. There’s both a feeling of helplessness about the environment and a feeling that it isn’t all that bad—that there aren’t that many ozone-alert days anymore. People care about it, but they’re getting on with their daily lives. Also, it’s not the kind of thing newspapers want to write about, because there’s a feeling that this stuff is too complicated. And it is complicated.
In my office at the EPA, I kept two books on global warming side by side. One was Bjørn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist, and the other was Laboratory Earth, by Stephen Schneider. Both were written by Ph.D.’s with good credentials. Both of them worked with the same amount of data. Yet they came to opposite conclusions. No wonder people are confused!
KENNEDY: I have a different view of it. The polling data shows consistently that the American public—more than 75 percent of both Republicans and Democrats—cares deeply about the environment. They want stricter environmental laws, and they want them enforced. An overwhelming majority of people in this country want air, water, and wildlife protected. Only 7 percent think those laws ought to be weaker. If you get beyond the newspapers and the partisan politics, Americans share the same values.
People tend to have faith that government is generally taking care of the environment and that the disputes are over incremental fine-tuning at the margins. Very few people understand that fundamental rights and values are in jeopardy.
Republicans and Democrats alike are furious when they understand the magnitude of the Bush administration’s anti-environmental rollbacks. The problem is that the White House has masked its radical agenda with Orwellian rhetoric and stealth tactics that have left the public in the dark.
OUTSIDE: Christie, what’s the environmental argument for reelecting President Bush?
WHITMAN: Neither Bush nor Kerry is going to run on the environment. Bush will run on the economy, on education, on delivering on his promise to make drug benefits part of Medicare. On the environment, Bush will have his people out talking about the good things that this administration has done. The new diesel rule we put out last year will drastically reduce the air pollution from construction and farm equipment. The president is spending up to $250 million a year to clean up brownfields, those abandoned industrial sites blighting our cities. He’s kept his pledge of “no net loss” of wetlands and wants to move it to a net increase.
I’ll be one of those people out there talking about those gains. I’ll admit that there are some things that have happened that I’m not happy with; for example, I thought the administration could have gone further in regulating mountaintop mining. But I really object to the false perception, the distortion put out by environmental groups, that there hasn’t been anything good done in the past three years.
OUTSIDE: Bobby, what’s the case for John Kerry?
KENNEDY: John Kerry’s got a 96 percent approval rating by the League of Conservation Voters, which tracks the environmental voting record of members of Congress. By comparison, Al Gore’s lifetime rating was 73 percent. Kerry’s great on these issues. We’d be drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge [ANWR] if it weren’t for John Kerry. He’s the one who promised to filibuster against opening up the refuge; he’s the one who lined up the Senate votes against it. But this isn’t about Republican versus Democrat. This is about this president. There have been a lot of Republicans out there who are great environmentalists. But everywhere you look, the traditional values of the Republican Party—the ones that Christie’s father, former New Jersey Republican party chairman Webster Todd, stood for, and that she came into power standing for—have been eroded and attacked by this administration.
The Bush White House has the worst environmental record of any administration in our history. Anybody who doubts that should go to the Web site of the group I work for, the Natural Resources Defense Council, where we’ve tracked more than 430 major environmental rollbacks by the EPA and other agencies that oversee our environmental assets.
Five years ago, if you had asked the top 20 environmental leaders in the country, “What’s the gravest threat to the global environment?” they would have given you a range of answers: global warming, overpopulation, habitat destruction. Today, they’ll all give you one answer: George W. Bush.
This administration has simply stopped enforcing the law—or rewritten the laws to accommodate polluters. They’re letting corporate criminals steal our public lands, the air from our children’s lungs, the health of our infants by putting mercury in the water and particulates and ozone in the air. To me, that’s criminal—that those things could be stolen so that somebody can make a buck.
People need to understand that environmental crime is real crime with real victims. I have three children with asthma, including my son who’s with me on this trip. I watch him gasp for breath on bad-air days. One in four children in Harlem now has asthma. We know that asthma attacks are triggered primarily by ozone and particulates, substances coming largely from coal-burning power plants that have been discharging illegal pollutants for more than 15 years. Seventy-five of those offenders were being prosecuted by the EPA when the Bush administration came into office. But this is an industry—energy and utilities—that gave $48 million to the 2000 Republican election campaign. And one of the first things this administration did was drop those lawsuits.
WHITMAN: Oh, please. We did not stop enforcing the law. When I left last year, we had just recorded the largest single settlement in EPA history. Dominion Resources agreed to spend $1.2 billion to reduce air pollution at its power plants in Virginia and West Virginia. The problem was, it took 15 years to reach that settlement. And that’s the difficulty I have with relying purely on enforcement as a strategy to clean up the environment. Enforcement is important, but we shouldn’t judge the effectiveness of our policies by the number of fines and penalties we’re handing out. Is the air cleaner? Is the water purer? Is the land better protected? Are people living healthy lives? Those are the things that’ll tell you. And under this administration, you saw the environment get a lot cleaner—
KENNEDY: No. No. No. You didn’t see the environment get a lot cleaner. The Dominion case was filed by the Clinton administration. And what has happened here is unprecedented in our history—for a corporate criminal to contribute to a presidential campaign and then have cases dropped. Roughly 5,500 people die every year because of the substances coming from those plants.
WHITMAN: We did not stop enforcing the law.
KENNEDY: All you have to do is look at the people who work for the EPA. The three major heads for enforcement—Eric Schaeffer, Sylvia Lowrance, and Bruce Buckheit—resigned their posts, saying this administration was not serious about enforcing environmental law. For anyone to argue that this administration is seriously enforcing law is just a joke.
WHITMAN: The idea that we stopped enforcement is ridiculous. Enforcement has to be a part of it. We brought cases. Sylvia Lowrance retired. Eric Schaeffer had his job lined up way before he left. Bruce Buckheit was frustrated, no question about it. But at times we were all frustrated—these things don’t happen overnight. Many cases are years in the works.
We need to recognize that, while enforcement is important, we’re beginning to get an environmental ethic in this country now. People are expecting good environmental behavior from the major companies. Voluntary programs aren’t going to solve the problem by themselves. But we shouldn’t ignore what they’re doing.
KENNEDY: That’s like saying we can get bank robbers to stop robbing banks by figuring out why they rob the banks and then somehow persuading them not to do it. You can make a lot of money by polluting. And as long as it’s more profitable to pollute than to comply with the law, then you are going to have pollution. Besides, the idea that enforcement cases take too long is nonsense. I do enforcement all the time. Most cases settle overnight. I can take you, Governor Whitman, out any day of the week—and I offer to do this—and show you hundreds of polluters in the coalfields of West Virginia. Mountaintop mining is illegal out there, but the Bush administration has never prosecuted any of the companies doing it. The hog industry is destroying rivers and polluting air all across North America, but you dropped the cases against the hog—
WHITMAN: I have to respectfully disagree on a couple of things. Certainly, the hog industry is going to be subject to regulation, which we extended, and we actually included, for the first time, a lot of the chicken industry—
KENNEDY: Oh, Christie.
WHITMAN: —which is a huge industry. It’s true.
KENNEDY: You’re killing me with this. We had strong regulations for the hog industry before you weakened them to nothing. I read the regulations, which were written by industry lawyers to eviscerate the existing regulations. I’m suing you on your regulations.
WHITMAN: I’m sure you are. You sue us on everything. Everybody sues us. But suing is not always the answer.
KENNEDY: It’s true that litigation ought to be the tool of last resort, but it’s critical nonetheless.
WHITMAN: Look, it seems clear that you’re going to say the only way forward is to throw out Bush. Fine. I’m going to say there’s a lot more to it than that.
OUTSIDE: It often seems like the two sides are talking past one another. How can we have a healthy debate when officeholders have to balance conflicting agendas, and environmental leaders feel they must never compromise?
WHITMAN: Environmental groups often act as if there’s only one right way to get things done. That’s not reality. But they’ve skewed things so much that you can’t even use the word balance now when talking about the environment. The minute you say “balance,” whichever group you’re talking to assumes they’ve already lost.
KENNEDY: The reason environmentalists get nervous is because balance to us means date rape. The environmental regulations that exist today—the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act—are already the product of balance. Industry had its say when we passed these regulations. The statutes themselves were a compromise. If anything, a lot of them are already weighted more toward industry than the public. Then we get public officials who come into office, stop enforcing the laws, and say, “Well, we have to balance it again.”
Every time we go to the table to get “balanced,” we lose something, because industry controls the debate. The idea that you can say there is a debate about whether or not industrial emissions cause global warming is ludicrous—and yet industry is able to persuade even our highest public officials that the jury’s still out.
WHITMAN: Global warming is one of those issues where the way it was delivered to the public was not handled well. The president reevaluated the issue and decided that, given the California energy crisis and other things going on at the time, mandating reductions in carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas, would lead to higher electricity costs and throw our energy supply out of balance. The Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty to regulate those gases, was dead long before President Bush came to office. When Kyoto was negotiated in 1997, the Senate voted down the resolution 95 to zero. And every subsequent year, the Senate has put a rider on the appropriations bill to stop any department or agency from implementing anything that looks like Kyoto.
The Kyoto Protocol has problems. It requires industrial powers to restrict our carbon dioxide emissions but places no restrictions on developing countries—and the protocol considers China and India, two of the world’s biggest polluters, “developing countries.” The U.S. clearly has the biggest role to play, because we produce more greenhouse gases per individual than any other country, but Kyoto wasn’t going to pass. That was the reality.
When the president decided to get out of it in the spring of 2001, it was handled poorly. It looked like he was saying to the rest of the world, “Sorry, we’re not interested.” And that wasn’t what was really going on. Bush is spending $4.2 billion in tax incentives to develop climate-change technology. He’s not denying that climate change is occurring.
KENNEDY: It is integral to the agreement that the industrialized nations that produce 80 percent of the greenhouse gases take the first step in limiting them. Furthermore, everything we need to do to comply with Kyoto is something that we ought to be doing anyway, for the sake of prosperity and national security. Far from raising costs over the long term, Kyoto will make us a more efficient nation, able to compete abroad and to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
OUTSIDE: President Bush defended his actions on the grounds that regulating carbon dioxide emissions would drive up energy prices and hurt the economy. But you’ve each said that there’s no essential conflict between healthy environmental policy and healthy economic policy. Can we really have both?
KENNEDY: One hundred percent of the time, good environmental policy is identical to good economic policy, if you measure the economy based upon how it produces jobs and how it preserves the value of our community assets. Environmental injury, on the other hand, is deficit spending—it’s a way to load one generation’s prosperity onto the backs of the next.
In a true free-market economy, you can’t make yourself rich without making your neighbors rich. But what polluters do is make themselves rich by making everyone else poor. You show me a polluter, and I’ll show you a subsidy—a fat cat using political clout to escape the discipline of the free market and forcing the public to pay his production costs. Instead of spending his own money to clean up his own pollution, he’s making the rest of us pay by breathing smog and swimming in polluted water. Corporations are externalizing machines. They’re constantly looking for ways to load their costs onto the public. Our federal environmental laws were all designed to force polluters to internalize their costs the same way they internalize their profits. So I want to ask Christie: How do you persuade them to internalize their costs if you’re not enforcing the law?
WHITMAN: You can do it two ways. One, you do enforce the law. Bobby, you and I have this basic disagreement about how much enforcement is getting done. There’s a lot more than you think.
Two, you offer incentives. We don’t need to retire the stick, but we do need to use more carrots. In 1990, the first President Bush created the acid-rain cap-and-trade program. We set a standard that was enforced, but we also provided an economic incentive. And because of that, we lowered the level of sulfur dioxide in the air much faster. Those levels went lower than anyone anticipated.
The problem I have with just relying on enforcement is that the federal government does not manufacture things. The private sector does. We have to tell those companies that we know what’s right for public health, we know what’s right for the environment. And we should set strict standards, but we should give them a choice as to how they reach those standards. We tell them, “Here’s the standard—you figure out how to get there.” Most of them will be smart about it and figure out ways to do it in which they reduce their costs.
OUTSIDE: Bobby, you consistently focus on the sins of industry. It doesn’t seem as though the behavior of 280 million ordinary Americans matters much. But somebody’s buying all those SUVs.
KENNEDY: It’s a distraction to focus on individual behavior, because industry would love to blame this on the people. It’s important for people to incorporate an environmental ethic into their lives, but an individual’s choice to buy a fuel-efficient car is not going to change the planet. What changes the planet is if we have a law in this country that says you can’t build a car that gets less than 40 miles per gallon.
Industry loves those books titled 20 Things You Can Do to Save the Environment, because they distract the American public from putting their energy into changing national policy. Take recycling: The government ought to tell industry, “The onus and the cost is on you. You’re producing the package and making a profit from producing the packaging. You retrieve the packaging.”
The law is this: There is no right to pollute. There’s no right to put any pollution into the Salmon River. The regulations are there, however, because Congress recognized that most economic activity causes some type of pollution. So we have to find ways to allow industry—when it’s important to the public—to pollute. Small amounts of pollution. But outlawing pollution is ancient law. It goes back to Roman times. It goes back to the Code of Justinian. It’s in the Magna Carta. They put people to death in 14th-century England for polluting the air.
WHITMAN: That’s enforcement.
OUTSIDE: We’re here in one of the biggest wilderness areas in the West, the Frank Church–River of No Return. The leading public-lands controversy right now is over ramped-up oil and gas extraction on lands just like this. The administration argues that increased domestic production is of the utmost strategic importance. Meanwhile, environmentalists scream about wilderness being ravaged. What’s your feeling about that back-and-forth?
WHITMAN: Energy is a quandary. All the scientists I’ve talked to tell me that the best we can expect is to meet about 25 percent of our energy needs with renewable resources and conservation. Right now, 53 percent of our energy comes from coal. But coal is a relatively dirty fossil fuel. Nuclear isn’t on the table—people don’t even want to talk about it. People don’t want to drill for oil. Natural gas is much cleaner, but nobody wants a gas pipeline near them for fear of explosions. They’re working with wind power off the coast of Maine, but the best wind farms tend to be in major flyways, and birds get turned into chopped liver when they hit a wind farm. Hydropower is great where it can work, but folks in the West know hydro takes water out of the river, which means salmon can’t get upriver to spawn.
So where does that leave us? We can’t say we’re not going to do anything—we need power. But what we need is a mix of sources, and we need to be more creative about balancing that mix. At some point we’re going to have to allow some kind of exploration. Should that happen on public lands? Maybe, where it’s appropriate. They’re public lands; we need to protect them. But if there’s a resource buried there that would serve the greater public good, it might be all right to allow energy exploration, if we use the minimum footprint and the most environmentally conservative techniques possible.
KENNEDY: One of the things that frustrates environmentalists is this argument that we’ve got to go into sacred places like ANWR to fulfill our energy needs. We’re not saying you can never go into them. We’re saying: Let’s try to get the cheapest, most accessible forms of energy first. Let’s start making investments in conservation before we exploit areas that impose a huge cost on future generations.
Here’s how you do it. If we raise fuel-efficiency standards by just one mile per gallon, we save two ANWRs full of oil over the projected 50-year life of the fields. If we raise them 2.7 mpg, that’s more than all the oil we import from Iraq and Kuwait combined. If we raise standards by 8 mpg, we don’t have to import one drop of Persian Gulf oil into this country. Fuel efficiency is an untapped resource. It’s cheap oil.
Christie is right. Our energy portfolio is going to have to include diverse sources. But right now the playing field is not level enough to allow any kind of diversity. The first thing we ought to do is eliminate the lopsided subsidies to the fossil-fuel and nuclear industries. These include hundreds of billions of dollars in direct subsidies and similar sums in indirect subsidies, in which they are allowed to externalize their costs by polluting. If we eliminated those subsidies, it would give solar, wind power, ethanol—those renewable, clean energy sources—a beachhead to compete with the fossil-fuel industries.
WHITMAN: You can’t overemphasize the importance of gas mileage. But I don’t think it’s a question of one presidential administration versus another. Last year the Department of Transportation raised fuel-economy requirements for light trucks and SUVs to 22.2 mpg, the first time that’s happened since the mid-1990s. The question is, how do we get further increases past Congress? The Michigan delegation won’t stand for it.
KENNEDY: That 1.5-mpg increase is a drop in the bucket, and the only way it got past Congress was by cutting a deal that offered a $100,000 tax break for Hummers and killing the tax break for hybrids, which—
WHITMAN AND KENNEDY: —makes no sense at all.
OUTSIDE: The Toyota Prius, the Honda Insight—these are the greenest and hottest cars on the market. They’re both made by Japanese companies. Why isn’t America the world’s leading environmental innovator?
KENNEDY: In this case, $65 billion in annual subsidies to the petroleum industry has allowed oil companies to lower the price of gas. Were we paying the true cost at the pump—about $5.50 per gallon—consumers would be begging Detroit to build fuel-efficient cars. And guess what? Detroit would be building SUVs with the same size and performance of today’s models. Only they’d be getting 40 miles per gallon!
We should be developing the best technology and selling it to Europe, China, Africa, and Latin America. Instead we’re falling behind. If that continues, our whole automobile industry is likely to collapse over the next 20 years. You may see the end of Detroit, because they are so shortsighted.
WHITMAN: When industries get subsidies and the market is distorted, that affects behavior. There’s no two ways about it. I think we should have much higher gas-mileage requirements, and I think Detroit can meet them.
The reality is, the 40-mpg car exists. What we need to do is figure out how fast we can force Detroit to move its whole fleet there in a way that will keep cars affordable, so people will be able to buy the 40-mpg car. We can do it; we just have to be smart about setting the goal and the time frame.
KENNEDY: The irony is that the SUV, the most fuel-inefficient car, is also the most dangerous vehicle on the road.
WHITMAN: But everybody wants them. They all want their SUVs.
KENNEDY: That’s the whole thing. Demand for SUVs is artificially created by an onslaught of advertising that brainwashes people into buying Detroit’s most expensive and profitable product. An SUV yields ten times the profit of a sedan.
Industry can create the demand for its products—even those that harm the public—and that’s why government must play a role. If Detroit keeps building cars that burn too much fuel, that make us dependent on petty Middle Eastern dictators, that drive up our national debt, government has the responsibility to say, “You are using a public resource; you have to use it responsibly.”
People have to understand that these are not esoteric issues. These are issues that go to the heart of everything we consider important in America. If Ronald Reagan had not rolled back gas-mileage standards in 1986, we could have eliminated the need to import Persian Gulf oil by the early 1990s. We might have avoided the current Iraq entanglement.
OUTSIDE: So are we just spoiled?
KENNEDY: I think it’s wrong to say the American people are spoiled. The American people trust their government. They trust that dangerous products are not going to be allowed in the marketplace. Detroit, on the other hand, wants to satisfy shareholders, and the way to do that is to sell lots of SUVs. To sell lots of SUVs, they’ve got to persuade Americans to buy a lot of SUVs, and they have to persuade Congress not to limit their capacity to construct SUVs.
The total ad budgets of all the environmental groups in America, combined, is probably less than $5 million. Detroit spends $15 billion a year in advertising. How do you compete with that?
WHITMAN: But why wouldn’t you be able to compete with that message? We’re trying to solve problems here—OK, let’s solve this one. Why couldn’t you put aside the litigation, understanding that it’s an important tool, and have the environmental movement work with the automotive unions?
KENNEDY: The unions are already on our side on fuel efficiency.
WHITMAN: They say that, but why don’t they pressure their own companies?
KENNEDY: But why doesn’t the federal government do its job?
WHITMAN: Well, why don’t they do it together?
OUTSIDE: Christie, one of the strategies that has seemed to unfold in this administration is that, rather than changing environmental laws through Congress, they make changes quietly, through administrative rules.
WHITMAN: That’s been an accusation and a feeling for some time now. But keep in mind that getting a law through Congress now takes a monumental effort. Bobby will tell you everything we did was just godawful, with a secret agenda to undo everything. There are those on my side of the aisle who think that everything that happened in the Clinton administration involved a secret agenda by the environmentalists. I was told by a lot of Republicans that I was going to walk into the EPA and find a bunch of tree huggers who think the sky is falling. What I found was a bunch of very professional people who really knew what they were doing.
OUTSIDE: And for the purpose of argument, let’s also mention that the Clinton-Gore administration did not enact the environmental Marshall Plan that Al Gore wrote about in his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance.
KENNEDY: Well, for six of their eight years, Clinton and Gore were distracted fighting a rear-guard action against Newt Gingrich’s anti-environmental rollbacks. But you’re not going to get me defending the Clinton administration or Democrats on Capitol Hill. A lot of Democrats on the Hill are as crooked as the Republicans. They’re taking industry money, and they’re doing industry bidding.
This is why campaign-finance reform is the most critical piece of environmental legislation that can be passed. If you want to run for Senate in a state like New York, you have to raise $25 million. That means you’re raising $10,000 contributions from people. Do you know anybody who can accept $10,000 from somebody and not feel indebted? That’s legalized bribery.
If you look at all the major environmental issues here in the West—water, mining, grazing, lumber—it’s all about subsidies. We’re giving huge subsidies to the richest people in our country, and these welfare cowboys have got their indentured servants on Capitol Hill demanding capitalism for the poor while they’re protecting this system of socialism for the rich.
WHITMAN: You’re right. When you have to raise a lot of money from a group, you certainly take their phone calls. I don’t believe that everybody gets bought and paid for. But it’s a problem. The framers of the Constitution never imagined that serving in Congress would become a way of life. If it is your way of life, you get to a point where all you care about is keeping that job. So you aren’t that aggressive and you don’t act as freely.
KENNEDY: I’ll say this: I believe there’s no difference between rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats regarding their concern for the environment. Democratic leaders are not paragons. But this administration is as bad as it gets.
Today you have a situation where virtually all the principal environmental agencies are being operated by lobbyists from the very businesses they’re supposed to regulate. The head of public lands, Deputy Interior Secretary Steve Griles, is a mining-industry lobbyist who believes public lands are unconstitutional. You have Mark Rey as the head of the Forest Service—a timber-industry lobbyist who’s spent his career trying to destroy environmental rules. In Christie’s agency, the EPA’s second in command, Linda Fisher, is a former lobbyist for Monsanto, the world’s largest developer of genetically modified crops. The head of Superfund, Marianne Horinko, was a consultant for petrochemical conglomerate Koch Industries, one of the worst offenders in the country. The head of the air division, Jeffrey Holmstead, was a lobbyist for the filthiest polluters in the electric industry.
I have nothing against businesspeople entering government, but across this administration, individuals have entered government service not to promote the public interest but to subvert the very laws they are charged with enforcing.
WHITMAN: Can I just say something? Linda Fisher, who was my assistant administrator, and Marianne Horinko, the head of solid waste and emergency response, were absolutely dead-on working as hard as they could on Superfund. Not all the budgetary decisions were in our hands.
KENNEDY: Do you defend Holmstead?
WHITMAN: We’re talking about Linda Fisher.
KENNEDY: And Jeffrey Holmstead, who also worked for you.
WHITMAN: Yes, he did.
KENNEDY: Try to make a case that Jeffrey Holmstead is working in the public interest.
WHITMAN: Jeffrey Holmstead has done a lot of hard work in air quality.
KENNEDY: I know you can’t feel that way. Why didn’t you fire Holmstead?
WHITMAN: Over what?
KENNEDY: Clearly, his agenda was to serve his former bosses.
WHITMAN: That’s your opinion. It’s such a broad brush to say that anybody who has ever worked with industry is therefore bad and has an agenda. That’s too simplistic.
OUTSIDE: The Bush administration does seem reluctant to engage in a dialogue on environmental issues.
WHITMAN: They are reluctant. But they’re not reluctant to address the issues; they’re reluctant to engage in the dialogue.
One of the best things the Bush administration has done, and we did it while I was at EPA, was institute a new rule to clean up nonroad diesel emissions. The average backhoe produces 800 pounds of pollutants a year. So we came up with a rule that brought that down to 80 pounds per year—that’s a 90 percent reduction. After the rule came out, the NRDC wrote me a letter saying this was the best thing for human health since we took lead out of gasoline. Within three days there were stories in the papers about how NRDC was getting jumped on by other environmental groups. Within a week I got another letter from the NRDC saying, “Well, we’ve looked at some other things in the Clean Air Act and we’re not entirely happy with the new rule, so could you please not use our letter…”
It gets very discouraging when things like that happen. There’s a feeling of “What’s the point? Why bother?”
OUTSIDE: Those phrases are interesting. Before the 1972 election, President Nixon pushed through landmark environmental legislation—from creating the EPA to the Clean Air Act—with an eye toward shoring up support among centrist voters. But he got nothing but grief from the environmental community, and finally he said, “Screw it,” and nothing more was passed.
WHITMAN: Let me make a distinction. This administration’s attitude regarding environmental issues isn’t “Why bother?” That work continues to go on. It’s more an attitude about promoting it, wondering how much to talk about what you’re doing. It’s also true that, for some in the administration, part of it is a feeling that we’re not going to get any credit from the environmental groups anyway, so maybe we can do some of these things quietly and not enrage the conservative political base.
But I have to tell you, I met with the environmental groups every quarter, and those were never pleasant meetings. Never. And you get to the point where you think, Why am I going through this?
OUTSIDE: Bobby, has the environmental movement gotten caught up in a hectoring mode?
KENNEDY: Any hectoring is unique to this administration. You’ll always have groups on the fringe asking for more. You’ve got Greenpeace, whose view is extremely weighted toward sustainability. Then there are groups solidly in the mainstream, like Environmental Defense, NRDC, the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, and the Audubon Society.
The problem is that, right now, there’s nobody—fringe or mainstream—who can deal with this administration. Because nobody believes them. They’ve used well-intentioned moderates like Christie and Colin Powell to put a face of reasonableness on an agenda that is all about plunder.
It’s frustrating dealing with someone who is so attractive and charming and articulate as Christie, to see her represent this administration, because I know that in her heart she does not believe in the things they’re up to. Their agenda is about rapacious self-interest, and there’s no talking to them. If they throw us a crumb, it’s like pirates who have sunk your ship, murdered your family, and burned your village giving you a lifeboat to sail away on. And they wonder why we don’t thank them.
WHITMAN: This was the attitude we got from the environmental community from the very get-go. I went to the Environmental Ball at the presidential inauguration in January 2001, and the comments I got from environmental leaders told me loud and clear that it was going to take a Herculean effort to gain their trust.
KENNEDY: Well, that’s because we knew what Bush did in Texas. And look what they did to you, Christie. Right at the outset, they totally double-crossed you on carbon dioxide. President Bush made a campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide, you publicly assured the world that his word was good, and then after two months in office Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney pulled an about-face and left you hanging. They destroyed your prestige, and in doing that they told us what they thought about the whole issue—that they’re willing to take the cabinet official who represents the human face of the environmental movement and publicly double-cross and humiliate that person. They were expressing their level of contempt for our entire movement.
WHITMAN: I get very damn tired when you come out and say I’ve been used. As if I’m some kind of idiot. I was governor of a very big state with a lot of complex stuff for seven years. I know what deceit is. I know what’s right and I know what’s wrong. And I know there are two sides to that issue.
You’ve been talking about how I was used and humiliated on the carbon issue. You know what? I have to agree that the president did a very bad job communicating why he went back on the Kyoto Protocol, but I also happen to know what was behind that decision. It wasn’t a deal that was cut ahead of time. I honestly don’t believe that.
You know, New Jersey is not really the nicest state for politics, so I do know when I’m being had from time to time. And I don’t believe that the president’s Kyoto reversal was a concerted, premeditated position. Whether you agree or not, it’s just unfair to leap over context all the time.
OUTSIDE: Part of why we brought you together was to talk about a third way, about what healthy environmental politics might look and sound like. So how do we get there?
WHITMAN: It has to start with the people. The people have to put pressure on their elected officials at all levels and say, “This is what matters to me. I don’t care about Britney Spears. I care about the health of my children.” The public has to demand it.
KENNEDY: I think there’s a big deficit in the public understanding of the environment. I would not blame it on the environmental community. Seventeen years ago, in 1987, the Reagan administration abolished the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to air conflicting views on important issues. That change also allowed huge corporate consolidation of America’s airwaves. Six giant multinationals now control virtually all of America’s newspapers and television and radio stations. They’ve liquidated their foreign news bureaus and fired investigative reporters. Recently I asked Fox News chairman Roger Ailes why the networks won’t cover the environment. And he said it’s not fast-breaking; it’s not entertaining. Networks know what our evolutionary triggers are. We’re interested in gossip; we’re interested in pornography. And those are the buttons they press. They give us Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson, and very little about the real news that affects our lives.
But we also have a higher part of our intellect. Even though a typical American may pick up the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue when they go into a supermarket, they’re interested in other things as well.
Unfortunately, environmentalists have to do stunts or bring in celebrities to get our stuff on television. We can’t get news bureaus to come to a press conference if we can’t get a celebrity there. So it’s your industry, the media, that’s the failure.
WHITMAN: I don’t disagree that the public debate has suffered. What used to be a 30-second sound bite is now an eight-second sound bite. How can you have an intelligent discussion about any issue of real importance in eight seconds? You can’t.
KENNEDY: Four years ago, we experienced one of the biggest environmental catastrophes in our history, and nobody covered it.
OUTSIDE: Which was—?
KENNEDY: The coal-slurry dam spill in Inez, Kentucky. They spilled almost half a billion gallons of toxic sludge, destroyed 50 miles of river system, buried 35 communities, destroyed the water supply for probably 50 communities. The EPA said it was one of the worst environmental catastrophes in U.S. history.
WHITMAN: What catches people’s attention are catastrophic stories like that. But telling the other side is also important—showing where and how things work. People need to know that they can make a positive difference for the environment, so they don’t feel that it all rests with Congress or the White House.
KENNEDY: The stories are out there, and they’re just as compelling as the ones that drove the environmental movement in the first place: Three Mile Island and the Cuyahoga River catching fire. My children can no longer participate in the primal activity of American youth, which is to go fishing with their father and eat the fish. In 17 states, you can’t do that anymore, because the fish are so contaminated with mercury. That’s a science-fiction nightmare.
OUTSIDE: Christie, are you at all hopeful about these issues?
WHITMAN: Absolutely. First of all, I don’t see the Bush administration as the cataclysmic machine of evil that Bobby does. I’ve known and served with people in this administration. They’re people with a different agenda than Bobby, but most of them are good, solid people who try to do the public good.
The problem is in finding balance—that horrible word. This is a struggle that’s been going on for a long time. It didn’t just start four years ago. There are a lot of people who are absolutely outraged and feel that this administration is giving everything away. There are others who say, “No, we’re correcting the excesses of the Clinton years. It’s just the pendulum swinging back.” What we need to do is stop the pendulum.
OUTSIDE: One person you both seem to like is Governor Schwarzenegger in California, who has turned out to be surprisingly green. What’s going on?
WHITMAN: So far he’s doing a lot of really good, creative environmental work: He’s got a bold initiative on smart growth, he’s backing tough auto-emissions standards, he’s showing terrific leadership. But Schwarzenegger has to fight with his legislature. He’s got hurdles. It remains to be seen how far he’ll take all this. So far, however, he’s being very progressive.
OUTSIDE: How much of what Schwarzenegger is doing can be attributed to the fact that, since he financed much of his own campaign, he doesn’t have the baggage of other politicians in terms of having to please a political base?
WHITMAN: He didn’t have to survive the kind of primary that so often sets up expectations. And that has given him a great ability to flip the bird to people who might expect something from him.
OUTSIDE: Can his example change the Republican party’s approach to environmental issues?
KENNEDY: I hope some of what he’s doing starts to infiltrate the Republican party. Republicans may start to see that, politically and economically, it’s a good thing. I’d like them to find their way back to the party’s Teddy Roosevelt roots, to bring conserve back to conservatism. That’s my greatest hope—that this issue will no longer be a partisan issue.
OUTSIDE: Can both of you name a couple of areas where real progress has been made?
WHITMAN: Most people, if you ask them, will tell you they think things are getting worse. Actually, they’re not. They’re getting better. But with the environment, you’re never home-free. Our waters are cleaner, but 40 percent of them still don’t meet the fishable/swimmable/drinkable standard. That’s not acceptable. The number of ozone-alert days is down, but that’s still not acceptable. We’re not where we need to be, clearly.
KENNEDY: Between 1970 and 1981, we passed 28 major environmental laws. They’ve been a resounding success. We got rid of leaded gasoline, and now children have less lead in their blood and therefore higher IQs. We passed the Endangered Species Act, and the bald eagle, the timber wolf, the Florida alligator, and other species have rebounded. Our waterways used to be sewers; the Clean Water Act cleaned that up.
I agree with Christie: Good environmental policy is always good economic policy. I defy you to show me an instance where it isn’t. The problem is, the White House and the big polluters are treating the planet as if it were a business in liquidation. And our children are going to pay for our joyride.
The role of the environmental community is not to protect nature for its own sake but to be advocates for the future generations of America. Politicians seldom look beyond the next election, or industrialists beyond the next board meeting. The future whispers, the present shouts. Our leaders serve the shouting present. The role that environmental advocates play is to inject the long view. To say, Wait a second. We have a trustee obligation to take care of the next generation.
WHITMAN: That, we can agree upon. We don’t take from our forebears. We borrow from our children.