Will the next president do more for the environment than focus on energy?

It may be sacrilege to say so, but there’s more to protecting the environment than stopping global warming, especially where women are concerned.

I admit this acknowledging that climate change is probably the pre-eminent environmental issue of our time. Melting ice caps, catastrophic hurricanes and droughts, rising sea level, and changing weather patterns are altering the very nature of Nature. By and large, scientists agree that the window of opportunity to reverse the atmospheric build-up of hothouse gases like carbon dioxide is rapidly closing. Predictions for an overheated future grow more dire every day.

Still, moment to moment, our lives are affected in a more immediate way by other environmental threats that have been completely ignored by the Bush Administration. Will the next president have the foresight to tackle them sooner rather than later?

Eye_makeup Consider our exposure to toxic substances. From the water we drink to the soaps and lotions we slather on our skin to the toys that entertain our children, we face a daily assault from chemicals that wreak havoc on our reproductive system, cause cancer, and increase our likelihood of contracting diseases like asthma, blood poisoning and heart failure. Right now, the cosmetics industry regulates itself, which is why many manufacturers of lipstick, make-up, shampoo and perfume continue to include phthalates, parabens, synthetic fragrances, and unnecessary antibacterial agents in their formulations. What should the next presidential administration do? Making the “precautionary principle” a keystone of its approach to environmental health and safety would be a first important step in the right direction. At a minimum, the new president should require the Food and Drug Administration to restrict the use in personal care products of any ingredients that have not proven to be safe.

Protecting wilderness is another area of critical concern. Both candidates Barack Obama and John McCain would safeguard the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling. But what about other sensitive ecosystems? Any serious presidential environmental agenda should embrace proposals like creation of the Yellowstone-to-Yukon wilderness corridor and the addition of several million acres to the national wilderness system.

Deforestation Now take a minute to consider the migratory songbirds in your backyard, along with the tropical plants that provide the basis for 25% of all disease-fighting pharmaceuticals. I’ve just returned from a trip to the Amazon basin, and I can tell you, the rainforest is still being burned down to make way for cattle ranches that supply fast food restaurants and soybean plantations that power ethanol distilleries. It should be at the top of the next administration’s agenda to lead a global campaign to ramp up protection for rainforests and biological diversity worldwide.

As for what you eat, despite the demand for healthier food, only 3.5% of fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products are organic. One way the next president can accelerate the transition to safer food production is by using the power of the government’s annual Farm Bill to switch federal subsidies away from conventional, pesticide-using growers and towards the thousands of farmers who want to raise livestock and produce without insecticides, herbicides, antibiotics and synthetic hormones but who can’t afford to do so on their own.

Carrots_bunch Finally, consider the confusion you face each time you want to use your purse to purchase the safest, most environmentally friendly product available. The challenge of distinguishing “green” from “greenwash” impedes environmental progress, as it discourages consumers  from deploying their shopping carts as green “carrots” to encourage industry to adopt more eco-friendly practices. The next administration could revolutionize green manufacturing – and make tremendous strides in energy conservation, pollution control, and environmental health and safety – by advocating for certified sustainable standards that make eco-friendly choices clear for shopper and manufacturer alike.

All these actions are within reach. The question is, will the next president aspire to such ambitious goals?

Clearly, it will depend on who is elected. If you examine the voting records of both Barack Obama and John McCain, Obama emerges as the most likely environmental champion hands down.

According to the watchdog League of Conservation Voters, McCain’s lifetime LCV record is 24% compared to Obama’s 86% and running mate Joe Biden’s 83%.  Says LCV of John McCain, “he repeatedly clings to outdated policies and flip-flops on core environmental issues.  In his 25 years in Congress, McCain has faced 294 crucial environmental votes and he voted in favor of the environment only 71 times.”

Still, it is unlikely that even the Obama administration will tackle many of these issues without active encouragement from concerned Americans. As the old saying goes, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Right now, the only wheel squeaking is the one advocating to control climate change. Unless it’s a unicycle, most vehicles have more than one wheel. To keep moving forward, the other wheels need a little grease, too.

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One Response to Will the next president do more for the environment than focus on energy?

  1. Diane MacEachern August 26, 2008 at 9:46 am #

    Wait a minute! Don’t hold that NetRoots chat at BlogHer against me (or any of us who TRIED to participate). It was impossible to have a coherent conversation, given all the technical difficulties with that set-up. Anyway, it will be up to us to make sure “women’s” issues – like toxics, clean water, etc. – emerge in the next administration. Of course, our chances of being heard are greater with Obama/Biden, given the incredible women they’re associated with (and Biden’s good track record on women’s legislation in the Senate). Thanks for commenting.

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