A “Shocking” Regression: Sen. George Mitchell Reflects on the Environment and Politics
A “low point for the American environment,” a “dark and difficult time,” a period when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was in “chaos and despair.” Those could be contemporary descriptors, but they portray the Reagan presidency as captured by former Sen. George Mitchell in his book “World on Fire: Saving an Endangered Earth.”
Mitchell managed through those challenging years to lay the groundwork for a reauthorization of the Clean Air Act. Finally passed in 1990, the act recognized carbon dioxide as a major contributor to global warming.
Yet 27 years later, leaders in Washington dismiss climate change, seek to gut the Clean Power Plan and threaten to abandon the Paris climate agreement – widely seen as humanity’s last chance at keeping a habitable planet.
“To me, it’s not just incredible,” Mitchell told me in a recent interview. “It’s shocking that the president of the United States and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency engage in this denial of science and refuse to acknowledge something about which there is overwhelming scientific evidence. … It is hard to believe that the president could take such a position so obviously false on an issue of such magnitude for the people of this country and the world. There is room for legitimate debate about the best, most effective way to respond – but not on the crucial question of global warming itself.”
How we got to this dangerous juncture is a complex question, and our conversation ranged from the dangers of dark money to runaway gerrymandering. Yet despite the sobering challenges ahead, Mitchell remains a staunch optimist – in part because he has witnessed the remarkable environmental recovery that followed enactment of the Clean Air Act in 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972.
Mitchell grew up in what he calls an “industrial slum” along the Kennebec River at a time when its waters changed color in response to mill effluents. By the time the Clean Water Act was passed, he recalls, 85 percent of the nation’s waterways were polluted and only 15 percent remained clean. Now, he notes, those figures are reversed – providing incalculable public benefits.
The Clean Air Act worked similar wonders, as a recent commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine affirms. Since its enactment, emissions of six common air pollutants have fallen by 70 percent even as population grew (by 50 percent) and GDP increased (by 250 percent). Nearly 200 other hazardous pollutants have seen substantial reductions, along with a decline in acid rain and a reversal of atmospheric ozone depletion. Just since the 1990 reauthorization, the act is credited with saving nearly 2 million lives.
Like the Clean Air and Water acts, the Clean Power Plan offers a critical means to limit damaging pollution, particularly the greenhouse gas emissions that aggravate climate disruption. Mitchell sees the attempts to challenge that rule as “very unwise,” grounded in a myopic denial of climate science.
Since Mitchell left the Senate two decades ago, the role of science in decision-making has diminished and the influence of campaign contributions has grown. Money now has a “devastating effect” on our political process, Mitchell asserts, severing bonds between voters and their elected officials as the latter become “more responsive to their donors than they are to their constituents.”
“I believe that the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case will go down in history as one of the worst decisions ever made by any Supreme Court,” Mitchell continues. “It accelerated the spectacular increase in money pouring into our political system (at a time when) transparency declined dramatically so we now have the worst of all worlds.
“The American people don’t know who gave what to whom in the last campaign – to a very large extent,” he adds. “That amount is increasing, in secret in many cases. You can see that clearly in this struggle over climate change and global warming with huge sums of money involved.”
Mitchell identifies a second “self-reinforcing downward spiral that is very, very hard to break out of”: redistricting with technological precision for partisan ends. Fewer than 50 House seats (out of 435) are now competitive between the two parties, and gerrymandering gets more sophisticated with each election cycle.
Consequently, the general election holds little or no significance with House seats, Mitchell suggests: the primary is all that matters, even though “very few citizens participate then, and those that do tend to be ideological and rigid in their views.”
Redistricting and limiting campaign spending “would go a long way to restoring a more competitive balance,” he argues. Some states are trying to devise redistricting mechanisms that are less partisan and could produce more representative districts. And Mitchell is confident that someday the Supreme Court will “reestablish the principle that we can constitutionally enact reasonable limits and constraints on campaign contributions and campaign expenditures.”
The last election, in his view, pointed up the archetypal struggle between those who embrace trade and technology and those who seek to recapture a mythical past. Mitchell sees clean energy as the way to reconcile these divergent perspectives, and he argues for a “massive national effort” to develop these opportunities and “help those who through no fault of their own have been left behind by changes in old industries.”
“What is most disappointing to me,” Mitchell acknowledges, “is the extent to which environmental issues have receded in the public mind. … In the hierarchy of values that people carry into the voting booth, it does not seem to be very high.” A Pew Research Center poll before the 2016 election found the environment did not even make it into the top 10 list of issues that voters ranked as very important; economy, terrorism, foreign policy and health care topped the list.
In its first 100 days, the new administration has overturned or begun “reviewing” 23 environmental rules that could undermine public health, reverse environmental gains and accelerate global warming. “They will do some damage,” Mitchell concedes, “but the real loss is in being distracted from trying to develop the national policies that (would) enable us to become the world leader … in clean energy. To me, that’s a missed opportunity.”
Moving forward, he hopes that more people will make the case for clean energy in specific terms to a broad swath of American people, clearly explaining “how and why this is important and how this can be done.” Especially among those hard-hit by industrial changes, he notes, there is a heartfelt need to see and experience “a practical roadmap to the future.”
© Marina Schauffler, 2017. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.