What’s in a name? A lot, I think. So, with this post, I’m officially launching my solo campaign to change the name of the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s ill-named if you think about it. After all, their raison d’etre is keeping Americans’ air and water clean enough to breathe and drink, clean enough that our babies aren’t born with brain damage, kids aren’t drinking water with lead in it from city pipes, and our food isn’t toxic and a bunch of other stuff we take for granted. The environment is our environment after all—where we live. It’s about our health and safety. It’s about protecting our families, not just about ecosystems and endangered species (though those are worth protecting too). The EPA is our line of defense against a bunch of bad stuff.

Shouldn’t it be called the American Protection Agency? Heck, maybe it should become a branch of the Military and we should call it the American Protection Army. Are you with me?

Okay, enough about that for now. But, I bring it up because the EPA is under attack. Proposals are currently afoot to gut the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. According to the Christian Science Monitor, “House Republicans want to reshape federal environmental policies by adding amendments to the spending bill due Friday.” Reshape is a nice way of putting it! Sadly, President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) appeared quite ready to accept these “riders” and “swallow rollbacks to EPA’s authority to crack down on climate emissions, mountaintop-removal coal mining, and Chesapeake Bay pollution as the price for passing a budget deal.” (As reported by AP and described by Glenn Hurowitz, Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy, writing for Grist).

The willingness for capitulation or concession, or whatever you want to call it (I can think of far harsher ways to describe it), changed quickly, however, over the past few days as green groups fell on Obama and Reid with a rare—and downright refreshing—fury.

  • The fury isn’t unfounded. As Hurowitz writes, “a range of Democrats have been following the White House’s lead and rushing to embrace the fossil fuel industries and other polluters.” More coal mining, more offshore drilling permits, Democrats giving the nod to the Canada tar sands pipeline to bring one of the dirtiest fuels to the US. Hurowitz goes on: “Democrat Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan (LCV score 100) and Max Baucus of Montana went so far as to issue their own bills to gut the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.” Nice.

    But to date the political fallout from this kind of move—even for Democrats with good “green” credentials—has been negligible. In fact, just a few days ago, Darren Samuelsohn of PoliticoPro wrote that environmentalists are at a low ebb of political clout, “finding it difficult to convince lawmakers that voting against their issues could hurt them at the ballot box.” In his article, Big green bark, small green bite, he goes on: “Green groups are being forced to play defense in a world where D.C. pols aren’t scared of them.” He pointed to a serious lack of recent green victories as part of the problem, but also says that “it’s no secret the environmentalists are outgunned when it comes to cash.”

    Nonetheless, pressure from “Big Green” (Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, League of Conservation Voters…the megaphones for “little greens” like me—I sent a bunch of letters, signed petitions, and asked my friends to do the same) seemed to work in the last 48 hours for the EPA budget situation. Reid announced Friday that restrictions of EPA authority were off the table in budget negotiations. “Neither the White House nor Senate Leaders is going to accept any EPA riders,” Reid said. And just today Obama said he’d veto House legislation slated to pass on Wednesday that would strip the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

    So, the whole thing brings up a new set of questions about the power of green in today’s political context.

    In my fantasy world where the EPA gets renamed American Protection Army, heat from environmental organizations and concerned citizens would make anti-environmental votes tantamount to political suicide (see this about 10,000 young people, many of whom worked on Obama’s campaign who will converge on DC to urge him to “dream bigger” on clean energy). But my fantasy, like most, is a stretch. Still, I’m hopeful greens, big and small, will be fortified by this win, build on the momentum, and keep throwing their weight around. After all, the public is behind them in a “no-duh” sort to way, if not in a check-writing and phone banking way. And by no-duh, I mean, “yeah, why wouldn’t we want clean air and water? And, yes, we look to the EPA work on our behalf to make that happen.” And also “no-duh” because, I’m not making this up because I personally think it’s a no-brainer; American public opinion backs this up.

    A poll from last September found that 82 percent of Americans support the work of the EPA (with 45 percent supporting it strongly compared to only 9 percent who strongly oppose it)—and that support spans political parties with 71 percent of Republicans, 89 percent of Independents, and 93 percent of Democrats. Support for the EPA is consistent across regions: Northeast (79 percent); Midwest (82 percent); South (81 percent) and West (86 percent). Three of four support “protecting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority” to “take steps that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electric utilities and other major industrial polluters.”

    I have to admit that the same, sorry, old “jobs vs. the environment” frame (which is just plain wrong and which history has proven wrong) and the “we’re not sure enough yet about climate science” stuff makes my blood boil. It boils because the stuff works so well as talking points for anyone interested in gutting protections for our families and communities and paving the way for bigger polluter profits. So, with that said, maybe I’m looking high and low for a glimmer of hope. But it seems to me that environmental organizations might not have the green (as in cash) but they do have mainstream green values on their side. I hope that translates into more pressure like the stuff we’ve seen in the last 48 hours, real pressure on lawmakers to do the right thing—in other words, as Environmental Defense Fund put it to Obama, “[our] children’s health should not be a bargaining chip.”

     

    (UPDATE 4/6: Dave Roberts of Grist says Obama didn’t really promise to veto the EPA-blocking bill, calling out what is indeed strange wording in the White House statement.)

    Photo courtesy Click at MorgueFile.com.