The State of the Environment Post-Election
A Note From Sen. Kevin Ranker
Let me be perfectly clear, I firmly believe that the environment will be disproportionately under attack during the next two years. While I am sure this is no news to you, I want to point out a few reasons why I think it could be worse than we imagine, and what we must do about it.
1. As you have (I am sure) read elsewhere, and as I described in my piece “Thoughts,” Trump won this election for a number of reasons, but one significant reason was the economy. While urban areas are seeing significant increases in job creation, many rural areas are still experiencing the recession. Worse, many of the jobs in these areas are not coming back. While employment numbers are up, even in some rural areas, many are still underemployed. Many rural Americans went from working at a coal mine or steel plant for $100k with full benefits to working at Walmart. And in fact, national median household income is actually below what it was in 2007.
Further, as Hedrick Smith discussed in his blog “The 2016 Election – an MRI on America,” one significant problem is “inequality in destiny.” In other words, people believe their destiny - their dream of what life should be for themselves and their children - has been shattered. They believe that only the wealthy have the opportunity to fulfill their dreams. These people, these “depressed voters” spoke very loudly in this election, many by voting for Trump, and many by simply not voting.
Finally, this did not just impact the Rust Belt. It strongly impacted rural areas in progressive states such as Washington. While Washington State easily elected its governor, a progressive lands commissioner, and other statewide offices, the state senate did not flip. Why? There were several reasons including the millions of dollars spent on last-minute negative attacks. But one significant reason is because three of the four priority races Democrats hoped to win were in rural areas. Rural areas that voted opposite of how they have historically voted. The most glaring example of this in Washington State, however, was in southwest Washington where four counties that never vote for a Republican for President, did so in this election. These are the same counties that lost thousands of jobs with the loss of timber and salmon over the past three decades.
My point is that these voters will demand a major focus on job creation. As many of you have heard me say before, “if you can’t feed your kids, you don’t care about the environment.” Politicians will have even more pressure on them in most states and at the federal level to focus on rural economic development.
For this reason, it is even more important now than during the great recession to clearly articulate that it is the environment = jobs, instead of the environment vs. jobs. If you watched the release of Trump’s 100-day agenda, you saw that the Administration is definitely heading toward a disproportionate attack on the environment. While he is pulling back on some of his other campaign rhetoric, he is not pulling back at all with regard to the environment. In fact, his appointments of Scott Pruitt to run EPA, Cathy McMorris Rodgers as Secretary of Interior and the names being floated for Regional Administrators confirm his agenda. This combined with an already heated congressional discussion of attacks on the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Antiquities Act begin to lay out a very difficult path ahead.
2. While it is yet to be seen if the Trump Administration will actually follow through on its hateful campaign rhetoric, other appointments being made would suggest that at least some of these issues are likely to be on his agenda. If this is the case, issues of reproductive choice, LGBTQ rights, discrimination, immigration/deportation, voter suppression, family planning, social justice, etc. are all going to be taking a massive amount of energy from nearly every political champion we work with. The environment, for the most part, will be a secondary priority to these issues.
While some politicians will still stand up for the most blatant environmental attacks such as selling off of public lands, mining in parks or maybe offshore oil and gas proposals, getting politicians to spend significant time and capital on the day in day out fights for the environment is going to be much more difficult. My point here is not that environmental champions at the state and federal level are going to all of a sudden stop caring about the environment, it is that, for the most part, these are the same politicians who care deeply about reproductive choice, equality, funding our children’s education, gun safety, social justice and voting rights. If everything is under attack, our greatest champions are going to be spread extremely thin and in many cases, will need to prioritize these other attacks above all but the most blatant environmental attacks.
3. While the environmental impacts associated with Trump Administration agenda and appointments will likely be significant, this election also had a massive impact on our states – both legislative and gubernatorial. Republicans are now in control of 67 of 98 legislative bodies and 33 governor’s mansions. Far more important than party affiliation, however, is the agenda many of these Governors and legislators ran on. They ran on limiting or pulling back “job-killing regulations” – code for environmental policies. While we actually made some headway in electing pro-environmental majorities in Nevada and New Mexico, many states lost a significant number of their environmental leaders such as Minnesota, Kentucky and Iowa. In fact, the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, the bipartisan caucus of environmentally minded state legislators in all 50 states, lost over 200 of its 1,400 members this year – some through term limits and retirement, but many lost their seats.
In the end, many of our go to state and federal leaders who typically defend against bad stuff and champion the best stuff, are either gone or will be significantly distracted with other priorities. I strongly believe that there are a couple of core principles and strategies that must be pursued if we are to protect our environmental policies at the federal and state level.
Diversify: While many talk about it, few in the environmental community have been successful in diversifying the environmental movement. We remain mostly white, upper-middle-class Democrats--and we are mostly urban. Seeking out organizations and individuals who can convene diverse groups to prioritize the environment is going to be critical. This must include Republican leaders at the state and federal level and a true understanding of rural priorities. We must also however, follow the work of some of the climate groups in truly diversifying who is at the table to include communities of color and low-income rural communities.
Finally, we must spend significantly more time addressing environmental racism and environmental justice. We need to recognize that for decades the most polluting plants and toxic areas have been placed in low-income and often minority communities, often in rural areas. We have also not meaningfully involved all people - regardless of race, background and income – in the development and enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.
We cannot simply recognize this, we need to absolutely prioritize it by cleaning up these communities and making sure that environmental policies are not only enforced equally but developed with everyone at the table.
Environment equals jobs: While we have said it for years, particularly during the great recession, we must do a much better job of actually linking healthy environments to healthy economies.
Recent work to use ocean acidification (OA) to get to climate is a good example of this. Several states are successfully advancing ocean acidification legislation because there is a direct impact on jobs. For example, Washington State literally lost hundreds of jobs to Hawaii due to OA – others states took notice and are acting. This has led to some elected officials who were uncomfortable even discussing climate change, openly to discussing climate actions.
Another excellent example is the work coming from the outdoor recreation sector. In Washington State we commissioned a comprehensive economic analysis of outdoor recreation. The numbers were staggering - $21.6 billion in annual economic activity directly supporting 199,000 jobs. Having these numbers allowed us to advance significant conservation spending and protections. Several other states are now pursuing these same studies and policies, recognizing that outdoor recreation is a serious economic driver in their states. Protecting the special places where people recreate is not the priority for many of the politicians pursuing these policies – it is the jobs. However, these jobs rely upon healthy protected environments.
In order to accomplish this, however, we must ensure we have majorities that will act. We must lay out exactly how each of us can truly engage. We must all recognize that the mourning is over, it is time for action.
In Washington State, this will begin with the special State Senate election in November of 2017 that will decide the State Senate Majority. Winning this election will allow us to protect our core values here in Washington State from a Trump Administration while advancing the very best policies for all people.
-Sen. Kevin Ranker