Science, Tech & Environment

Environmental activists look forward to Obama's second term

With a new Congress in place, and President Barack Obama about to begin his second term, environmentalists are hoping to see a more vigorous pursuit of environmentally friendly policies.

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The League of Conservation Voters scores legislators on the basis of their votes, and then vigorously campaigns for those it considers to be conservation-friendly, and against those it thinks are not, regardless of party. In the 2012 election cycle, it spent more than $14 million and claims a success rate of 83 percent. 

Gene Karpinksi, the league's president, said 2012 was an incredibly important election for the environmental sector, in part because it lined up behind Obama, and saw him re-elected.

"(He) hasn’t done everything we wanted but (he) has really been a champion on a lot of issues including making some progress on climate change," he said.

He also called out his groups effort to defeat a group of five members of the House of Representatives he calls the "Flat Earth Five" — five legislators it deems to be the most vociferous deniers of climate change. Four of them were not re-elected to the house.

"We put most of our energy into electing a whole new swath of new champions in the United States Senate, he added. "We invested heavily in eight Senate races across the country and we won seven of those races."

Among those new senators were Mark Heinrich, Tammy Baldwin, and Chris Murphy — all who have a track record of receiving high scores from the league.

But Karpinksi says his group still has a long way to go. He cited House leadership, specifically Speaker of the House John Boehner, as being especially challenging, from an environmental perspective.

"Frankly, the House that just concluded its work was from our estimation, based on our scorecard, the most anti-environmental House in history," he said. "So it will get a little bit better, but it’s still controlled by people who don’t believe that climate change is real and who want to roll back our critical Clean Air and Clean Water laws."

A lot of environmental activists backed Obama for re-election, but many who are strong proponents of the environment within the Obama administration are choosing to leave, specifically EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, though Energy Secretary Steven Chu is also rumored to be considering a departure.

"Lisa Jackson has been an incredibly effective champion for protecting public health, and protecting our air and protecting our water," Karpinksi said. "I think it was challenging for her because far too many times the most anti-environmental House of Representatives in history would call her up for these ridiculous hearings."

Karpinksi was unequivocal in saying that, in his estimation, too much is being made of rumors of disagreements between Jackson and Obama. While Obama didn't back all of Jackson's efforts, Karpinksi said, on balance, most of her key priorities moved forward.

She didn’t get everything she wanted, there’s no doubt about that, but she has an incredible track record and had made amazing progress," he said.

Karpinksi said the transition will also have benefits, specifically bringing on Sen. John Kerry as secretary of state.

"John Kerry has an incredible track record as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee," he said. "There’s also no greater champion in the United States Senate on the issue of fighting climate change. He’s fought that issue for more than two decades."

The biggest test of the current administration, Karpinksi says, will be in how far it is willing to go in using executive power to protect the environment. With a Congress not disposed to pass laws protecting the environment, Karpinksi will be pushing for broader use of the Antiquities Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act to make progress despite Congress's inaction.

"That’s what Bill Clinton did in his second term, and that’s what President Obama can do in his second term," he added.