Spoilent Green

If he keeps going, Ralph Nader may end up damaging support for the very causes he purports to care about most.

By Amanda Griscom
February 27, 2004 4:14AM (UTC)
main article image

Ralph Nader, that alternately beloved and begrudged gadfly, buzzed back onto the political scene Sunday with an announcement that he intends to mount yet another presidential campaign. Mainstream environmentalists, among others desperate to oust President Bush, were not amused.

Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," Nader sounded a familiar battle cry when he vowed to take on the "two-party duopoly" and "corporate-occupied territory" in Washington, where donkeys and elephants "are ferociously competing to see who's going to go to the White House and take orders from their corporate paymasters."


But corporate-occupied as it may still be, that Beltway territory is a far more scarred and grizzly landscape than the comparatively green pastures Nader roamed in 2000 when, as the Green Party presidential candidate, he took 2.8 percent of the popular vote and, critics say, helped tip the scales toward Bush in the closest presidential election in American history.

Once a paragon of the progressive community, Nader is now being cast as its bête noire -- even by liberal bulwarks like the Nation and the American Prospect, whose editors have pleaded with Nader not to run. In an editorial on Monday, the Prospect's editor at large, Harold Meyerson, called Nader's move "a presidential bid of mind-boggling irrelevance -- but with a potential for catastrophic mischief. ... he still could have the power, in a very close election, to send the world straight to hell."

Visit RalphDontRun.net to see the progressive argument laid out in simple electoral terms: Al Gore could have won with just three more electoral votes from swing states like New Hampshire and Florida, where a notable number of ballots were cast for Nader -- the Supreme Court intervention and Florida voting fiasco notwithstanding. And while the 2004 election could be equally tight, the stakes are vertiginously higher, say Nader detractors.


Ever the ideological purist, Nader doesn't give a damn. "We just can't sit back like the Nation magazine and betray its own traditions, and the liberal intelligentsia, and once again settle for the least worst," he told Tim Russert on "Meet the Press."

These types of statements are particularly frustrating to environmental leaders inside the Beltway, who hardly see the future Democratic nominee -- whether John Kerry or John Edwards -- as a lesser of two evils. According to Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters, which has endorsed Kerry, "We see in John Kerry someone who could be the strongest president on the environment in American history -- this is hardly someone we're settling for! And where has Nader been for the last three years? We've been in the trenches, fighting every day to resist every [wrong] move of the Bush administration. But I haven't seen him up on Capitol Hill doing the hard day-to-day work. Clearly his [presidential bid] is more to make a point than to make a change."

Likewise, Sierra Club president Larry Fahn told Muckraker, "We are terribly disappointed in Ralph Nader's decision because at this point he can only serve as a spoiler. The fact is, Nader's argument that the Democratic and Republican candidates are Tweedledee and Tweedledum doesn't hold water anymore. We have spent three years educating our members about how the Bush administration has been systematically dismantling decades of environmental policy, and now Nader could systematically dismantle our efforts."


What concerns Rodger Schlickeisen, president of the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, is that Nader's run could not only damage the Democratic nominee, but also exacerbate mainstream antipathy toward the environmental movement: "Like it or not, Nader is associated with 'green,' and I'm afraid that when he runs this monumentally irresponsible campaign, America could misconstrue it as a radical, reactionary, irresponsible move supported by environmental activists."

A "thought exercise" in climate change?
That hair-raising Pentagon report on the potentially imminent and colossal national security threat posed by climate change has been making its way around the Internet since its release in late January, and this week has picked up considerable speed.


Fortune magazine was the first major news outlet to cover the report; the "Climate Collapse" feature in its Jan. 26 issue raised many an eyebrow in business and Beltway circles. Then, Sunday, a somewhat more embroidered article on the report ran in the British Observer and has been swirling through blogs and listservs.

While the Observer sensationalized the story with its erroneous claim that the report was "secret" and "suppressed by U.S. defense chiefs" when in fact it had already been publicly exposed, the document deserves all the melodrama it can get. After all, predictions of fast-approaching environmental catastrophe sound a lot different coming from the Pentagon than from the Ph.D.s who have been uttering these warnings for decades. The report wasn't penned by members of the "Chicken Little sky-is-falling crowd" (as Republican leaders like to call global-warming activists), but rather by Peter Schwartz, former head of planning for Shell Oil and sometime CIA consultant, and Doug Randall of the Global Business Network, a California think tank.

Commissioned by esteemed Department of Defense planner Andrew Marshall, the report paints a scenario under which global warming could pose a threat to the world "greater than terrorism" -- complete with mega-droughts, widespread famine and rampant rioting. But while it has managed to sound alarms on Capitol Hill, it hasn't provoked so much as a twitter from the White House.


When Muckraker contacted White House Council on Environmental Quality spokesperson Dana Perino for a statement on the report, she responded, "I haven't seen it, I haven't read it, and I don't want to make any comments on the matter. As I understand it, this is a 'what-if' scenario -- not a diagnosis, not a prophecy, and not a foundation for new policy."

Perino directed Muckraker to Navy Lt. Dan Hetlage, a Pentagon spokesperson, who said, "We did not expect any White House response to the Pentagon on this report. Andrew Marshall is our Yoda, our big thinker who peers into the future. But it's all speculation. It was very ethereal, very broad in scope. It wasn't like, 'Oh, wow, that totally debunks the president's stand on global warming,' because it was merely a thought exercise. We don't have a crystal ball. We don't really know."

When pressed to explain the point of a "thought exercise" if it would have no policy implications, Hetlage said, "People should feel comforted that we are thinking about contingencies." Cold comfort that these contingencies are going to be filed away in the Bush administration's overstuffed "all-thought-and-no-action" folder.


But even as the report fell on deaf ears at the White House, it's been breathing new life into congressional discourse on climate change. "This adds a powerful new voice to the global warming debate in Congress," said Tim Profeta, senior policy advisor to Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. Profeta said he hoped the report would bring renewed interest in and support for the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, which he called "the most viable and promising global warming legislation that has ever been introduced." The bill was defeated in the Senate last fall by a narrower-than-expected margin, and Profeta said it may be reintroduced this spring. Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce Committee, through which the bill was initially introduced, plans to hold a hearing on global warming in the next month, which will focus in part on the DOD report. Debbie Reed, director of climate change research at National Environmental Trust, said she has also been discussing the report with the staff of Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which plans to hold its own hearing in the next month on global warming and the national security threat it might pose.

Though Reed was heartened by the attention the Pentagon report has been getting, she was less enthusiastic about another report released last week by the National Academies' National Research Council. The report applauded the administration's revised plan for climate change research, but questioned its commitment to fund and implement many of the new research proposals. "It's all well and good to advance the science on global warming. We all want that," said Reed. "But all the emphasis on research can't come at the expense of developing hard-and-fast policy initiatives to curb the underlying problem, not just the symptoms."

Indeed, two of five sections of the administration's research plan focus on creating infrastructure to respond to the symptoms of global warming -- for instance, instructing water company directors to pump more resources into drought-stricken areas and electricity planners to direct more juice to areas that need additional air conditioning in higher temperatures. Despite concerns about the shortsightedness of the NRC report, the White House was gleeful over its positive tone. Said CEQ's Perino, "They gave us really high marks. We got an A!"

Log Roll
A U.S. Forest Service proposal to conduct a massive salvage-logging operation in Oregon's Siskiyou National Forest has come up against a surprising critic -- the U.S. EPA. While the Bush administration has advertised the plan as a necessary measure to protect the future health of the forest after it was hit by the Biscuit fire, the nation's largest wildfire in all of 2002, an EPA environmental impact statement released last week said the plan could cause severe environmental harm and violate the Clean Water Act.


The Forest Service's draft outlines seven salvage-logging alternatives, with particular emphasis on one that would set in motion the biggest federal salvage-logging operation in decades -- more than half a billion board feet of timber in some 29,000 acres of forest. More than 12,000 acres of this area are inventoried as "roadless," with terrain so rugged and steep that trees would have to be yanked out by helicopter.

"We don't have a problem with logging volume," said Dave Powers, an official from the EPA's Region 10 who worked on the review. "We have concerns about the impacts from logging. The plan would increase erosion and sediment delivery in six of the watersheds in the forest that have existing water quality problems [and are] listed as impaired waters." Powers added that the Forest Service's own reports show that these waters and surrounding ecosystems would be damaged.

The plan could also violate the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has expressed concerns to the Forest Service about whether the logging project would disturb the habitat of species such as the endangered northern spotted owl.

The disagreement over the salvage-logging proposal calls into question the Bush administration's controversial Healthy Forests plan, since the Siskiyou National Forest project has been touted by the administration as a shining example of its contention that forest thinning is the best strategy to prevent catastrophic blazes.


According to Rolf Skar, campaign coordinator for the Siskiyou Project, an Oregon conservation group, the plan is so destructive and absurd that the Forest Service must have known it would go nowhere. "My guess is they want a train wreck and they'll make a political spectacle out of it," he said. "Oregon is a swing state, so maybe they're just trying to make the statement to Oregonians that they plan to create a new wave of job opportunities."

Muck it up

Here at Muckraker, we always try to keep our eyes peeled and our ears to the ground (a real physiognomic challenge). The more sources we have, the better -- so if you are a fellow lantern-bearer in the dark caverns of the Bush administration's environmental policy, let us know. We welcome rumors, tips, whistleblowing, insider info, top-secret documents, or other useful tidbits on developments in environmental policy and the people behind them. Please send 'em along to muckraker@gristmagazine.com.

- - - - - - - - - - - -


For more environmental news, sign up for Grist Magazine's free e-mail service.

Amanda Griscom

MORE FROM Amanda Griscom

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Environment Global Warming