ConservationEnvironmentPoliticsWater

Transcending Politics For The Greater, Greener Good

Many Florida environmentalists woke up this morning with an election hangover from mixed brews: How could things have gone so swimmingly and so badly, all in the same night?

An overwhelming 75 percent of Florida voters supported the Water and Land Conservation Amendment, which will direct $18 billion in existing real estate taxes to environmental protection over the next two decades. At the same time, a slim majority of voters re-elected Governor Rick Scott, who loosened environmental regulations, avoided reporters’ questions on climate change, dismantled Florida’s growth-management system, fired scores of environmental scientists and water managers, and cut the time to approve a pollution permit to only two days.

One wildlife scientist said he couldn’t sleep with the wondering: How could a number of voters approve of both Amendment 1 and Governor Scott?

The answer is that Amendment 1 – like other water and land measures that passed around the country yesterday – transcended politics. Ever since its conception, that was the idea. “One of the central tenets of our campaign plan was to never let this become partisan – to make sure it could draw the support of Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and Floridians of all political stripes,” campaign manager Will Abberger told me. “We also were very intentional not to make it an issue in the governor’s race. We really wanted to stay above that political fray.”

That’s been the appeal of water and land conservation ever since President Theodore Roosevelt established the nation’s first National Wildlife Refuge at Florida’s Pelican Island in 1903. Then and now, U.S. voters could see clearly beyond party lines to what’s at stake for water, land and wildlife. Americans today find their favorite natural places disappearing. They’re worried about the spread of pollution in our most water-dependent regions such as Florida and the Great Lakes. In California and much of the West, they’re watching water vanish before their very eyes.

On Tuesday, voters across the nation ignored party lines to allocate billions of dollars to the cause. In California, they passed Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion water bond to fund new regional supplies, groundwater pollution cleanup, environmental restoration and community drinking-water projects statewide. In New Jersey, voters said yes to Question 2, a permanent fund for the state to buy and preserve open space.

In contrast, the crucial issues of water-quality regulation at the state and federal levels; growth and land-use; and especially climate change remain not only political, but full of invective on all sides. Seeing prominent environmentalists refer to Governor Scott as Lord Voldemort this election season made me cringe no less than hearing U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio claim on Fox news, “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate in the way these scientists are portraying it.”

When issues become this politicized and polarized, voters in America’s vast “Caring Middle” – who gladly transcend party for the highest causes – simply close their ears. In the wake of an election that likely puts the nation’s most prominent climate-change denier in charge of the U.S. Senate’s environmental committee, it will be more important than ever to take the case directly to the public – to help them hear.

Social-change communicators facing this challenge would do well to get inside the brains of Florida’s “Vote Yes on 1” campaign – Abberger, Pegeen Hanrahan, Aliki Moncrief and Laura Ciociola. Vote Yes on 1 was inspirational, with iconic images of Florida’s wildlife and natural places. It was aspirational, calling Floridians to come together to protect treasures like the Everglades, beaches and springs on behalf of future generations.

It was totally apolitical – asking the best of each of us – and perhaps most importantly, totally positive. Nothing could be more so than in every, last message: YES.

Posted on November 5, 2014

Cynthia Barnett
Cynthia Barnett is a long-time environmental journalist who has reported on water from the Suwannee River to Singapore. She is the author of "Mirage," "Blue Revolution" and the forthcoming book "Rain: A Natural and Cultural History."