Until recently, protecting the environment was a bipartisan issue for Americans. But in an era marked by bitter divides, this is no longer the case.
Bruce Babbitt, former governor of Arizona and Secretary of the Interior in the Clinton Administration, believes that environmental protection can again be a unifying issue for Americans. But to get there, advocates will need to rebuild consensus around issues that have wide support, like public lands and the benefits afforded by a healthy environment, and engage stakeholders who have often been ignored.
“To broaden support for public lands we can begin by reminding all Americans that the public lands, parks, wildlife refuges, rivers, and national forests are our common heritage, a unique historical legacy meant not for private exploitation, but rather for the preservation of open spaces, wildlife habitat and for use and enjoyment of all,” Babbitt told Mongabay. “Whatever the outcome of the November election we have a large task to rebuild the national consensus that produced the great environmental laws of the 60s and 70s under both Democrats and Republicans.”
Babbitt’s views are grounded in his long career in public office where he had to consistently navigate political divides: first as a Democratic governor in a traditionally conservative state with a Republican legislature, then as a member of the cabinet in the Clinton Administration when Republicans controlled Congress from 1994 through 2000. He sees the environmental justice movement, public health experts, and farmers as three logical constituencies for better environmental stewardship.
“African Americans, Latinos and other communities of color are often victimized by the siting of toxic waste dumps, oil refining and chemical plants, and inadequate regulation of pesticides in agriculture,” he said. “The smoke drifting eastward across the country from Oregon and California is a public health threat that should awaken all Americans to the dangers of climate change.”
“Climate induced drought threatens water supplies and should awaken local governments to join us in calling for action.”
Since Babbitt left public office in 2001, he has served on numerous boards and helped start two conservation organizations: the Amazon Conservation Association, which works does scientific and policy work in support of rainforest conservation in the Western Amazon, and the Conservation Lands Foundation which advocates for “proper” environmental management of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands.
Babbitt spoke about his work, his ideas on how to build constituencies to bridge political divides on environmental issues, and his concerns about climate change during an October 2020 interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.