At a campaign boot camp last night at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, I spoke about political engagement and was asked "why should a student who is not interested in campaigns -- who wants to be an accountant or a scientist -- be involved in politics?" My response was to invoke the Ancient Greek saying: "even if you are not interested in politics, politics is interested in you." That is certainly true, I argued, for the graduate who cares about student loan debt, the accountant who cares about financial markets, Wall Street reforms, or tax policy, and for the aspiring scientist who wants a public role in funding science, fighting climate change, promoting stem cell research, and ensuring that science is based on peer-reviewed studies not political interference.
This challenge to get people who ARE scientists to engage in politics is compounded by the dual challenge we face to clean up our polluted planet and America's polluted politics.
Our planet is polluted by toxins, carbon emissions, and other public health hazards. President Obama laid out the climate threat in his 2015 Earth Day message in the weekly address:
"The world's top climate scientists are warning us that a changing climate already affects the air our kids breathe," the president said. "Last week, the surgeon general and I spoke with public experts about how climate change is already affecting patients across the country. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security."
Yet for all these facts, scientists proposing common-sense regulation of pollutants are rebuffed by corporate forces pushing to demoralize, defund, and ultimately destroy the bipartisan record of reform.
Polluted politics allow Republican leaders and presidential contenders to take the "I'm not a scientist" approach so brilliantly skewered by Americans United for Change in their Webby-nominated #NotAScientist video: The Republican claims are laughable -- but the GOP budget cuts seeking to decimate the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy are deadly serious.
Congressional Republicans have threatened to roll back the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts as well as EPA regulations to reduce greenhouse gasses that cause climate change -- like carbon dioxide, mercury and methane, and protect U.S. waters from pollution.
The Republicans' polluted policies are aided and abetted by polluted politics. From the Koch Brothers to Karl Rove's super PACs, oil and gas money is saturating politics like never before. Billions of dollars of corporate money have been belched into negative ads from the Republican side to fight those who support green politics. Not only are actual scientists demonized as radicals but corrosive initiatives are "greenwashed" into innocuous sounding initiatives. Remember, when polluters fund "green" initiatives, "healthy skies" mean the opposite. Sadly, millions of the individual actions by citizens to recycle, compost, reduce smog, drive hybrids, or go solar can be undercut by one greenwashed rule or regulation allowing unfettered "voluntary" actions by polluters despite known health and safety risks. This is wrong. We must insist on environmental policies that reinforce not undercut our environmental ethics.
It doesn't have to be this way. As House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi often says: "our Founders pledged their lives, their liberty and their sacred honor to build a democracy: a government of the many, not a government of the money."
A government of the many would put public health over polluter profits and the voices of the people over the mouthpieces of polluters.
A government of the many would ensure that an aspiring scientist can work to save lives knowing that her efforts will be peer reviewed not politically censored.
A government of the many would push forward not roll back bipartisan climate leadership at home and abroad. A government of the many would secure the common good over corporate greed.
A government of the many would not need an arms race of dueling SuperPACs (I use the term dueling advisedly considering the oil and gas interests' hundreds of millions spent in political ads and $141.4 million shelled out for lobbying compared to climate hawks' $100 million) in 2014 to define the issues -- candidates could do that for themselves.
A government of the many would not outsource democracy to a handful of the wealthiest Americans but would instead inspire voters who are currently staying home in droves to come out and speak for ourselves and empower our representatives to speak for themselves.
So potent is this cause that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Citizens United reform as one of the key pillars of her 2016 campaign. A few Republicans may even join her. While no campaign will unilaterally disarm - you have to win in order to govern - a pledge to restore "a government of the many" is critical to the effort.
What can we the people do to help?
We build on our bipartisan coalitions between evangelicals and secular humanists, environmentalists and hunters to promote a conservationist message about clean energy. We identify the money as the message -- disclosing and exposing the donors as being in their own corporate interest not the people's. We advance Citizens United Reform movements to affirm that in fact only people not corporations are "we the people."
We begin in the spirit of Earth Day 2015's "It's Our Turn to Lead" theme with two steps:
First, to repair our planet, join the efforts to protect bipartisan environmental health and safety reforms. The League of Women Voters has an Earth Day petition urging support for the work of the EPA to fight climate change, protect public health and grow our economy.
Second, to reclaim our democracy, push to reduce the role of money in politics. Sign the petition of Citizens Against Citizens United and urge your friends to do the same.
A healthier world requires a healthier American democracy. Our Earth Day call to service is to clean up our polluted planet and America's polluted politics.