Opinion: What Can Environmentalists Learn From the Painful Lessons of 2011?

Admittedly late New Year's resolutions to help our community survive -- or even thrive -- in 2012

By any measure, 2011 was not exactly the year of the environment. While there were some notable victories scattered here and there, it was a pretty tough year to be green.
The governor ramped up both his rhetoric and his bullying to blame environmental regulations for the lackluster economy, and openly used his new-found national political prominence to push an unabashedly anti-environmental agenda that included pulling the Garden State out of RGGI, openly warring with the EPA, and scaling back goals for renewable energy.

Republicans in both houses pretty much marched in lockstep with the governor as he launched a series of full frontal attacks on the 40-year-old bipartisan environmental legacy of every past governor and legislature. The Democrats, once seen by the environmental community as fairly reliable allies, were just as bad (with a few noteworthy exceptions), either initiating or supporting truly bad environmental legislation and siding both with the governor and with business and development interests that made significant campaign contributions. As a result, the governor got virtually everything he wanted in terms of legislation and appointments. He even got to boast about having bipartisan support for his agenda to reverse course on the state’s tough environmental policies and standards.

Leadership battles and shifting political alliances in both houses resulted in the demotion of two key Democrats who have been among only a handful of staunch environmental advocates. Making it clear that politics will always trump expertise and policy considerations, Senate Democrats replaced state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) as Majority Leader, and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) also removed her as chair of the Legislative Oversight Committee.

In the lower house, state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) disciplined Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) — who found himself on the wrong side of the election for the speakership of the lower house — by replacing him as chair of the Environment Committee. As some small consolation, McKeon’s replacement, Assemblywoman Grace Spencer, is someone who was previously endorsed by environmentalists, though it will be very tough for her to fill McKeon’s shoes, especially at first.

So what’s the environmental community to do, given these less than optimal political circumstances? Since the political landscape will not change in the next few years, I respectfully offer the following admittedly late New Year’s Resolutions, focusing on what we could do better or should begin doing in 2012:

Seek to develop a better community consensus

There is nothing worse, or less effective, than seeing environmentalists assemble their collective troops in a circle and open fire on one another, especially on relatively low-priority issues. The crossfire in the recent lobbying efforts on forestry legislation was painful to witness. Enviros need to settle their differences in private and then mount a united front. It would also be helpful to remember that consensus does not require unanimity, and that crewmates need to find a way to disagree without scuttling the ship.

Pick your battles carefully, and remember that you are in this for the long haul

There will be no shortage of battles in 2012 and beyond, and not all of them are equally important. A little bit of pragmatism here would go a long way to focus more energy and effort on a relatively smaller number of issues that will do more good or avoid more harm until the pendulum inevitably swings back toward a more favorable political climate. The recent “listening sessions” held by the NJ League of Conservation Voters should help to prioritize issues and focus advocacy efforts.

Pick your venues just as carefully

The Legislature is the key battleground for many issues, as are stakeholder sessions and hearings on environmental regulations and policy matters. But these are not the only venues, and some battles are better fought in the court of public opinion, in federal or state courts, or before the EPA. Direct public campaigns, playing the federal trump card and being willing to engage in strategic litigation may well accomplish more than legislative lobbying.

Use the bully pulpit, and maintain a presence in the Statehouse

Committee meetings, public hearings, and press conferences on environmental matters still attract significant media coverage, and offer one of the best ways to reach a larger audience. This is something that the Sierra Club and other Trenton-based groups have done particularly well, and which the broader environmental community needs to step up.

Work on your inside game, and use the administrative process effectively

This means getting to know the players and the process, and inserting key arguments into the record in both legislative and regulatory matters. Building that record is critical to later success, especially in the courts.

Cultivate relationships with elected officials at all levels of both parties

Don’t write off Republicans; don’t let the Democrats take enviros for granted, and seek out the elected officials from both parties who are still supportive of environmental issues. Remember that today’s foe on one issue could be tomorrow’s ally on another, and that it matters more what happens in the longer run, than in a legislative session or a single vote.

Work on developing alliances with both traditional and new partners

In the past, the environmental community has enjoyed close working relationships with sportsmen’s groups, the farming community, urban community groups, the historic preservation community, the arts community, and many corporate leaders. Now would be an excellent time to revisit old allies to find common ground, while also identifying potential new ones. The diversity of the Keep It Green Coalition, and NJ Audubon’s recent efforts to work with farmers to create and market eco-friendly crops, and with corporations on stewardship practices, are great examples.

Reward your friends, acknowledge your partners

A little bit of recognition goes a long way in politics, and it should go without saying that publicly opposing close friends is even worse than not rewarding them. Just ask state Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), one of the few remaining environmental champions, how he feels about some of the enviros who opposed his forestry legislation.

Add a few more success stories, as well as more humor, and even whimsy to the arsenal

Environmentalists have learned to use the “sky is falling” argument quite effectively, but overdoing the gloom and doom just turns the public off. There are still many triumphs and heartwarming stories to report, as well as lighter – even comic – material to be mined in Trenton. An increased focus on the lighter side of things would help to tell the story and galvanize public support for quality of life issues.

When the going gets tough, the tough create a PAC

Holding opponents accountable for their actions by publicizing their voting records, and energizing your base to participate in campaigns is an effective tool that has worked well for corporations, developers, evangelicals, and the Tea Party. Enviros need to show their real foes that there is an electoral consequence to their actions, and providing or withholding campaign support is something that politicians instinctively understand. Recent successful campaign efforts by New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, as well as their plans to prepare and publicize a scorecard to rank legislators on critical environmental issues, are both poster-child ways for the environmental community to secure political clout and to avoid future disappointing years like 2011.