- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 23, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — As the world marked the 35th anniversary of Earth Day onFriday, environmentalists debated the future of a movement that seems to be losing steam.

President Bush’s re-election, the failure to slow global warming and the large number of Americans who dismiss environmentalists as tree-hugging extremists has the movement’s leaders looking for new approaches.

And while polls show most Americans want clean air, clean water and wildlife protection, environmental issues rank low on their list of priorities — behind jobs, health care, education and national security.

“There’s this paradox where Americans hold these views, but when it comes time to take action, there are many, many issues that trump environmental concerns,” said Peter Teague, environmental programs director at the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

Some think it’s a message problem — that environmental groups simply need to improve their communication with the voting public. Others are calling for more fundamental changes in how the groups operate.

The challenge goes beyond the environmental movement, said George Lakoff, a University of California, Berkeley linguistics professor who has written about how language colors political discourse.

Mr. Lakoff argues that the entire public agenda has been seized by what he calls a “right-wing ideological political movement that’s extremely powerful and well funded.”

The Bush administration’s environmental philosophy has centered on the idea that most environmental decisions are better made by the marketplace, landowners and state and local governments.

And certain proposals that the Bush administration has floated — such as changes to the Clean Air Act — would lead to weaker regulations than required by laws already in place, many environmentalists argue.

Many green-advocacy leaders say they deserve some of the blame for the situation.

Mr. Bush “was re-elected in a campaign in which neither candidate talked much about the environment,” said Buck Parker, executive director of Earthjustice and chairman of a coalition of 30 national environmental organizations called the “Green Group.”

It wasn’t always this way.

In the decade after Sen. Gaylord Nelson, Wisconsin Democrat, started the first Earth Day with a series of teach-ins on April 22, 1970, environmental activists achieved some of their biggest victories — the passage of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and Environmental Policy Act.

Lately, environmental groups have been fighting to hold on to the gains of the 1970s and 1980s, but the battles have not been resonating with the voting public.

To win public support, leaders say they are trying to present the problems and potential solutions in language that connects to people’s lives.

“We haven’t done a good job communicating about the solutions,” said Carl Pope, who heads the conservation-minded Sierra Club.

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