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The Long and Short of the Green and Libertarian Environmental Platforms

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Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson and his Green counterpart Jill Stein | Photos: Gage Skidmore, some rights reserved  

Commentary: If you’re a concerned environmentalist voter that’s unhappy with the Democrats’ lackluster environmental platform, but even more so with the Republicans’ expressly anti-environmentalist platform, you might be wondering whether a third party might offer you an alternative.

In one sense, the answer is “no,” at least in 2016. Even the best-crafted party platform doesn’t mean much without legislators to enact its provisions. It’s less likely that Libertarian or Green Party candidates will win enough seats in Congress, or for that matter any state legislature, to make their platforms reality, than it is that a Delta smelt will become chair of the California Republican Party. Or that it will rain every day for the next month.

But electability aside — and yes, that's a big "aside" — if you’re considering a protest vote on behalf of the environment, just what environmental positions would you be voting for with a third party? We took a look at the environmental platforms of the two leading alternative parties on the ballot in 2016. Their approaches to environmental issues couldn’t be more different, aside from their shared commitment to legalize cannabis.

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Libertarian Party

Let’s discuss the Libertarian Party’s 2016 environmental positions first. It won’t take long. Within that party’s 2016 Platform, there are a total of 126 words devoted to environmental policy. That’s so little language that we can paste it all in right here. The platform’s Environment language – actually and tellingly a subsection of the Economic Liberty section – reads thus:

There’s also an energy subsection, which reads, in its entirety,

The language is essentially the classic Libertarian Party line on the environment: privatize everything, then assume that property owners act in their long-term self-interest by protecting the ecological value of their resource. If a person owns a square mile of old-growth forest, by this logic, they have a vested interest in maintaining the value of that resource, and government should get out of the way and let them do it.

The argument suffers from a bit of a rhetorical downside, which is that the vast majority of human history refutes it. To claim that government environmental law only makes the environment worse, while an unfettered property rights doctrine is the best way to protect resources, is pretty much an admission that the person making the claim doesn’t get out much.

That’s not to say that private property owners can’t be environmentally conscious and work hard to protect the biological values within their holdings. Many do, many of them heroically. But without government regulation to back them up, their hard work can be undone by a recalcitrant owner of nearby property who decides the best use of her land is to dump meth lab waste into the creek.

In other words, the Libertarian Party’s environmental platform can pretty much be summed up by an aphorism you may have heard from your friendly local agent of government coercion: “Nothing to see here; move along.” 

Green Party

The Libertarian Party devotes just 126 words to the entire environment in its 2016 platform. That’s less than a hundredth the verbiage on the environment offered up by the Libertarians’ third party counterpart on the left, the Green Party of the United States (GPUS). The GPUS platform’s environment section weighs in at more than 10,000 words, and other sections from foreign policy to banking to racial justice have environmental topics woven throughout.

The GPUS is a confusing beast. Founded in 2001, GPUS is the second or third contender (depending on how you count) for the role of a national Green Party in the United States since the notion of a Green Party was borrowed from West Germany in the 1980s. GPUS is fractious and prone to schisms, and its organizational views often conflict with those of state party organizations.

If, based on your conversations with rank-and-file Green Party voters over the years, you’re imagining that the GPUS platform spends those ten-thousand-plus words advocating for bike lanes, locally sourced organic produce, and legalizing pot, you wouldn’t be wrong. Those stereotypical topics are in there. But they’re just bullet points in a surprisingly authoritative, wonkish policy paper on ways U.S. environmental policy could be improved.

If you follow social media, that may surprise you. The GPUS has taken some heat from its own potential constituency in recent weeks after its Presidential candidate, Dr. Jill Stein, staked out a series of positions on controversial topics that are not supported by the best science. There was a statement on vaccinations that was widely interpreted as a “dog-whistle” to the anti-vaccination crowd. A subsequent comment on putative health risks from WiFi irritated scientifically literate environmentalists even further, and Stein’s claim last week that sea levels are expected to rise nine feet by 2050 was the last straw for some climate activists. (Even the most pessimistic estimates currently supported by non-fringe climatologists put the maximum expected sea level rise by the end of this century at around six or seven feet, not nine feet in 34 years.) Estimates change as we learn more about climate change, and Stein may prove to be prescient, but her statement seems not to be based on any actual science.

So the notion that the GPUS environmental platform actually has some sound policy in it may come as a surprise. But it does. That science-backed wonkery is not uniformly distributed throughout the document, which has some weak points. But the platform stands as the broadest, most forward-looking environmental policy set offered by any of the parties this election season.

Alone among political parties, GPUS calls for a direct tax on carbon, pegged at ten cents per kilogram of CO2 emitted, and set to rise ten percent per year as long as atmospheric CO2 concentrations remain above 350 parts per million. The Party advocates an end to subsidies for climate-polluting energy, and explicitly includes biomass, biofuels, and garbage incineration in its definition of “dirty energy.”

Nuclear power doesn’t escape GPUS scrutiny: the platform calls for an end to subsidies, the closure within five years of all operating commercial nuclear power plants, and an end to the ever-reviving plan to dump the nation’s nuclear waste beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

On energy efficiency, the GPUS platform neatly avoids a bit of obfuscating jargon found in the Democratic platform (and in the statements of any number of environmental groups) when it avoids calling for reductions in energy “waste.” Defining wasted energy is an inherently subjective pursuit, as everyone will have a different notion of which uses of energy are wasteful, which merely frivolous, and which necessary.  

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The Green Party would shutter nuclear power plants, like this one at Indian Point in New York State, within five years. | Photo: Tony Fischer, some rights reserved

Instead of calling for a reduction in the amount of energy wasted, the GPUS platform goes for a simple, objective measure by calling for a 50 percent reduction over the next 20-30 years in the energy the United States uses. That’s a point it’s surprising we don’t see more often: increasing the percentage of electricity generated by renewables and cutting a percentage of obvious waste doesn’t matter much to the climate or the environment if overall demand grows.  

Also alone among American political parties, GPUS calls for a national zero-waste policy to eliminate the nation’s municipal trash heading to landfills. That’s not as groundbreaking as you might think: a number of California cities and towns have zero-waste programs well under way. It’s just that the GPUS seems to be the first national party to be catching up with local governments on the issue.

In the arena of public lands, treated in just a few sentences by the Democratic Party, the GPUS offers a detailed set of policy changes including boosting grazing fees to their market value equivalents for private land, and abolishing the Mining Law of 1872 which allows ecologically destructive mining on public land without payment of royalties or liability for pollution. This section also calls for the abolition of the controversial Wildlife Services agency, a ban on clear-cutting and commercial timber harvests on public lands, and a halt to moves to privatize National Parks. The platform doesn’t mention renewable energy development on public lands in either a positive or negative light, though the energy section does emphasize a decentralized grid and abundant use of rooftop solar.

The platform also calls for a ban on privatizing municipal and other water supplies, and for establishment of across-the-board water conservation measures, including support of native landscaping — making the GPUS the only U.S. political party with a pro-native plant plank.

Some of the party’s agriculture policy reforms would likely prove controversial if they were ever enacted, including a moratorium on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) until an independent, non-corporate-funded scientific panel approves their safety. GMO supporters among the environmentalist crowd will maintain that such review has already been done for a number of existing GMOs, and that the platform’s definition of GMOs is a few years out of date.

Other ag reforms in the GPUS platform include the aforementioned support for strict organic labeling and local farming, as well as urban farms, community gardens, support for CSAs and a few other similar programs.

The list goes on, and extensively. Perhaps the most surprising way the GPUS platform differs from its counterparts is in its express mention of the issue of biodiversity, which starts:

To that end, the GPUS advocates — though in a different section of the platform — conversion to a stable state economy, one not predicated on constant growth. It’s possibly the most radical part of the party’s platform, and possibly the most crucial as well if our great grandchildren are to have anything resembling a comfortable quality of life.

So there you have it. One minor party nearly dismisses the environment in a few short words, another would save it with impressive if inconsistent wonkery, and neither platform has a polar bear’s chance in a glacier-free world of being enacted if their respective parties don’t make inroads into state assemblies and city councils around the country. Politics, after all, is more than just voting.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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