With George W. Bush boasting perhaps the worst environmental record of any president in U.S. history, it almost goes without saying that any contender in the 2004 election will appear to be an environmentalist nonpareil by comparison. Indeed, nearly every Democrat running for president is advertising himself as just that, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is no exception. On April 22, Earth Day 2003, Dean posted a message on his website that read, “As an outdoorsman, I have experienced the incredible power of the natural world. I am horrified by what the Bush administration is doing to our land, our air, and our water. The United States must play a leading role in combating climate change and the ongoing loss of the world’s diversity and natural heritage.”

Candidate Dean.

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As governor from 1991 through the beginning of this year, Dean racked up a decent environmental record. Chief among his accomplishments were preserving more than 1 million acres of farmland, working forests, and wilderness from development; closing 76 of the state’s leaking landfills; cracking down on mercury emissions from power plants; supporting renewable energy and electric cars; and leading a relatively successful attack on suburban sprawl. Hardliners will point out that he’s also committed his share of environmental peccadilloes: Dean supported storing the nation’s nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nev., and backed factory farms and genetically modified organisms. Oh, and he drives an SUV.

We can rest assured that Dean’s environmental agenda would be light-years better than that of the Bush administration, but still we wonder: How does he distinguish himself from the other Democratic candidates on these matters? At a time when Americans are worried about war, unemployment, and lack of health care, how does Dean plan to make the environment feel politically relevant to voters? How central will it be to his campaign? How does he plan to take on powerful special-interest groups such as the oil, coal, and automobile industries? How would he balance the demands of business interests with those of the environment? In the following interview, Grist spoke to Dean on his cell phone to ask him these and other questions as he rushed through the airport between events on the harried campaign trail.



Howard Dean: Hi, it’s Howard Dean! I just want to warn you that I’m at the airport and about to go through the security check so I may have to call you back. Just figured we should start now in case there’s a big line.

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Sounds good. Let’s start with your general response to the Bush administration’s environmental policy and your bi–

What environmental policy? He has none. It’s appalling. Essentially what he’s done is try to undo most of the environmental policy in the last 50 years. Drilling in the national parks is essentially his solution to the energy dilemma. Gutting the Clean Air Act and daring to call it Clear Skies. Opening wilderness to more logging under the guise of Healthy Forests. He’s even threatening our national monuments. The assaults are sweeping. He has the worst environmental record of any president since before Theodore Roosevelt. You can’t rely on this president’s word on any domestic agendas — least of all environmental issues.

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Oh, don’t hang up, I’ve got to put you through the security X ray. (Conveyor belt noises.) How was it? You feeling okay?

Well the X ray went fine, but my transformation into a handheld device was a bit of a shock! (Laughter.) So what is your biggest concern about the Bush administration’s environmental policies so far?

The biggest concern that I have is his policy on energy. His focus on fossil fuels clearly has enormous ramifications for the environment because of the impact of the drilling on the land as well as the greenhouse gas problems — which they deny exist! — but it also has huge defense implications. The oil money we send to the Middle East, some of it, is used for terrorism and teaching small children to hate Americans, Christians, and Jews. There is a dramatic overlap right now of our biggest environmental concerns and our biggest foreign policy concerns: Both are rooted in energy.

What is your vision for America’s energy plan?

I want renewables. Wind is here. The Europeans are far ahead of us. We’ve lost our technological edge. The federal government needs to get involved in a positive way [if U.S. energy companies want] to remain competitive in the global marketplace. Solar is here. We ought to be making more aggressive investments there. In Vermont, the standard I supported is that every additional megawatt we use from now until 2010 must be renewable. On a federal level, I would set a standard of 15 percent renewables by 2010 and 20 percent by 2020 or higher — maybe 25 percent. We can do that.

Wow — 15 percent by 2010! Right now we have less than 2 percent non-hydro renewables on a national scale, so how would you get us from 2 percent to 15 percent in seven years?

Wind and solar.

Yes, but what policies would you put in place to so aggressively develop the wind and solar capacity?

First, improved tax credits, buy-down programs, net-metering laws, interconnection standards, and all that. But also, direct federal aid to construction of transmission lines. One of the problems is that we have this huge wind resource in the middle of the country that can’t be used because there’s not adequate transmission to places like Minneapolis, Denver, and Chicago.

Laying those lines and building that kind of capacity would be a tremendously expensive proposition. How would you expand the funding for that?

The president has enormous tax cuts, most of which are not necessary and don’t help the economy, so that’s where it would come from. I think people would rather have a program to put people back to work building things like transmission lines than they would have the tax cut.

Is there a dollar amount you’d be willing to spend on your energy plan?

No, I don’t have a dollar amount. We’ll have that in some number of weeks — an official environmental policy that’s all budgeted out.

What about biofuels?

We need to use ethanol. That’s controversial in environmental circles because they don’t like subsidies to Archer Daniels Midland, but the Brazilians have used 90 percent ethanol distilled from sugarcane and that does not have the high British-thermal-unit process that’s required to make ethanol and it doesn’t involve any subsidies. Ten percent of ethanol in everybody’s gas tank does not require any mechanical change in building cars but it would save 2 percent of the entire world output of oil. Biodiesel is another alternative fuel I would support.

How about mileage standards? Would you tighten CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards?

That’s the last piece. We need to create stricter standards and better incentives for fuel-efficient vehicles. My proposal is to make CAFE standards the same for SUVs as they are for the regular fleet. The technology to do that exists today. Ford will be coming out with a 35-mile-per-gallon, hybrid-engine SUV model this year. Lexus has one. People want SUVs and now they can get SUVs and trucks with good mileage standards. The CAFE standard would force a significant portion of the fleet to be hybrids in order to meet the average. I was one of four governors that had a standard requiring a certain percentage of cars sold in our state to be electric vehicles.

What about nuclear energy? Vermont gets a third of its electricity from nuclear power. Do you see this as a good long-term solution to greenhouse gases?

My position has always been that we ought not to have new nuclear plants until we figure out how to dispose of the waste properly. We have a nuclear plant in Vermont and I was never in favor of shutting it down as long as it’s safe, but I think storing waste at 110 different sites around the country is a magnet for terrorists. We’ve got to figure out what we are going to do about a central disposal site for nuclear waste.

As governor, you supported a plan to store the nation’s waste at Yucca Mountain, Nev. Do you still think this is a good solution?

As governor of Vermont, it was a grand idea because it would get the waste out of Vermont. But now that I’m running for president, I’ve got to reassess it and see what the science looks like.

How interesting that your environmental concerns as governor have changed as you started shifting your perspective to a national level. Are there other issues that you’ve reconsidered now that you have a broader playing field?

Not off the top of my head.

On a federal level, you will certainly have to deal with more challenges from special interests than you did at the state level. Vermont doesn’t really have a lot of the tough business-versus-environment conflicts that many other states do — for instance with major industries such as steel production and coal.

Oh, we have terrible business-versus-environment conflicts. We had a confrontation with the auto industry over the electric-vehicle rule and we won. I realize that some special interests will be difficult to battle on a federal level. They will argue that environmental protections will jeopardize jobs and so forth. There will be tradeoffs. Compromises will have to be negotiated. But sometimes you can actually work things out with special interests without confrontation. It’s a matter of being able to sit down with people and get them working together in a constructive way.

Much of it will [entail] convincing these industries of what an increasing number of them already know: that environmental strategies are better for business. That they need to adopt emerging technologies that are more efficient and effective and that give them a competitive advantage in the long term. More and more, we’re seeing a shift in our industries toward efficient and sophisticated technologies that bring advantages to both the environment and their bottom line.

Environment has always been a popular issue for the masses, but it’s dropping in the polls and receding into the background right now.

I think that’s right. Most Americans consider themselves environmentalists, but right now they are worried about their jobs, their health insurance, and whether their kids are going to get killed in Iraq.

How will you get voters to reconnect with the environment as a defining political issue?

I connect it directly to what happens in their daily lives. I draw connections between health and the environment, which as a doctor I’m particularly sensitive to. I talk about a father in my part of the country who can’t take his kid fishing on a Saturday and bring it home to eat because it’s infested with mercury. I talk about the health problems of kids in cities where asthma rates have gone up so dramatically.

Will your environmental agenda be central to your campaign?

Yes, it will be central because my campaign is about a long-range vision for the country and you can’t have a serious long-range vision for the country if you don’t talk about the environment. Everything that they do in the Bush administration is about results a year from now or two years from now. There’s very little discussion of what’s going to happen 10 or 20 years from now, when we will see the consequences of many of Bush’s current environmental policies. The way he runs the country’s finances shows the same myopia — these enormous deficits as far as the eye can see. All he wants to do is make it through 2008.

Why have the Democrats in Washington dropped the ball on environmental issues?

They are worried about the president’s poll numbers. They are worried about the enormous pressure that is coming from the [political] right. They are being bamboozled by the conservative majority in the House and the Senate. They’ve done a good job of stopping the president from drilling in [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] but it’s been very hard for them because they are just getting bowled over all the time. It’s to my advantage that as a governor I’ve not been embroiled in these [Beltway] arguments.

How do you distinguish your environmental agenda from those of the other candidates?

The big difference between the Democratic candidates is not our intentions. I’d say most of us have strong records on the environment and that we generally have similar environmental positions. But what you see with me is that as governor, I’ve actually been able to carry out policies rather than just vote for them. When you’re CEO of a state, you get to do those things. We got through the huge conservation deals again and again and again. My biggest contribution as governor was conservation; I put tons and tons of money aside every year in my budget and fought off the right wing of the Republican party to protect more than a million acres of land from development. This included the biggest land deal east of the Mississippi — the Champion Land Deal.

Vermont is thought of as one of the greenest states in the nation and you’re thought of as a woodsman. I’ve even heard the moniker “L.L. Dean,” because your official portrait looks like the cover of an L.L. Bean catalogue. Can you describe your relationship to the environment on a personal level?

I grew up mostly in New York and went to medical school there. I worked on Wall Street for several years before I went to medical school. But I moved to Vermont because I’m an outdoors person. My kids and I have canoed the entire 400-mile length of the Connecticut River. I’ve hiked the entire 270-mile length of the Long Trail that goes from one end of the state to the other. My son and I have sailed the entire length of Lake Champlain in a sunfish. I mean outdoors is what we do — camping and all that kind of thing. So that probably had something to do with why I am an ardent conservationist.

What about your habits. Do you have a worm bin?

A what?

A worm bin — do you compost?

No, I don’t. (Laughter.) But I recycle. The state actually has the highest recycling of any state in the country. I think the state is up to 40 percent. We charge for disposable trash by the bag, and we don’t charge anything for recycling. The more you recycle, the cheaper it is for you. And personally I’m a recycling madman. I always go through the office and if I see something like a piece of white paper that should have been in the recycling I make a big scene in front of the hapless staff member. On April Fools’ Day, one of my longtime aides had a bottle in the wastebasket — and those bottles are 5-cent returnable bottles in our state — and I said “What is this?” and yanked it out of the can. But it had a long string attached to it and I kept pulling the string and it had about 12 recyclable items attached to this string (laughter) and they knew it was enough to do me in.

What kind of car do you drive?

Well, I drive an SUV. Naughty, naughty. But I have two children who play hockey and soccer and there was no way I could do without a seven- or eight-passenger car.

Good thing Ford is coming out with the Escape.

Yeah, our next car will be an SUV, but it will be a hybrid.

And how far do you have to drive to get to work? I know that sprawl has been a big issue in Vermont.

I did a lot of work to contain sprawl. We have a policy that state office buildings can never be built any place but downtown. We use it as an urban-renewal plan to center development in downtown. I put in a rule that says that the state won’t pay for any sewer and water that leads to sprawl, nor will we pay for any that goes out to intersections of interstates, which is, of course, the favorite place for development. We also had a unique policy on Wal-Mart: They have to be located downtown or in shopping centers. Wal-Mart itself is not bad, it’s just when they go out into the suburbs, they kill you.

What is your vision for the future of U.S. food production and farms? I know you have been a supporter of factory farms in Vermont.

What passes for a factory farm in Vermont is really a big family farm elsewhere. The future is family farms and we’ve got to maintain them and we’ve got to change the agriculture program in this country dramatically to support family farms. What happens now is that the money mostly goes to large corporate farms. We have something in Vermont called the Northeast Dairy Compact, which is a great model for how to help farms all over the country with different commodities. We need a national group for each commodity where money comes directly from the consumers and goes directly to the farmers.

What about genetically modified organisms? Do you think they will be important to America’s agricultural future?

The problem with GMOs is that the chemical and biotech companies did a terrible job marketing them. I don’t believe that GMOs are harmful to human health. But I do think that people have a right to know what they are eating, so I favor labeling.

What convinces you that GMOs are safe? Are you concerned about genetic drift?

As a physician, I don’t think there’s any evidence that GMOs are bad for your health, but I do think that genetic drift is a huge problem that needs to be contained. If you put a farm with GMOs next to an organic farm, it’s really very unfair to have that pollen drift over to the organic farm and affect [its] livelihood. And I do think that people have a right as consumers to know what they are eating, so I favor labeling. We had an issue like this in Vermont with a growth hormone for cows that stimulates milk production. There was an effort to ban it in legislature that didn’t pass. (Announcement comes in over loudspeaker ordering passengers to turn off all cell phones and electronic devices.) My attitude was don’t ban it; label it. Gotta go!