Cynthia McKinney

Cynthia McKinney.

Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney sums up her energy policy with a simple, memorable rhyme: “Leave the oil in the soil.”

“Right now we’ve got two energy policies in this country,” McKinney told Grist. “One is war, the other is drilling. And neither one of them works.” It’s a message she hopes will win over voters who have tired of both the Democratic and Republican parties.

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McKinney was a Democrat herself for years, representing Georgia’s 4th district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993 to 2003, and again from 2005 to 2007. She was the first African-American woman to represent her state on the federal level. During her time in the House, McKinney was active on environmental issues, particularly those related to human health.

Her legislative efforts included lead sponsorship of the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, which would have eliminated commercial logging on federal public lands. In 2001, she introduced a bill that would have suspended use of depleted uranium munitions until their health effects could be studied further. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2006, McKinney was a vocal critic of the Bush administration’s failure to help residents of New Orleans, and she pushed for comprehensive environmental testing of flooded areas.

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McKinney lost her bid for reelection in 2006, and in September 2007 announced that she was leaving the Democratic Party. She soon launched a campaign to become the presidential nominee of the Green Party, and in July the Greens gave her the official nod at their convention in Chicago. McKinney tapped hip-hop activist and indie journalist Rosa Clemente to run as her VP candidate.

Grist caught McKinney by phone at her current home in California, where she’s pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley.


Why should voters consider you the strongest candidate on environmental issues?

I have a record that includes authorship of the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act. From that to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to my position on offshore drilling, I think my record is pretty clear. And then there is the greatest need we have in this country, and that is for investment in infrastructure and a greening of our economy.

What sets your green platform apart from other candidates’?

We’ve taken nuclear off the table. When you start talking about sustainable energy, nuclear isn’t it. We need to take offshore drilling off the table, we need to take ANWR off the table. We should also make sure that investment in solar and other types of heating and energy supply are made attractive to people, [through] tax schemes that decrease the price to the end user. [We need] also an incentive so that when people are in the process of buying houses, a score is given for the energy consumption that that house represents. Those are just a few things that could be done very easily.

Energy is a hot topic on the political scene right now. Republicans are really driving home the drilling mantra. What do you think should be done to counter that?

My message is to “leave the oil in the soil.” Right now we’ve got two energy policies in this country. One is war, the other is drilling. And neither one of them works. We’ve got to do something different.

Another talking point on the Hill right now is that regulating greenhouse-gas emissions and shifting away from fossil fuels will be catastrophic for the economy and working families. These scare tactics seem to work, especially in a period of economic downturn. What’s the message you’re taking to voters on this? How do you talk about these issues when people are already upset about rising gas prices?

I’ve seen communities over in Europe that have no energy bills at all, and so if we’re talking about hardship, the hardship occurs when the elected leadership is stuck in old ways and reticent to invest in new ways that make more sense. And certainly sustainable living makes more sense. Sustainable energy makes more sense. And doing the same thing and getting a worse result is not something that makes more sense. If we continue to do what we’ve done in the past, on the horizon is nothing more than an extension of war, an extension of the military machine, and reliance on a resource that is not infinite.

You’ve said that the United States could declare itself carbon- and nuclear-free. How soon do you think that’s possible? What do you propose to do to make that happen?

What’s on the table now is [a goal of dramatically reducing carbon emissions by] 2050, but of course we don’t have that kind of time. Carbon-free communities are being built in other parts of the world, particularly in Europe. There are oil-producing countries in the Middle East that are already at least moving in this direction. We even had the king of Saudi Arabia say, “We’re going to leave some of our oil in our soil.”

Do you believe we can achieve political consensus on a goal of 80 percent carbon reductions by 2050?

I think that public policy is supposed to reflect the values of the people. To the extent that it doesn’t, then it’s up to the people to change the policymakers. That’s why we have to be engaged at every step of the process of voting — before we vote, during the vote, during the counting of the vote, and after the election is over — not only to make sure that the counting process is accountable, but also so that our elected officials remain true to the values that people voted. That has not happened with the Democratic and Republican parties.

When people cast their vote for the Green Party, they’re voting for green solutions. They’re voting for people who have the attitude that this is possible, that this is doable, and we represent the best alternative for the voting public.

How would you bring China and India to the table on a global climate treaty?

I think the best way is to lead by example. The United States isn’t doing that. In fact, there’s an effort to make it appear that China and India are enemies. China and India are no more enemies than the United States’ behavior toward them would lead them to be. So first of all, the United States needs to do what it must do to reduce the greenhouse gases.

What should be done at a federal level about food issues — farming, genetically modified foods, etc.?

There is an effort to store seeds in Norway. And at the same time, there’s this push to impose particular Monsanto-type seeds on farmers around the world. That needs to stop, and it needs to stop right here in the United States. I would prohibit it. I would ask Congress to prohibit it and allow farmers to grow their crops in the best manner time-tested for thousands of years.

I used to be on the Agriculture Committee and represented farmers in Georgia. I got to visit farmers in Europe, and they have really taken this to an entirely new level, where not only is there the organic farming, but also a level beyond organic. Every aspect of the production is done in a way that has no toxins, no chemicals, nothing that would be harmful to man or any aspect of nature. Those are the kinds of agricultural trends that ought to be supported, for example, in the Farm Bill.

What other environmental issues need more national attention?

There was an effort that we tried to focus on with only limited success, and that was the cleanup of our military bases. Cleanup of these installations would provide far more jobs than one would think, because of the egregious nature of the problem.

We’ve also got this situation of environmental injustice that hasn’t been taken care of. Hurricanes Rita and Katrina coated every building, every item, every living and non-living thing in New Orleans with slime, and we’ve got the toxic effects of that. The legislation that I introduced was to provide for the testing of the environment — all of the land, soil, and air in New Orleans — and then making that known to people so they know what the potential health effects are. That has not even been ascertained by any official governmental body. Basically what was done in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was looking at the buildings — they were classified as habitable if they were structurally sound. But nobody tested the mold and the slime and the toxicity of those structurally sound buildings.

And then of course in Louisiana we’ve got Cancer Alley, which has been noted for a number of health effects.

We’ve just got massive cleanup that needs to be done inside this country, and it receives very little attention even now as we all talk about environmental issues.

Are Democrats and their presidential candidate, Barack Obama, doing enough on environmental issues?

I think that’s a question that voters, those who are particularly interested in environmental issues, will have to sort out for themselves. But there is a party, the Green Party, that is dedicated and founded for the purpose of extending social justice as well as ecological wisdom for people in this country and around the world. And the Green Party is an international collection of parties that help to make policy on the national level in many other countries around the world, and it’s about time that we had the influence and the impact of Green Party policies here at home in the U.S.

After Ralph Nader ran on the Green Party ticket in 2000, there was a lot of anger from folks afterward that he tipped the presidency to George W. Bush. Are you concerned about siphoning off votes from the Democrats this year, possibly changing the outcome of the election?

It’s a ludicrous assumption, and it’s not based on the facts. In 2000, 1 million black people went to the polls and voted, but their votes weren’t counted. So now who’s responsible for that? Nine hundred thousand of those votes would have gone to the Democrats, but the Democrats conceded the election rather than demanding a recount or an investigation that would have found the guilty parties. Unfortunately, those misconceptions that are put forward by the corporate press have nothing to do with the truth. Seventy-eight thousand black people in Florida alone voted and their votes weren’t counted, and that doesn’t even include the number of people who went to the polls and attempted to vote, who didn’t even get a chance to cast their votes.

It’s ludicrous to think that George Bush won the election by 537 votes, but it’s also ludicrous for the political party that actually won the election to give it away. The question should be posed to them: Why did they?

What environmental achievement are you proudest of?

The National Forest Protection and Restoration Act was something that was near and dear to my heart.

After the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the piece of legislation that we introduced to ascertain and make public the environmental status of the area was also necessary, particularly given the situation with the first responders at the World Trade Center after Sept. 11. It was clear that there were going to be health effects [after the Sept. 11 attacks], and yet the workers were sent in there anyway to rescue people as best they could and then to find as many bodies as they could. They did that work, and the Bush administration lied to them, and to all of us, and now they truly are suffering the health effects.

The depleted uranium legislation that I introduced is also something that I am proud of. My bill would have stopped the use of all depleted uranium ammunitions until we understood clearly what the health effects were.

Who is your environmental hero?

My heroes are the people who strove for justice, and the ultimate environmental hero in my opinion would be someone who was working to make peace. If we understand the sanctity of human life, then we are, I believe, less apt to destroy that which sustains our life. So perhaps the people who struggle for human rights have to be the environmental heroes. As I think about it, for example, it’s the women’s suffrage movement who are responsible for me and [my running mate] Rosa being where we are right now with the Green Party ticket. Then of course you’ve got the abolitionists — Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am without them. And so those are to me the ultimate heroes, because it’s on their shoulders that I stand.

What have you done personally to lighten your environmental footprint?

Well, I don’t consume very much. Where possible, I’m changing my shopping habits, in terms of the food that I buy. I choose to buy from the local folks as opposed to the mega folks. Of course, you have to go to the supermarket every once in a while to get stuff. I’m trying to live within the 200-mile rule of thumb in terms of my food consumption. As a black person, there’s a dearth of services generally and a lack of healthy food in the black community, so that’s been a challenge.