Going green: It’s the new red, white and blue

The bicycle racks are fuller on the Hill these days. Recycling bins are coming out. The ozone layer may be thin, but the air around the Capitol is thick with promises for a better environmental tomorrow. It’s becoming more hip to be green.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is “greening” the Capitol, calling for new paints and carpets to emit less chemicals and pushing a plan to install an ethanol pump.

Congressmen are installing new light bulbs and buying carbon credits. Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) sponsored an appropriations bill that would promote more green federal buildings while setting aside $231,000 to expand the Earth Conservation Corps.

“Green is the new red, white and blue,” said John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace. “It’s both hip and patriotic.”

Congress, hip? Yes indeed. “Green” lawmakers are sweeping into town on a fleet of hybrids. Some examples include Democratic Reps. Earl Blumenauer (Ore.), Edward Markey (Mass.) and Allyson Schwartz (Pa.) and Sens. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and John Kerry (Mass.). Many are having double-paned windows installed in their homes to conserve energy. Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) remodeled her entire home to be more energy-efficient.

“Virtually everywhere I go, this is happening,” Blumenauer said. “It’s not just the West Coast granola crowd.”

Even Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) considers himself a green lawmaker, although he doesn’t believe in global warming.
Inhofe described the threat of catastrophic global warming as “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people” in a 2003 floor speech. He has stuck by that statement ever since.

“Unfortunately, some special interest groups here in Washington measure the greenness of politicians by how many federal laws they impose on the American people. I never receive high marks from them,” said Inhofe. He adds that he has made a tradition of going to South Padre Island, Texas, to protect Ridley Sea Turtle hatchlings as they make their journey to the ocean.

Not all lawmakers may be following the example of Leonardo DiCaprio, who has taken the environment as his pet project and met with several lawmakers on the Hill to press legislation to fight global warming.

But they may be playing catch-up — and they recognize there is a green trend: Voters may still be driving SUVs, but they are also hiring green architects, buying sustainable food and supporting biodiversity in cuisine.

“Americans are beginning to really understand the importance of being environmentally conscious,” said Bingaman. “It is the Congress that has fallen behind in this area and we need to continue working to ensure our country’s laws reflect the wishes of its citizens.”

Among lawmakers, there are different shades of green.

Blumenauer, a well-known environmentalist, is also a notorious bicycle rider. He churns the wheels to and from work and to meetings. He even has what he calls a “meeting-on-the-go” where he meets with fellow Oregon Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio during a jog.

No one in Blumenauer’s office has parking permits; everyone either bikes or takes the Metro. His appears to be the only office where no one uses the allotted Capitol parking.

No paper products for tea or coffee in the Oregonian’s pad; bring your own mug. The coffee itself is fair-trade, shade-grown, although Blumenauer himself only takes tea. Any plastic forks must be washed. Staffers trudge up stairs instead of taking elevators. They do not even take the train under the Capitol from one end to the other.

Although Blumenauer has to use planes to cross the country to his native Oregon, he tries to use trains, which emit less carbon, to get to meetings in places like New York. His hometown of Portland is one of the only U.S. cities in compliance with the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement that the Bush administration has refused to sign.

“It’s the tiny things that will make a difference,” he said. “And people are paying attention.”  

Markey also has some green habits. To get into town from his home — a home that boasts energy-efficient windows — he drives a Toyota Camry Hybrid, which gets 40 miles to the gallon, besting Kerry’s Ford Hybrid Escape’s 29. Just in case his daily habits leave a “carbon footprint,” he buys renewable wind and solar energy from his utility company. He has also installed compact fluorescent light bulbs throughout his home, which are more energy-efficient.

Is he ahead of the wave?

“I’m on the wave,” Markey declared.

You will also find Schwartz surfing that wave. Her office keeps the heat on a moderate setting in the winter. “Occasionally that means wearing an extra sweater,” she said.

Schwartz rides trains to and from her native Philadelphia, and she tries to be strategic when she runs errands so she doesn’t make multiple trips.

“My time in Washington is limited,” she said. “I don’t do that much shopping — I’m not such a domestic. When I can I like to buy fresh food, not packaged.” She shops at local Pennsylvania farms. The Hill, on the other hand, can be a tougher place to find organic food, and lawmakers say it’s even harder since the Eastern Market fire.

At home, Kerry says, he buys “tons of organics.”

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said she is “consciously focusing on being more green.” She has replaced her light bulbs, recycles more bags now, and plans to get a carbon footprint audit.

“And I turn off the water when I brush my teeth,” she said.

Does it really help?

“I don’t think there’s any question,” she said. “It’s not just cosmetic. There is a huge cumulative effect.”

Members aren’t all as committed. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) said he’s concerned about so many issues that environmental ones are not among his priorities. And Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) admits she’s not a member of Greenpeace, although she emphasizes conservation.

Some are more blunt.

“Frankly, I don’t do much,” said Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas). He does carpool to work, however, and his office recycles.

“In Texas, we think we’re pretty good conservationists,” he explained. “I don’t think people from [places like] the Northeast and California understand how seriously farmers and rangers take the obligation to protect the land.”

Another Texan, Rep. Al Green (D), said his office “makes an effort” to recycle.

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), however, scoffs at ideas such as buying carbon credits and says tax incentives are the way to go.

“I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t want to be considered an environmentalist,” he said. Westmoreland agreed that global warming is happening, but only as part of historical weather cycles.

Of DiCaprio and other eco-friendly stars, Westmoreland calls them “rich people with nothing else to do.”

Meanwhile, no one interviewed has given up red meat just yet. Some environmental organizations suggest that being a vegetarian helps the environment. A 2006 United Nations report concurs, saying that livestock being raised for food are one of the “top two or three” contributors to the destruction of the environment. The U.N. argues that the production of meat consumes an enormous amount of energy and fossil fuels, 10 times the amount needed for the production of crops.

Even DiCaprio hasn’t sworn off meat. It is reported that he enjoys an occasional chicken club sandwich, though he keeps that on the down-low.

If green lawmakers are still enjoying their steaks, they make up for it by working to minimize the Capitol’s utility bill.
“I try to walk as often as I can, but sometimes those votes just creep up on me quickly, and I need to get over to the floor on the train,” the long-legged Kerry said.  

Does walking from the Senate side to the House side, eating organic food or riding a bicycle really benefit the environment?

“If senators and congressmen are taking steps on their own to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, if that inspires others, more power to ’em,” said Alex Formuzis, a spokesman for the Environmental Working Group and former spokesman to Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). “Every little bit helps.”

He emphasized that purchasing organic food means less pesticides, which in turn means healthier eating for consumers and less erosion of farmlands. Recycling also means that fewer pollutants enter the atmosphere, while hybrid vehicles minimize carbon emissions.

 Passacantando says that carbon credits, on the other hand, are a dubious way of helping the environment. “It has a theoretical potential,” he said, “but it’s so rife with problems and loopholes. Right now it’s very questionable.”

Kerry buys credits, even though he recognizes their questionable nature.

“We reduce, reuse and recycle what we can, but there are still loose ends in our greener daily routine. For those things, I buy offsets,” he said. “Offsetting is not the perfect solution, but buying credits helps complete our balancing act. We should start with the simple things.”  

Bingaman does not buy carbon credits, but he is installing double-paned windows in his Washington home. He makes sure everything — computers included — is turned off when the office closes for the day. The senator can list everything his staff recycles: paper, newspaper, glass, plastic and aluminum.

“We love that they drive Priuses, but the true test of political leaders is whether they drive legislation to stop global warming,” Passacantando said.