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Author sees shift in McCain environmental positions

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. September 13, 2008 - The new GOP mantra of "drill, baby, drill!" doesn't thrill Elizabeth Kolbert.

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The longtime writer for The New Yorker is one of a series of speakers at this fall's special edition of the Washington University Assembly Series dedicated to issues in the Nov. 4 election. Her book "Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change," was chosen for all of the university's incoming students to read and will be the subject of a series of group discussions this semester.

She expects that many of the same students from those discussions will be in the audience at Graham Chapel at 4 p.m. on Wednesday (9/17). College audiences are pretty well informed, she said in a telephone interview, but that may be because they are self-selecting.

And, she adds, they are almost universally persuaded that climate change is a genuine threat and want to help where they can.

"I think there is a huge number of people who want to do something," Kolbert says.

Her experience on campuses is far more encouraging than the news she gets by following the presidential election. Like too many other issues, the environment has become highly politicized, and the quest to get elected has overwhelmed what Kolbert considers to have been once-sensible policies.

"We started out with two candidates who seemed like they were pretty well informed," she says, "but the McCain campaign has really, really downplayed this issue in favor of 'drill, baby, drill.' It's really disappointing.

"The Obama plan is a pretty reasonable one. He has made some moves from a policy perspective that are not that good, but in general he has stuck to proposals that are pretty good.

"McCain has contradictory sets of proposals in play. The John McCain of even six months ago is different from the John McCain of today, so I don't know which one would be president."

And what about Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin's stance on global warming?

"People who I know are not big fans of Sarah Palin," Kolbert says. "The notion that someone is still doubting that humans are responsible for this phenomenon is quite dramatic and completely counter-productive."

Such an outlook is particularly disheartening, she adds, because while the problem cannot be solved by the White House alone, the right direction from the top can make a real difference. Some changes could be made by executive order, but that path won't go far enough.

"Can the president single-handedly save the world? No. But there is no doubt that he can have an impact on policy. It's going to depend on who wins and on whether whoever wins will take on a very difficult task. If it's not a priority, it's not going to get done."

Kolbert says she is flattered by comparisons of her work to Rachel Carson's landmark "Silent Spring," but she has yet to see the kind of impact that that work had. She admits that having her book be labeled as assigned reading for incoming students can be "a mixed blessing. But as an author, you hope that even if they are picking it up against their will, they will be come engaged by it."

Kolbert's appearance will be one of several at the university's fall Assembly Series designed to tap into what Barbara Rea, the university's director of major events and special projects, sees as a heightened interest in presidential politics this year.

"Among student leaders, there is a real deep understanding that this one is really important," Rea says. "There's a much deeper interest and a real concern."

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The politically oriented speakers began with an appearance earlier this month by satirist Mo Rocca and his special brand of "funditry." 

The political fervor on campus may reach its peak at the vice-presidential debate on Thursday, Oct. 2, at the university's athletic complex between Palin and Democrat Joe Biden. The university, which hosted presidential debates in 1992, 2000 and 2004, has planned a series of events to coincide with the debate; a list of those is online at debate.wustl.edu .

As far as the leanings on campus goes, Rea says if the election were held on campus today, she has no doubt who the winner would be.

"There is strong Obama sentiment," she says. "It's a very, very clear majority."

Upcoming speakers

 
Washington U. economist Steven Fazzari, at 4 p.m. Sept. 24 in Graham Chapel
 
Diplomat and writer Strobe Talbott, at 3 p.m.  Oct. 13 in the Anheuser-Busch Hall in the law school building
 
Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein, at 4 p.m. Oct. 23 in Graham Chapel.
 
A full listing of speakers is available at assemblyseries.wustl.edu .

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