As a Tarkio High School senior in April 1970, I didn't place Earth Day at the top of my priority list. Other than a few fumes inhaled while operating farm equipment, the air seemed plenty healthy and clean in my rural northwest Missouri community. Hogs and cattle smelled a little at times. "Smells like money," we would say. But pollution -- that was a city problem.
A far bigger concern for me was voting rights. I was old enough to be drafted for the Vietnam War but not old enough to vote. A college deferment kept me out of the draft, and Congress dropped the national voting age to 18 the next year. I was excited to be a student at the University of Missouri and to be in the first under-21 class of voters. Those times instilled in me that voting is not only a right but a responsibility.
By the time I cast my first presidential vote at age 19, I was beginning to realize environmental issues extended beyond our industrial centers. I wasn't alone. The American people were concerned about the environment and re-elected Richard Nixon as president. It helped that he had proposed the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and signed the Clean Air Act, only part of his environmental legacy -- smart politics with polls showing nearly 70 percent concern for environmental issues.
So what's happening with environmental politics today? Gallup's March environmental poll showed that 64 percent of Americans are concerned about global warming and that 65 percent believe humans are causing it. Yet two of our presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, totally dismiss climate change. U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who has publicly opposed the Paris climate agreement and Clean Power Plan, has a serious challenger with Jason Kander. But climate change doesn't appear to be an issue on either side of the Senate campaign. Where's the disconnect between citizens and our politicians?
Contrary to what many people believe, politicians are listening -- but only to voters. Research by political consultant Nathaniel Stinnett in 2014 discovered 15.78 million super-environmentalists who almost never vote. Because these environmentalists are such lousy voters, they don't show up in likely voter polls and are never targeted by political campaigns.
You can't really blame Sen. Blunt for boldly supporting fossil-fuel special interests and Kander for staying mum on climate change while on the campaign trail -- not when those who rank climate change as a high priority stay home on election days. It has been smart politics, but this could change.
In response to what he learned, Stinnett launched the Environmental Voter Project, an effort to identify, register and motivate climate-concerned citizens to vote. A three-minute video at www.environmentalvoter.org is fun and informative.
The fact that a new, clean-energy economy is entirely possible was evident during an April 11-12 advancing renewables conference held on the MU campus. Speakers included electric-utility professionals and solar, wind, geothermal and bioenergy entrepreneurs.
Rudi Roeslein of Roeslein Alternative Energy explained how pig poop can produce clean energy. To get extra power out of the poop, he mixes it with grasses from restored prairies that are managed to improve wildlife habitat. The methane produced is refined to natural gas suitable for cooking porking chops. Capturing the methane also reduces the "smells like money" hog farm odor, an added benefit for rural communities.
There's plenty our representatives in Congress can do to speed our transition to clean energy, but first they must hear from "voters" that we want to make protecting our environment a priority.
With the upcoming Earth Day, many citizens will be motivated to do their part to keep our planet healthy. They will plant a tree, eat less meat, start composting, buy local and recycle. Many will join groups that advocate for climate policy, which is vital. But they should add "really" voting to their list -- and then answer the phone when the pollsters call.
George Laur is group leader for Citizens' Climate Lobby of Columbia/Jefferson City.