Honoring Green Heroes—and a Republican Environmentalist

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The Heinz Family Foundation—set up in memory of the late Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania, who died in helicopter crash in 1991—today announced its 16th annual Heinz Awards, to honor heroes of the environment. (The awards are handled in part by Teresa Heinz, Sen. Heinz’s widow and now wife of Sen. John Kerry, who has emerged as a green champion in his own right on carbon cap-and-trade.) The Heinz Awards are one of the biggest prizes in the environmental field—each winner gets $100,000—and this year’s recipients are a mix of scientists (along with a journalist and a photographer), with an emphasis on environmental health and toxic chemicals. They include:

  • Dr. Lynn Goldman, dean of the School of Public Health and Health Services at George Washington University, who has led a crusade to protect young children from toxic chemicals.
  • Dr. Frederick vom Saal, a biology professor at the University of Missouri who has linked the endocrine disruptor bisphenol-A—used in countless everyday products—to possible developmental problems.
  • Cary Fowler, the head of the Global Seed Diversity Trust, who has spearheaded the preservation of the world’s seeds—something we’ll all thank him for one day.
  • James Balog, a onetime global warming skeptic who has taken over half a million photos of glaciers around the world, showing glacial retreat—and climate change—in real time
  • Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer for The New Yorker, who has turned climate change and other green topics into compelling narrative (and made other environmental writers feel like failures by comparison).

The Heinz Awards offer much-needed recognition—and cash—to those toiling away in toxicology, climate science or oceanography. But the announcement caught my eye for another reason. The late Sen. John Heinz—a Pittsburgh native who was born into the Heinz company fortune—built his political reputation in part on his passion for the environment. The John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Pennsylvania—which preserves the state’s largest freshwater tidal marsh—is named for him. He was the author of the Pennsylvania Wilderness Act, and helped craft the Superfund and Clean Water Act programs in Congress. He fought deforestation in the Amazon. And he was a Republican.

It’s that last fact that stands out these days, when the environment—like just about everything else in the political realm—has become deeply partisan. In the end Kerry couldn’t find a single Republican supporter in the Senate for his carbon cap-and-trade legislation this spring—effectively dooming the bill—and just a handful of Republicans voted for the cap-and-trade bill in the House last year. (And one of them, Delaware Representative Mike Castle, just lost out on the Republican nomination to the Senate in part because of his vote.) But it wasn’t always like this. It was President Richard Nixon who launched the Environmental Protection Agency—albeit somewhat grudgingly—and signed the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. President George H.W. Bush promised to be the “environmental president.” That was more rhetoric than reality, but can you imagine any Republican candidate in 2012 using those words in their campaign?

Of course, it’s not just politics that have changed since Heinz died—climate change has emerged as the top environmental issue, and reducing carbon emissions has proven politically much more difficult than dealing with acid rain or water pollution, or expanding national parks. But as long as the environment remains an untouchable term for one of the two major political parties, it’s hard to see the country ever finishing the conservation work John Heinz dedicated much of his career to.