PORTLAND, Maine — Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader and world diplomat George Mitchell called upon President Barack Obama — and everyone else who backs stiff environmental protection laws and the science behind climate change — to be bold and persistent in the face of opponents Friday.

Mitchell touched upon a wide range of topics, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in his keynote address and subsequent press conference during the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s annual membership meeting, held Friday afternoon at the University of Southern Maine’s Abromson Center.

Mitchell told those in attendance Friday that politics and scientific sentiment are cyclical throughout human history, and said he’s confident “reason and logic” will ultimately “prevail.”

As the latest sign of the political controversy surrounding the issue of global warming, Republican presidential hopefuls Michele Bachmann, a U.S. Congresswoman from Minnesota, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have disparaged the prevailing scientific belief that humans have contributed to climate change as false.

“We’ve all seen environmental protection used as a scapegoat for whatever society’s problems are, but it will not last,” he said during his keynote address. “I believe this anti-science movement will fade away over time. Remember, it took a long time for people to realize the world is not flat.”

Responding to a question submitted by an NRCM member and delivered to him by organization Executive Director Lisa Pohlmann Friday, Mitchell said Obama must be forceful about his policy initiatives — regarding the environment and other issues alike — while under attack by conservatives looking to unseat him in 2012.

“He’s got to get out and fight,” Mitchell said of the president. “He’s got to stand up and make his case in the teeth of a determined opposition.”

That advice, he said, is good for anyone fighting to protect the environment and opposed to the rollback of environmental protection laws.

“We can’t sit around and be upset about things,” Mitchell, who sponsored the 1990 reauthorization of the Clean Air Act and said it took “years” to usher through its passage, said Friday. “We have to take action.”

He also sought to dispel notions that today’s partisan gridlock is insurmountable or more extreme than ever before.

“It is a human tendency to view the past with rose-colored glasses,” Mitchell said during his address. “But let’s be honest. There wasn’t a time in American history when there wasn’t a partisan atmosphere, when it wasn’t rough-and-tumble, or when there weren’t personal attacks.”

Mitchell argued that the public should resist the “false choice” between environmental protection and economic development, saying the economic benefits to society realized by Environmental Protection Agency regulations far exceed the costs to implement them.

After speaking before the NRCM membership, Mitchell retreated to a second-floor meeting room to field questions from the media. There, he reiterated his belief that “anti-science” sentiment toward climate change ultimately will fade, and expanded his focus to touch upon peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Mitchell served under Obama as a special envoy to the Middle East between January 2009 and May of this year, during which time he worked to facilitate peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mitchell said Israel wants a sense of safety from Palestinian attacks, while the Palestinians want their own recognized state. The former envoy said he believes the two sides eventually will reach an accord because Israel will never truly be safe unless the Palestinians are living in their own state, and the Palestinians won’t get their own state until the Israelis are safe.

“Each has a vested interest in accomplishing the primary objective of the other side,” Mitchell said.

Regarding Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ request to the United Nations to recognize his Palestinian government as an official member, Mitchell said he agrees with Obama that the move is not in the best interest of the peace progress. He said peace can only be achieved when the two parties are negotiating directly with one another, and Abbas’ request “will cause the parties to be farther apart than they’ve ever been.”

“It’s not that the president is against the Palestinian state,” Mitchell said. “The president supports a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution.”

Going full circle, Mitchell said the turmoil in the Middle East — including spring and summer uprisings against the governments of Egypt and Libya, among other incidents — reinforces his view that America should reduce its dependence on foreign oil by pursuing home-grown renewable energy sources.

“It’s a reminder of the interdependency [of our countries] and our vulnerability [to threats to our supply of petroleum],” Mitchell said, “and the importance of relieving our dependence on foreign oil.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.