The democratic primaries are coming up, fast and furious, with Iowa on Jan. 19 and New Hampshire on Jan. 27. (Connecticut’s not till March 2.) For many of us undergraduates, this is the first election in which we can vote, the first election we’ve ever cared about. For many of us, the idea of George W. Bush’s reelection sends hot blood coursing through our veins.

Surely there are many critical issues to weigh when voting in the primaries, from international relations to budget balancing to poverty. As someone concerned about the environment, I consider a down and dirty examination of each of the candidates’ environmental records and platforms necessary.

First of all, the general consensus is that anyone is better than Bush. By many estimates, Bush has been the biggest enemy to the environment in the White House in modern history. With deceptively titled initiatives, such as “Healthy Forests” and “Clear Skies,” which were actually designed to gut forest protection and roll back the Clean Air Act, the Bush administration has made angry, angry environmentalists of us all.

With that said, the League of Conservation Voters, the self-entitled “political voice of the environmental movement,” ranks the candidates as follows (from best to not-so-best): Kerry and Lieberman have shown the strongest leadership on environmental issues; Kucinich, Edwards, and Dean also have strong environmental records; Moseley Braun and Gephardt have positive environmental positions but deviate on a few key issues; Clark and Sharpton have less informative records but appear promising.

So let’s start at the top and work our way down. Of all the candidates, Kerry and Lieberman are the foremost environmental leaders. During his 19 years in the Senate, John Kerry accrued a near-perfect environmental voting record. He has played a key role in promoting higher fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, has led fights in the Senate against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), and has played a key role in overturning efforts to weaken the Clean Air Act. Repeatedly, he has staked out pro-environment positions on international and domestic issues.

Joseph Lieberman, a senator since 1988, has also shown stalwart environmental leadership: in pushing for mandatory cap and trade programs for carbon emissions, in the struggle against ANWR drilling, and in the introduction of bills to reduce power plant pollution and prevent the Bush administration from limiting the Clean Water Act. The League of Conservation Voters reports that he has made both energy independence and the environment an important component of his campaign platform.  While he has loudly criticized the Bush administration’s plans to weaken environmental protections, he has demonstrated an ability to reach across party lines on key environmental issues, with his work on a bill to combat global warming with Senator McCain.

Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, probably the most well-known candidate to us Generation Y-ers because of the unprecedented grassroots mobilization around his campaign, has a strong history of preserving land, as well as supporting energy efficiency and renewable energy. As governor, he protected hundreds of thousands of acres of Vermont land, as well as adopting a model energy efficiency program that has cut greenhouse gas emissions by one million tons. Although he has been criticized for lack of enforcement on some clean water issues and cutting funding to Vermont’s environmental agencies, he has pointedly staked out strong pro-environment positions in the presidential race.

Although John Edwards has only one term in the Senate to his name, he has a solid record on environmental issues. He has led determined efforts in Congress to reduce air pollution from power plants and oppose Clean Air Act rollbacks, and has supported drinking water and public lands protection, as well as a 10 percent renewable electricity standard.

Dennis Kucinich is the House of Reps’ outspoken progressive with a passion. Although he’s served only a short seven years in the House, he’s compiled one of the best environmental voting records. From opposing the spread of genetically modified organisms and nuclear power to his personal lifestyle choice to be a vegan, his principles are evident.

A voice for environmental justice, Carol Moseley Braun has worked to reduce pollution in low income and urban areas.  During her single term as senator, she has compiled a strong voting record indicating support for protecting water supplies and wilderness.  However, one big “but” is her support for nuclear energy.

Little is known about the environmental stance of Wesley Clark, the retired general with no experience in elected public office. However, he was chairman of a company that developed a fuel-efficient propulsion system for cars, and, according to the League of Conservation Voters, over the course of his campaign, has staked out impressive positions on a range of environmental issues.

Moving on down: Richard Gephardt, a House representative since 1976, gets lower marks in my book. It is true that he has fought to reduce the environmental impacts of international trade agreements, and has consistently supported measures to protect air and water, reduce toxics, and preserve wilderness.  However, he has steadfastly voted against higher fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks to reduce global warming. Boo. He supports an approach to global warming “that does not place unfair disadvantage on U.S. industry and our workers.”

Lastly, we’ve got Al Sharpton, minister and high-profile activist. Although he has spoken out on childhood lead poisoning in New York City and other environmental justice issues, his positions on many key environmental issues remain unknown.

What do they all have in common? They all oppose drilling in ANWR, although I personally think this issue is overrated: as long as we continue running an economy with a foundation built on the guzzling of fossil fuels, oil must be drilled somewhere, and if not within our borders, then somewhere else in the world. They all oppose limiting the authority of the Clean Water Act, and they all support wilderness protection (with the exception of Sharpton’s unknown position) and reengaging in global warming talks.

While the environment is but one of several important considerations to take into account when we vote this spring, it is an issue that cannot be ignored. There are surely differences in the environmental records and platforms of the candidates for the Democratic nomination. However, once that choice is made, any one of the Democratic candidates would be better than Bush, and unseating him should be the main focus of our energy in the 2004 election.