The Other Lies of George Bush
One of Bush's first PR slip-ups as President came when his EPA announced that it would withdraw a new standard for arsenic in drinking water that had been developed during the Clinton years. Bush defended this move by claiming that the new standard had been irresponsibly rushed through: "At the very last minute my predecessor made a decision, and we pulled back his decision so that we can make a decision based upon sound science and what's realistic." And his EPA administrator, Christine Todd Whitman, said the standard had not been based on the "best available science." This was a harsh charge. And untrue.
The new arsenic standard was no quickie job unattached to reasonable scientific findings. The EPA had worked for a decade on establishing the new, 10-parts-per-billion standard. Congress had directed the agency to establish a new standard, and it had authorized $2.5 million a year for studies from 1997 through 2000. A 1999 study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) had concluded that the existing 50-ppb standard "could easily" result in a 1-in-100 cancer risk and had recommended that acceptable levels be lowered "as promptly as possible." EPA policy-makers had thought that a 3-ppb standard would have been justified by the science, yet they took cost considerations into account and went for the less stringent 10 ppb.
Bush's arsenic move appeared to have been based upon a political calculation--even though Bush, as a candidate, had said he would not decide key policy matters on the basis of politics. But in his book The Right Man, David Frum, a former Bush economic speechwriter, reported that Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser, had "pressed for reversal" of the arsenic standard in an attempt to win votes in New Mexico, one of a few states that have high naturally occurring levels of arsenic and that would face higher costs in meeting the new standard.
Several months after the EPA suspended the standard, a new NAS study concluded that the 10-ppb standard was indeed scientifically justified and possibly not tight enough. After that, the Administration decided that the original 10 ppb was exactly the right level for a workable rule, even though the latest in "best available science" now suggested that the 10-ppb level might not adequately safeguard water drinkers.
The arsenic screw-up was one of the few lies for which Bush took a hit. On the matter of global warming, he managed to lie his way through a controversy more deftly. Months into his presidency, Bush declared that he was opposed to the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 global warming accord. To defend his retreat from the treaty, he cited "the incomplete state of scientific knowledge." This was a misleading argument, for the scientific consensus was rather firm. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international body of thousands of scientists assembled by the UN and the World Meteorological Organization, held that global temperatures were dramatically on the rise and that this increase was, to an unspecified degree, a result of human-induced emissions.
In early June 2001 the NAS released a report Bush had requested, and it concluded global warming was under way and "most likely due to human activities." Rather than accept the analysis it had commissioned, the Bush White House countered with duplicity. Press secretary Fleischer maintained that the report "concludes that the Earth is warming. But it is inconclusive on why--whether it's man-made causes or whether it's natural causes." That was not spinning. That was prevaricating. The study blamed "human activities" while noting that "natural variability" might be a contributing factor too.
Still, the Bush White House wanted to make it seem as if Bush did take the issue seriously. So on June 11, he delivered a speech on global warming and pledged to craft an alternative to Kyoto that would "reduce" emissions. The following February he unveiled his plan. "Our immediate goal," Bush said, "is to reduce America's greenhouse-gas emissions relative to the size of our economy."
Relative to the size of our economy? This was a ruse. Since the US economy is generally growing, this meant emissions could continue to rise, as long as the rate of increase was below the rate of economic growth. The other industrialized nations, with the Kyoto accord, were calling for reductions below 1990 levels. Bush was pushing for slower increases above 2000 levels. Bush's promise to lower emissions had turned out to be no more than hot air.