George W. Bush’s assault on the environment over the past two years has been so blatant and relentless that even American television now reports it as a simple fact, like gravity. Is there another issue where Bush has gotten such critical news coverage? Not Iraq, where reports have made plain the Administration’s determination to go to war but declined to challenge it. Not economics, though that could change if unemployment and federal deficits keep climbing. Some stories have mentioned Bush’s bias toward the rich and corporate, but the tone of most economics coverage has been relatively respectful, except during the Enron scandal, and the White House slipped that noose by changing the subject to Saddam.
The environment, however, has been one bad story after another. Every week seems to bring news of a fresh abomination, from making environmental impact assessments in the national forests optional, to excusing the country’s dirtiest power plants from upgrading their pollution controls, to stripping protection from 20 million acres of wetlands, to recycling nuclear waste within consumer goods. (The latter lunacy so far remains only a proposal, but it illustrates a mindset.)
The temptation in writing a midterm evaluation like this one is to list every anti-environmental action the Bush Administration has taken over the past two years. But that would make for long and tedious reading, and besides, environmental group websites already offer the information (see sidebar). Suffice it to say that no Administration since the dawn of the modern environmental era forty years ago has done more to facilitate degradation of the ecosystems that make life on earth possible.
The irony is that Bush has compiled this odious record without having an environmental policy as such. Instead, his environmental achievements–an ever-lengthening list of regulations relaxed, actions delayed and foxes put in charge of henhouses–have come mainly as a consequence of policies pursued in other fields: economic, military and, above all, energy. The environment is not even an afterthought for the Bush crowd. The Administration’s energy plan, for example, never once mentions the words “climate change,” even though its lopsided emphasis on fossil-fuel development promises to boost US greenhouse-gas emissions between 14 and 38 percent by 2007.
It’s easy enough to say that Bush’s approach reflects his and his top aides’ pasts in the oil, mining, timber, chemical and electric utility industries. It’s likewise easy to understand Bush’s actions as thanks for the $44 million in contributions those industries showered on him and the Republican National Committee in 2000. Here, the indispensable resource is Paybacks, a report prepared by the NGOs Public Campaign and Earthjustice (www.publicampaign.org/publications/reports/paybacks/Paybacks.pdf). Paybacks offers the most complete listing available of which former corporate executives now oversee their erstwhile colleagues from which federal agencies. In a crowded field, perhaps the most egregious conflict of interest belongs to Steven Griles, the Deputy Interior Secretary. During two years of government service, Griles has continued to be paid $284,000 a year by his former lobby firm, National Environmental Strategies, where he represented mining companies. Apparently not a man to take something for nothing, Griles has returned the favor by meeting with and lobbying on behalf of former clients, most notably in the Administration’s attempted recasting of the Clean Water Act to allow the dumping of mining debris into streams and rivers in Appalachia.
The ecological consequences of all this are as predictable as they are lamentable, but the questions that most urgently need answering are political. Why does the Bush Administration think it can get away with such a slash-and-burn approach to a mom-and-apple-pie issue? Surely Karl Rove, the powerful White House political director, is aware that poll after poll shows that large majorities of Americans care about clean air and water and support the goals of the environmental movement. And why have environmentalists, and specifically Democrats, had so little success in countering the Bush agenda? They turned back the last concerted effort to gut the nation’s environmental laws, led by Newt Gingrich in 1995. Did that victory depend so heavily on Bill Clinton’s veto threats that it can’t be replicated now? Or do environmentalists need a new strategy?
George W. Bush is not the quickest calf in the pasture, but even he recognizes that it’s risky for a US President to look bad on the environment. Back when Bush was running, his advisers organized dozens of tutorials to remedy his ignorance of global and presidential issues. Only one such session was devoted to the environment, and it was held in the living room of the Texas governor’s mansion on an afternoon in May 1999, according to Steven Hayward, a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, and Terry Anderson, the executive director of the Political Economy Research Center. Hayward and Anderson were two of fifteen experts who heard Bush open this meeting with the following request: “I am going to be the next President of the United States. And when I leave office, the air will be cleaner, the water will be cleaner and the environment will be better. Tell me how I’m going to make that happen.”
By the end of the three-hour session, the assembled experts had assured Bush that he could accomplish this politically happy outcome without discomforting the corporate interests or right-wing groups central to his candidacy. The secret was to embrace what Gale Norton, soon to be Bush’s Interior Secretary, called “a philosophy of environmental federalism.” The idea, as Anderson later explained it, was that Washington should “devolve some responsibility for meeting environmental standards to local levels, where [officials] have better information about how to reduce pollution cost-effectively.” A second element of the philosophy presented to Bush that afternoon was replacement of government regulation with market mechanisms such as corporate self-audits, a device Bush had implemented as governor. A third element was elevation of private-property rights over public prerogative.
These ideas had been gestating in right-wing and libertarian think tanks for years. Norton, for example, spent the first four years of her career at the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a nonprofit law firm co-founded by James Watt, Ronald Reagan’s Interior Secretary, that frequently represented corporate interests. In a 1989 speech Norton’s admiration for market mechanisms led her to suggest that corporations should “have a right to pollute” and then be charged accordingly. Her friend Hayward, who got Norton invited to the May 1999 meeting with Bush, conceded that she “put it poorly” but defended her underlying point: “Let’s give landowners an incentive to protect species we want protected.” The same basic reasoning underlies another concept that Norton championed for Bush that afternoon: “takings” theory, which asserts that government must compensate a landowner if a government policy precludes full economic exploitation of his property. Most environmentalists criticize takings theory as paying people to obey the law, but it is gaining ground under Bush. In a June 2001 decision the US Supreme Court endorsed takings theory by a 5-to-4 vote.
The intellectual rationale presented to Bush that afternoon in Austin has proven wonderfully convenient to him as President, for it enables him to tell himself he is helping the environment even as he pursues the corporate-friendly agenda that has defined his entire political career. How the philosophy translated into action became evident less than two weeks after Bush took office, when soaring electricity prices and threatened blackouts in California began making national news. Bush quickly blamed environmentalists and the overly stringent regulations they had supposedly imposed to keep the state from building enough power plants. California’s energy shortages, Bush argued, were another reason to support his plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling (which Vice President Dick Cheney promised could be done with minimal environmental impact). Environmentalists and public officials in California scoffed that the new President was talking nonsense. Just what devious nonsense, however, only became clear a year later, with the unfolding of the Enron scandal. What had really driven up electricity prices in California, it turned out, were the artificial shortages that Enron and other companies created by manipulating a deregulated marketplace. The right-wing gospel had said leave corporations alone and the environment would prosper, but reality in California proved otherwise.
Jump ahead now to the summer of 2002. Much of the nation has been suffering from prolonged, extreme drought. In the West, millions of acres have been ravaged by wildfires. Once again Bush is faced by a genuine public emergency. Once again he scapegoats environmentalists and federal regulators to advance a corporate agenda. During a visit to a still-smoldering forest in Oregon, the President declares that the wildfires are the result of irresponsible forest management. Excessive underbrush had accumulated, and then caught fire, because loggers had been prevented from thinning forests in a scientifically sound manner. From now on, said Bush, federal policy would promote well-managed forests and recognize that “there’s nothing wrong with people being able to earn a living off of effective forest management.” To set things right, Bush turned to a man who had long made a very good living from timber: Mark Rey, who was vice president of the American Forest and Paper Association before becoming Bush’s Under Secretary of Agriculture. Rey’s solution called for waiving fundamental stipulations of the National Environmental Protection Act, such as mandatory environmental-impact assessments, while making protection of wildlife an “optional” goal for national forest managers. With straight faces, Bush’s spin doctors proclaimed it the “Healthy Forests Initiative.”
In truth, the wildfires of 2002 were more likely rooted in an environmental reality that Bush refuses to confront: global climate change. Drought of the sort experienced in 2002 is exactly what scientists project will occur increasingly in the years ahead as global temperatures rise, bringing more extreme weather of all kinds. Thus killer floods punished central Europe and southern Asia in 2002, while Arctic ice is melting at record speed. The signs of impending disaster are so unmistakable and frightening that they are converting even such die-hard skeptics as Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, who has watched his state absorb billions of dollars of property damage as melting tundra buckles roads and buildings, and forests are consumed by a species of beetle suddenly able to survive in Alaska’s warming climate.
Bush, meanwhile, remains loyal to his oil-industry roots: Global warming is something to study, not resist. Bush promised in a September 2000 campaign speech to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide (and three other pollutants). But it’s doubtful he understood the implications of his speech, and once it became clear that honoring the promise would preclude the kind of energy plan Cheney cooked up in secret with Enron and other industry representatives, the promise obviously had to go. So did US support for the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, a move that provoked more anger overseas than perhaps any other action Bush took in his first year in office.
The White House has won the legal battle over whether it can keep secret the meetings that gave rise to the Bush energy plan, but who needs further proof of industry fingerprints when the policy speaks for itself? Its call for oil drilling in Alaska has driven discussion in Washington and therefore media coverage, but that may be a diversion. Even as environmental groups fundraise and Democratic senators threaten to filibuster over Alaska, the Administration has pursued a less-noticed but equally destructive aspect of its energy plan: encouraging drilling and mining of millions of acres of public land in the West, including national monument areas. Court rulings have blocked much of the Administration’s efforts–so far.
The single most powerful action Washington could take to slow global warming would be to impose a meaningful increase in vehicle fuel-efficiency standards. The Bush philosophy instead dictates a voluntary plan to reduce emissions, one that respects corporations’ freedom to make whatever products the market demands. Bush believes that, like him, America’s corporate leaders care about the environment, and they will do more to protect it if government stops telling them how to do so (which explains why he has cut environmental enforcement budgets and prosecutions nearly 50 percent from Clinton-era levels). Let consumers start buying more hybrid-powered cars, and Detroit will respond.
The same faith in corporate goodness underlies the rollback of the Clean Air Act’s so-called New Source Review provision, a policy that literally threatens death for thousands of Americans, especially very young and very old people who already suffer from asthma or other respiratory ailments. Approximately 75 percent of all power-plant emissions in the United States come from facilities built before 1977, which pollute four to ten times as much as plants with modern pollution controls. The Clean Air Act has long required companies to install modern pollution controls if they expand capacity at older plants. The companies complained that this requirement discouraged modernization and thereby prevented them from cutting pollution. The Administration has endorsed this logic with its new rules, which make pollution upgrades largely voluntary. The upshot, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman has promised, will be cleaner skies as corporations step up and do the right thing.
The military, however, may not even have to pretend to do the right thing. Perhaps the single most disturbing and overlooked environmental proposal of the past two years is the Pentagon’s post-September 11 suggestion that it be exempted from environmental laws. Congress rejected this request last fall, but the Pentagon is back this session with a better-prepared proposal and is confident of victory. Robert Alvarez, a senior policy adviser to the Energy Secretary during the Clinton Administration, warns that such a policy could enable the military, the nation’s biggest polluter, “to write off large areas of land, bodies of water, and the people that are dependent on them, just as the Soviet Union did.” Nuclear weapons sites in particular, says Alvarez, might become “national sacrifice zones.”
So, will Bush end up paying a price in 2004 for his betrayal of environmental values? His supporters in corporate America and the far right are apparently so blinded by their ideological biases that they perceive little political risk. Paul Weyrich, the president of the Free Congress Foundation, told the Washington Post in March 2001 that things would be fine as long as the body count didn’t get too high: “There’s a risk with some of the swing voters, but unless something happens where lots of people turn up dead before the election, these issues are not going to resonate with lots of voters.” An unnamed senior Republican agreed, asserting that “unless there’s a catastrophe, these decisions aren’t going to affect a mom in Fairfax.”
Karl Rove, however, has a more sophisticated analysis. He knows Americans, especially the suburban swing voters so coveted by presidential campaigns, care about the environment. But he thinks they care more about other issues: the economy, security (both economic and military) and healthcare. The environment, Rove reportedly calculates, ranks eighth or ninth among the average voter’s priorities. He may be right–recent polls indicate that Americans oppose Bush’s environmental actions by a 2-to-1 margin, yet 60 percent of them approve of the job he is doing as President. So it may make sense for Bush to pursue an environmental agenda that rewards corporate backers and throws red meat to his right-wing base; the White House just has to make sure that it doesn’t unleash its own Chernobyl in the process.
Remember the arsenic flap early in Bush’s presidency? Many environmental issues are too technical or abstract to resonate with average voters, but the idea of allowing more arsenic in drinking water connects with nearly everyone, which is why the Administration quickly retreated. If opponents can make Bush’s other policies equally visible in the media, and their dangers equally concrete to voters, they may force additional retreats and persuade significant numbers of voters to oppose his re-election.
Environmentalists in Washington fret that Republicans now control both houses of Congress and the White House, but this situation may be forcing the movement to recall that its true strength lies out in the country among the general public, which supports it by approximately 2 to 1. There is no reason the environmental movement has to be a marginal player in American politics. It commands significant financial resources, public credibility and intellectual capital. But too much fighting over turf and too little coordinated action has frequently left the movement in disarray. That may now be changing. According to a report in gristmagazine.com (another indispensable source of environmental news) by former New York Times reporter Keith Schneider, mainstream environmental groups have begun collaborating like never before in the face of the Bush threat. Their “collaborative defense campaign” mirrors part of Bush’s strategy by focusing more effort on state and local resistance to environmental rollbacks, both among activist groups and such politicians as New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. The national groups also hope to mobilize public unease by highlighting one or two egregious, easily communicated environmental outrages (à la arsenic) and convincing politicians, both Democratic and moderate Republican, that they can win votes by opposing Bush’s agenda.
In the longer run, environmentalists also need to get serious about economics if they want to make political progress. Perhaps because so much of the mainstream environmental movement is made up of affluent white people, they forget how close to the economic edge the majority of Americans live. Most Americans want to see the environment protected, but many fear the economic consequences. History shows that no issue except war has more effect on voters’ views of a President than the economy. A policy to restore our damaged ecosystems and transform our technologies toward renewable energy and environmental sustainability would create more jobs and business opportunities than today’s dead-end approach, but most Americans don’t know that. A movement or a candidate who opened their eyes could become Bush’s biggest nightmare.
Mark Hertsgaard is the author of The Eagle’s Shadow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and four previous books, including Earth Odyssey (Broadway). Research assistance was provided by the Investigative Research Fund of the Public Concern Foundation.