mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


Trashing the Environment

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.

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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. 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 (see links, below). 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.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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