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From the Forum “Undoing Bush”

One of the best things about the departure of the Bush Administration will be the end of headache-creating cognitive dissonance. It has taken over institutions ostensibly devoted to defending the natural world—the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Council on Environmental Quality—and turned them into organizations devoted to environmental degradation. And it has passed a set of anti-environmental laws that sound like they were dreamed up by wild-eyed nature lovers—the Clear Skies Act turns out to gut the old Clean Air Act, for instance, and the Healthy Forests Initiative has initiated a great deal of unhealthy deforestation. (“No Tree Left Behind,” someone quickly dubbed it.) We’ll not be in some new green nirvana when Bush finally leaves, but at least we might start trying to solve real problems.

We already faced daunting environmental challenges in 2000, of course, challenges that would have taken decades of good-faith effort to overcome. But rather than attempt the difficult and slow reversal of our cheap-energy economy, Bush has eagerly raced forward into whole new worlds of environmental turmoil. You can see this reckless disregard most plainly, alas, when you look at the worst problem the country faces: climate change.

Bush came into office promising that he would require U.S. power plants to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, and if he’d stuck to the plan, our country would already look quite different. Solar panels would have begun to sprout in real numbers, cars would be smaller, we’d be building more passenger trains. Instead, Bush repudiated the promise within a few weeks of taking office. He said he didn’t want to do anything that would raise the price of energy. His energy task force, chaired by Dick Cheney, barely even mentioned the possibility of global warming. It concentrated on new places to find fossil fuel, new pipelines to carry it, new refineries to refine it—and indeed, just as Cheney suggested, there are about 159 new coal-fired power plants in some stage of planning or construction around the country. Meanwhile, carbon-dioxide output has increased an average of 1.6 percent every year—and the average price for a gallon of gas has nearly doubled.

But Bush’s folly at home isn’t the worst of it. As soon as he took office, he also repudiated America’s participation in the Kyoto treaty process, the one international attempt to begin reining in carbon emissions. And he did it at the critical moment when China and India were just beginning their rapid energy takeoffs. It’s possible that this is what history will judge Bush most sternly for, even more than the Iraq war. With real effort and real resources, we might have nudged the emerging economies onto a different energy trajectory in 2000, but by now their path appears set. Plans call for some 600 new coal-fired plants in China and India alone; the Chinese open a new plant every week.

Still, there is much that can be done. As the head of a vast regulatory body, the next president can exert significant influence on environmental rules. The Bush years began with the news that rules for allowable arsenic concentration in drinking water were being revised—and not in the direction of more protection. The trend continues. Earlier this winter a Senate hearing revealed that the Environmental Protection Agency was considering weakening lead standards and ceasing the testing for perchlorate—a potent endocrine disruptor—in the nation’s water supply. The EPA has also narrowed its “new source review” policy, which requires power companies to install modern pollution controls when they expand their plants. The result, according to a 2006 study, will be 2.7 million additional tons of nitrogen oxide, 13 million additional tons of sulfur dioxide, and 660 million additional tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the lifetime of the plants—unless the next president changes the rules once again.

Such changes, though, will require appointing people who care about the environment to positions of real responsibility. The Bush environmental team has come straight from the industries it now regulates. Mark Rey, the Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary for natural resources and environment, spent eighteen years as a timber lobbyist; Jeffrey Holmstead, the assistant EPA administrator for air and radiation, was a lawyer who represented the Alliance for Constructive Air Policy, an electric-utility trade group; and the list goes on. Do these insider links have consequences? Well, the New York Times reported in March that Philip A. Cooney, the onetime chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality—and a former “climate team leader” at the American Petroleum Institute—had “repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that play down links between such emissions and global warming.” It shouldn’t be too hard to find people to run regulatory agencies who don’t come from the organizations being regulated.

Even if these agencies wanted to enforce the law, though, they’d have trouble doing so on their sharply reduced budgets. This year, for instance, EPA funding for research and development is at its lowest level since 1987, and the agency’s own internal watchdog, the Office of Inspector General, faces deep cuts in personnel. And it’s not just enforcement money that’s disappearing. Take the National Park system, which Bush, running for president in 2000, declared needed $5 billion in additional funding. Instead, national parks over the course of his administration have been required to do more with less, and those budget shortfalls have all kinds of unintended consequences. A cash-poor Redwood National Park, for instance, was forced to reduce its park patrols, and now lumber peddlers are sneaking in at night and poaching fallen trees.

Most important, the next president will have to put the environment, and especially carbon policy, at the center of every diplomatic effort. That will be a novel experience for a war-oriented foreign policy elite—but the notion that “terror” represents our greatest threat is impossible to maintain once you’ve read the scientific predictions for rising seas, looming droughts, falling harvests. The Kyoto Protocol we didn’t sign will expire in 2012, and negotiations are beginning for whatever will succeed it. Unless there’s a U.S.-led effort to produce something truly dramatic, the world might as well not bother.

is the author of many books, including The End of Nature and, most recently, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “The Great Leap,” appeared in the December 2005 issue.

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August 2005

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