Planet Bush, Planet Gore

In 1997 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) undertook a routine reassessment of its national air pollution standards. After reviewing new public-health studies, EPA Director Carol Browner proposed strengthening limits on two major pollutants--ozone, the source of smog; and particulates, tiny particles that lodge in the lungs and cause respiratory illness. Her proposal promised to anger car companies, the trucking industry, and oilmen. President Clinton let the proposal sit for weeks while the heads of the Commerce, Energy, and Transportation departments expressed skepticism and downright hostility. Then Vice President Gore weighed in. Gore put all his clout behind Browner and broke the impasse. The president approved the new standards, setting off a political and legal battle that will culminate before the Supreme Court next year.



In mid-August of this campaign year, George W. Bush barnstormed the Northwest, taking the Clinton administration to task on environmental issues. He lamented that national parks have fallen into disrepair, their trails inadequately maintained and their buildings neglected. He promised a quick, big infusion of cash into the park system and declared that, despite their green rhetoric, Clinton and Gore "have failed to lead" on the environment.



The two incidents show the candidates at their strongest--and their weakest. The inside battle over air pollution was classic Al Gore environmentalism. The issue was technical enough to lull most voters to sleep. Although nearly everyone cares about clean air, the debate was conducted in the language of parts per million, emission-control technologies, and cost-benefit analysis. There were no ancient redwoods or endangered seal pups to provide television images of what was at stake. And the victory was an incremental compromise, moving pollution levels a few inches along the parts-per-million scale. Gore understood the issue and, by environmentalist lights, did the right thing. But it is hard to turn bureaucratic infighting into political heroism.



In contrast, Bush's national parks speeches were symbolically perfect. The parks have been emblems of national pride and collective health since the evangelically rugged and patriotic Teddy Roosevelt began creating them at the turn of last century. In the past decade, the number of people who visit the parks each year has nearly doubled. Surrounded by mountains and forests, Bush invoked the most emotionally charged images of the natural world while sounding his familiar theme: Under Clinton and Gore, the government has grown neglectful, irresponsible, and decadent. Our character is crumbling like our parks, and both need a quick shot of renewal.



The trouble for Bush is that his environmentalism is rather like a Save the Planet sticker on a gas-guzzling SUV. Texas ranks a staggering 49th among the states in per capita spending on its state parks. According to a 1998 state auditor's report, Austin is $186 million behind in scheduled park maintenance. When you add in that the state is 46th in spending on water quality, so low that it hasn't even tested many of its rivers for pollutants, and that Houston has recently begun surpassing Los Angeles as the nation's smoggiest city, Bush's claims to environmentalism face an uphill battle. Mainstream environmentalists are nearly unanimous in criticizing Bush's Texas record and doubting his commitment to conservation.



Bush's choice of political partners has done little to revise the impression of him as nearer to the slash-and-burn ethos of the Texas oilman than to the spirit of pioneering Republican conservationist Teddy Roosevelt. Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney, took the green position on only 13 percent of his votes while in Congress, according to the League of Conservation Voters. Although Bush's environmental advisers include the respected moderate and former EPA head William Ruckelshaus, his policy team is dominated by free market dogmatists, including Christopher DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise Institute, and Terry Anderson, an academic best known for a proposal to privatize national parks.



In truth Bush's environmental thinking is driven by his beliefs about other issues that matter much more to him. As Texas governor, Bush fought for voluntary, not mandatory, air-quality standards, because he believes that business does a better job minding business than government regulators can do. He pressed for a strong takings law that would have required state government to compensate landowners when environmental regulations reduce the value of their property, because he is deeply committed to property rights. As president he would delegate a great deal of policy making power to state governments because he believes that states understand local needs and problems better than federal regulators. Together, all of this amounts to the most laissez-faire approach to the environment since Ronald Reagan's first run for the office.


League of Conservation Voters President Deb Callahan has labeled Gore, on the other hand, "the most knowledgeable and committed environmental candidate for president, ever." Yet rank-and-file environmentalists have been more cautious than effusive in lining up behind the vice president. As favorable to them as his political record may be, he has sometimes disappointed those who expected even more from the author of the erudite and impassioned Earth in the Balance.


As a senator, Gore filibustered legislation that would have allowed oil drilling in the Arctic. As vice president, he has been out in front of the administration on traditional crusades like restoring wetlands, setting aside roadless areas in national forests, and limiting offshore oil drilling. But Gore's real passion is for science and technological innovation, not wilderness preservation. Developing new, clean technology, he believes, is the key to environmental progress and will also be essential to economic leadership in the next century. And in part as a result of that faith in the technological fix, Gore's positions have sometimes been more accommodating to presently polluting industries than environmentalists would like. Gore's votes when he was in Congress won only a 64 percent approval rate from the League of Conservation Voters. He broke with the environmental community over nuclear power, for example, just the kind of forward-looking, controversial technology that attracts him. (Also, the Oak Ridge nuclear facility is in Tennessee.) Opposition to nuclear power is a shibboleth for many environmentalists, and Gore's iconoclasm indicated that he could not be trusted to follow a party line.



More generally, Gore's love of free markets unsettles some environmentalists and progressives. Gore, like any techie, is taken with the economic modeling and modest but successful experiments that suggest that market-based pollution policy can achieve more at less cost than traditional regulation. He is willing to revamp the country's 1970s-vintage pollution laws accordingly--something many environmentalists are still squeamishly resisting. But their real concern is that his excitement about technology and the free market will incline him to love novel ideas more than he should--especially when they conveniently serve politically powerful constituencies.



Here, Gore has not been much tested. A worrisome sign, however, is his devotion to a government-industry collaboration aimed at producing a very-high-mileage car within a few years. Gore has pressed to give the new car special treatment under environmental regulations, even if it pollutes more than an ordinary car--and research suggests it may. The technology may be heady, and the private and public sectors may be collaborating, but the net effect still looks to be one step forward for two back. Among environmental leaders, there are fears that Gore's broader market-based reforms and technology projects will display that same blend of optimism, indulgence of powerful political interests, and dubious ultimate benefit. Even those who criticize Gore's environmental decisions mostly credit his good intentions, but they worry that his ties to new-economy theorists and old-economy interests may lead him to misread sketchy proposals as sound projects.



Like any movement, environmentalists have their parochialisms and excesses, and the clean technology, green business, and market reforms about which Gore enthuses do have more promise than doubters allow. It is in good part because of them that greenhouse gas emissions in the United States have risen more slowly in the recent economic boom than at any time since the 1991 recession, and the energy used for each dollar of GDP has fallen by as much as 3 percent annually. This has happened partly because much of our recent economic growth has come in industries that use relatively little power, such as Internet services. Another part of the picture is the growing constellation of success stories involving companies that have re-tooled for energy savings; in a typical case, DuPont's Chambers Works in New Jersey recently reduced energy use per pound of output by one-third, greenhouse gas emissions by one-half, and its annual energy bill by $17 million, while overall production rose by 9 percent. Gore's emphasis on technological and managerial innovation reflects real excitement about these bright spots.



But it also suggests a taste for positions that offer all good things to all people. A political leader must be for both prosperity and environmental responsibility, but Gore's optimistic stump speeches strike skeptical environmentalists as suggesting that there need never be a choice between the two. No one seriously believes that to be true of industries like oil, coal, and conventional farming, to name just a few economic giants.



Gore is still learning how to mix his unusual blend of environmental commitments: on the one hand as a practicing politician and on the other as a theorist of environmental science and policy. When the Clinton administration was handed its head on a proposed energy tax in 1993, it became obvious that environmental principle would have to find an accommodation with political reality. Since then, the administration has angered environmentalists as often as it has delighted them. After fighting for a sweeping law to regulate childhood exposure to pesticides--a stiff challenge to chemical manufacturers and farmers--the administration has infuriated environmental and public-health groups by doing little to implement the law. Similar deference to the chemical industry has made America a stumbling block in a little-publicized but important international negotiation toward banning 12 highly toxic and extremely persistent poisons, among them DDT and PCBs. And, of course, President Clinton signed the infamous "salvage rider," allowing logging in national forests under the rubric of cleaning up after forest fires.


But this last example also demonstrates how hard it is to judge whether the Clinton administration--much less Gore within it--has traded away more than it needed to or has pressed the green position as far as political constraints have allowed. President Clinton signed the salvage rider only after a failed veto, when it became clear that Congress wouldn't pass spending bills without it. And the administration then did everything legally possible to ensure that the resulting cuts complied with timbering regulations. Moreover, in this, as in most of the administration's environmental policy decisions, the role Gore played was behind the scenes. To the voter, the vice president remains surprisingly unknown on the issue he may care about most.



This election comes at a time of pervasive frustration with environmental policy. No major national environmental legislation has been passed since the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, and much environmental law dates from the 1970s. Everyone concedes that the old laws are imperfect, often poorly enforced, and sometimes downright perverse. Issues that have gained prominence since 1990, including global warming and sprawl, now have no meaningful place in federal law. The next president will need both the intellectual honesty to recognize hard choices and the political courage to confront a reluctant public with those choices. ยค

  • Sidebar: Earth Tones by Ross Gelbspan
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