Published on Friday, March 30, 2001 in the Independent / UK
President George W Bush,
Polluter of the Free World
by Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles
At a single stroke, the United States has condemned the planet to a more polluted, less certain future. That was the growing realisation yesterday as world leaders rose up to denounce Washington's decision to abandon the Kyoto Protocol and turn its back on cutting emissions of greenhouse gasses.
Barely two months into his tenure, George Bush is already building himself a legacy as the pollution president. The man, sometimes known as the Toxic Texan, who casually opined during last year's election campaign that scientists had yet to make a compelling case for global warming, is proving true to his word.
Rather than focussing on energy conservation and pollution control, Mr Bush is calling for an all-out bonanza of oil and gas exploration including drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Arctic Refuge. He has tossed out new standards regulating arsenic levels in drinking water, arguing that 10 years of exhaustive research and policy debate had not made a sufficiently strong scientific case compared with the costs involved in bringing the US in line with European practice.
He has thrilled his backers in the mining industry by saying they no longer have to post bonds to pay for environmental clean-ups in the wake of hard-rock mining. And he is actively exploring ways to overturn regulations passed in the twilight of the Clinton administration that would put 30 per cent of National Forest land off-limits to loggers, miners and other commercial interests.
The pretext for all of this is the slowdown in the US economy, the argument being that excessive environmental regulation is likely to stifle growth and therefore go against America's national interest. "I will not accept anything that will harm our economy and hurt our American workers," Mr Bush told a hastily organised White House news conference yesterday in an effort to allay a growing chorus of national and international critics.
Again and again, the new president has argued his policy is based on "sound science" and common sense presumably the same common sense that once considered the burning of witches to be a good idea and thought the sun revolved around the earth.
On the emissions issue, for example, he wrote to the Republican Senator Chuck Hagel last week arguing that carbon dioxide was not a pollutant and was not considered as such by the Clean Air Act. Not only does this fly in the face of received scientific wisdom, it is untrue. In a barbed response to the Hagel letter, the National Resources Defense Council a respected environmental lobby group cited two passages in the Clean Air Act that specifically mention carbon dioxide.
Mr Bush's policies appear to be based largely on what will appeal to his friends in the oil, gas, mining and heavy manufacturing industries, all of whom gave him lavish backing in his efforts to become president and who are now enjoying government representation at the highest level. He is complaining that Kyoto makes demands on the US that other countries do not have to follow.
Mr Bush's cabinet looks distinctly like the board of a smokestack industry, packed with veterans of the oil business (himself, Vice-President Dick Cheney and Commerce Secretary Don Evans), aluminium manufacturing (Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, late of Alcoa) and lead (Interior Secretary Gale Norton). Hi-tech and the New Economy are barely represented.
All this is of a piece with Mr Bush's record as governor of Texas, when his state managed to rank bottom for air pollution, water pollution and toxic releases. Texas never shone as a beacon of green awareness, but under Mr Bush the noxious effects of chemical plants, sludge dumps and nuclear waste sites rose to a new level. For instance, a brown coal-burning aluminium smelter run by Alcoa not far from Austin, the state capital, enjoyed unprecedented exemptions from state and federal pollution laws and now produces over 100,000 tons of toxic emissions each year, including 60,000 tons of acid rain.
There seems to be something almost perverse in the timing and manner of some of the new policy formulations.
Wednesday's public acknowledgement that Kyoto was dead came on the eve of a White House visit by the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, who has led the European charge urging the US to ratify the treaty and abide by it.
It also flipped the finger at Mr Bush's own cabinet secretary Christine Todd Whitman, who as head of the Environmental Protection Agency assured America's allies just a week ago that Washington would abide by its international commitments.
Yesterday, with Washington abuzz with the possibility of her imminent resignation, she flew to Montreal for an international meeting of environment ministers with her policy cupboard bare. Mr O'Neill has also been ignored as he has argued, in vain, that cutting emissions is ultimately good for the economy. In the broader foreign policy arena, the hawkish triumvirate of Mr Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has easily trumped the more conciliatory Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Result: in a few short weeks, America has managed to antagonise Russia, China and North Korea all at the same time, while raising alarm bells within Nato over plans for a "Star Wars"-style national missile defence.
Richard Gephardt, the Democratic minority leader in the House of Representatives, joked acidly this week that he had misunderstood Mr Bush's pledge to change the acrimonious political climate in Washington: "I guess we didn't realize it was the actual climate he wanted to change."
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.