WASHINGTON -- A broad array of U.S. environmental and health advocates have deplored President George W. Bush's failure to even mention a series of critical global issues in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
In a flurry of statements issued Wednesday, groups ranging from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) to Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) expressed concern that Bush's omissions signaled the loss of interest in environmental degradation and the global AIDS crisis.
Green groups suggested that Bush's failure to even mention the environment--despite new reports released by high-level U.S. scientific groups over the past year expressing increasing certainty that the burning of oil and other fossil fuels is responsible for global warming--was a deliberate attempt to take the issue off the political agenda in the November elections.
"The fact that President Bush avoided mentioning his administration's environmental policies could be seen as a tacit admission that his record is deplorable and the issue is a vulnerable one for him," according to a statement issued by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) here.
It noted that Bush had nothing to say about policies he had previously trumpeted as major advances for the environment, including his "Healthy Forests" initiative, which allows loggers to cut down large, fire-resistant trees in remote areas, or his "Clear Skies" initiative which, if approved by Congress would allow power plants to defer improvements designed to reduce air pollution for a longer period than under current law. Both initiatives have been strongly opposed by environmental groups.
"Polls show that the majority of Americans believe he is more interested in protecting his corporate campaign contributors than public health and the environment," NRDC said.
"It might be a tad embarrassing for the president to note that his Justice Department went to the Supreme Court last week to support oil companies and diesel engine makers against numerous state and local government groups that seek the right to protect their citizens from the effects of air pollution," according to Frank O'Donnell, the executive director of the Clean Air Trust, writing for the tompaine.com website.
The League of Conservation Voters said it was not surprised by Bush's silence on his environmental record "since he prefers to let officials in his administration announce bad news about weakening environmental laws and regulations on Friday afternoon when most of the public is not paying attention."
"Tonight, as President Bush delivered his State of the Union address," said LCV President Deb Callahan, "the state of our environment is anything but strong. For the past three years, President Bush has taken nearly every opportunity to roll back safeguards to protect our air, water and public lands."
She noted that Bush did call in his speech for Congress to approve pending energy legislation that she called "one of the most anti-environmental pieces of legislation in history." She urged Congress instead to go back to the drawing board and "produce a real energy plan that invests in clean, sound long-term solutions, not just old, dirty polluting sources," a point echoed by NRDC.
Global health groups also expressed disappointment that Bush omitted all references to the issue--from AIDS and malaria, which kills more children annually in poor countries than any other single cause, to the recent discovery of mad cow disease in the State of Washington.
Bush used his State of the Union address last year to announce a five-year, US$15 billion "emergency" initiative to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, to be focused mainly Africa and the Caribbean where HIV infection rates are highest.
Activists had assumed that Bush intended to spend the full $3 billion a year that Congress authorized in response to his proposal, but the administration in fact asked for less than $2 billion the first year, of which only $200 million it requested for the multilateral Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, TB, and Malaria, a special mechanism designed to expedite the delivery of funds and expertise to effective programs in the hard-hit countries, whose funding has failed to keep pace with demand.
Bush's efforts to hold back the funding, particularly to the Global Fund, and to apply a significant portion of the funding to programs promoting abstinence were strongly criticized not only by activists, such as the Global AIDS Alliance (GAA), but even by a large number of Republican lawmakers who finally pushed through a package that exceeded Bush's initial requests.
In recent days, unconfirmed reports have circulated that, despite public appeals from Evangelical leaders, AIDS experts, and others, Bush intends once again to request less than the $3 billion already authorized by Congress for fiscal year 2005, including only $200 million for the Global Fund, a sum, that, if matched proportionately by other donor nations, would provide only a small fraction of the $3.5 billion the Global Fund estimates is needed to begin to curb the spread of what is already the most lethal epidemic in recorded history.
"The result of Bush's promise last year has been a slowly executed and unilateralist program," said GAA president, Paul Zeitz. After a whole year, less than one percent of the two million people he promised in his 2003 address would receive AIDS treatment are actually receiving it."
"We had hoped to hear a challenge to Congress to fulfill the promise of the historic work they started last year," said Nils Daulaire, president of the Global Health Council. "This is far too important for the lives of tens of millions to leave uncompleted. Particularly in an election year, it is critical that those of us focused on the state of the union and the state of the world's health continue the fight to keep global AIDS in the forefront."
"Three million people have died since the last State of the Union address," said Holly Burkhalter, PHR's US Policy Director. "We can't afford to lose any more time on the extraordinary commitment that the President made last January. President Bush needs billions every year to bring life to the AIDS-stricken African continent, leaving no vulnerable person behind."
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