In his first three months, George W. Bush set out to do as much environmental damage as Ronald Reagan accomplished during his first four years.
As a candidate, Bush occasionally gave a pretty fair imitation of John Muir. "Every environmental issue confronts us with a duty to be good stewards," he would read off a cue card. In the second debate, Bush proclaimed, "I'm really committed to clean water and clean air and cleaning up the new kinds of challenges, like global warming."
Yet in less than 100 days, the Bush Administration has:
Abandoned its campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide, the principal global warming gas.
Withdrawn from the international climate treaty negotiations.
Killed regulations requiring the United States to meet the World Health Organization's standard limiting arsenic in drinking water.
Professed its intention to place oil rigs and pipelines in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other important wilderness areas, as well as in fragile regions of the Gulf of Mexico.
Slashed the budget for wind, geothermal, and hydrogen energy by 48 percent. Solar energy, perhaps our most hopeful source of new power, was singled out for an even deeper 54- percent cut. Adjusting for inflation, the Bush renewable energy budget is approximately one-fifth that spent by Jimmy Carter 20 years ago.
Sought a renewed national commitment to nuclear power (apparently another faith-based initiative).
Proposed to eliminate citizens' ability to sue to enforce the Endangered Species Act. Endangered critters could be represented in court only by Attorney General John Ashcroft, an improbable advocate who, as a senator, tallied zero on the League of Conservation Voters voting scorecard.
As public policy, each of these decisions is a nightmare. As politics, collectively, they are dumb as dirt. Earth Day and the environmental movement it launched have been more successful than our disengaged president understands. America has more environmentalists today than registered Republicans and Democrats combined.
According to Richard Wirthlin, the elder President Bush's pollster, more than two out of three Americans agree with the proposition that we need to "protect the environment no matter what it costs." Another Republican pollster, Zogby International, surveyed likely Republican primary voters in five key states. He found almost exactly the same support for protecting the environment (92.8 percent) as for encouraging family values (93.4 percent).
Environmentalists have aggressively pursued a bipartisan approach to politics for the last decade. The past two chairmen of the League of Conservation Voters have been prominent Republicans, and the League openly practices affirmative action on behalf of Republican legislators.
But now, finding themselves under ferocious assault, many environmentalists are feeling forced to abandon this balanced approach. Nowhere are these sentiments more strongly felt than in the nation's traffic-clogged suburbs, where federal elections are won and lost.
George W. Bush may quickly be digging himself into such a deep hole that all the hot air in the world will not lift him out.
Denis Hayes was the national coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970 and currently chairs Earth Day Network (www.earthday.net), the international organization coordinating Earth Day 2001 activities worldwide.
Copyright 2001 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.