President Bush's global warming speech this past Wednesday came on the eve of the 8th and final Earth Day of his presidency. Despite his confidence that "the true history of my administration will be written 50 years from now," it's a guarantee that whenever history is written, the most recent do nothing proposal reinforces the certainty that his tenure will be called the worst environmental presidency since the first Earth Day in 1970.
Beginning with his Inauguration Day when he blocked safeguards for arsenic in drinking water, President Bush's legacy is a lengthy litany of measures to erode safeguards for air, water, wetlands, forests and endangered species. His recent global warming speech ensured that his most lasting bequest is squandering seven years instead of attacking global warming. (See a timeline at www.americanprogress.org.)President Bush's record reflects reversal of fundamental tenets of environmental protection generally practiced by presidents of both parties over the last 38 years. And the consequences of these reversals will haunt us for a long time. The Bush Pollution Doctrine includes the following elements.
- Muzzle scientists. Findings and warnings by government scientists and health professionals are routinely censored or ignored.
- Analysis Paralysis. Decisions are based on analyses focused on the cost to companies rather than the benefits to public health or our natural heritage.
- Political Interference. Protection proposals from environmental professionals are undone by the White House.
- Inertia via Litigation. Agencies issue rules knowing that courts are bound to overturn them, but this still guarantees industry years of delay and more air and water pollution.
The public record is littered with examples of these governing approaches. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman was forced to remove portions of an EPA report on the health of the environment because they reflected scientists' grave concerns about global warming and described an increase in U.S. emissions.
EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson ignored the professional staff's recommendation to approve California's request to establish greenhouse gas standards for motor vehicles. The staff even warned him that EPA was "likely to lose" a court challenge to a decision to deny the waiver. Nonetheless, Johnson was the first administrator to ever deny a California request, ensuring years of litigation instead of pollution reductions.
The impacts of the Bush administration's seven years of intransigence on global warming will haunt us for years to come. While it fought off binding reductions in greenhouse gases, the U.S. emitted a total of 42.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases from 2001-2006. Total annual emissions rose by 210 million metric tons during this time, which is the equivalent of adding approximately 30 million cars on the road.
Last month, the Washington Post discovered that President Bush personally overruled recommendations by EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and the agency's science professionals and set a less protective smog standard.
When the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down EPA's 2005 mercury rule, it found that the agency used "the logic of the Queen of Hearts, substituting E.P.A.'s desires for the plain text." The administration's failure to reduce mercury was a victory for utilities and a long term problem for children and our environment.
Mercury is a neurotoxin that collects in the fatty tissue of fish such as striped bass and blue fin tuna, and can cause brain damage and learning disabilities in children born of mothers who ate contaminated fish. Under President Bush an estimated 355 tons of mercury were emitted by coal fired power plants, and will last in the environment for a long time.
First and foremost, the next president must reestablish our longstanding commitment to science based public health and environmental decisions. The yardstick for public health protection must be the impact on our most vulnerable people -- children, seniors, and the infirm. No more decisions based solely on the bottom line for companies causing the problem.
There must be transparency in environmental decision making. We must honor the public's right to know how and why protection policies were adopted. In addition, rather than continue legal defense of agencies' policies to avoid adequate implementation of environmental laws, the new president should settle ongoing lawsuits. The EPA can begin to reduce mercury pollution and issue smog safeguards.
Finally, the next president must launch vigorous efforts to reduce greenhouse gases before it's too late. The Bush administration's stubborn opposition to domestic and international binding reductions to slow global warming blocked years of progress. Reversing course won't be easy. The world has a dwindling window to reduce its greenhouse gas pollution before the most severe impacts -- sea level rise, coastal flooding, endless drought, famine -- occur. Vigorous action by the next president would make Earth Day 2009 a day to celebrate rather than mourn over the last eight years.