With the Bush train-wreck at long last getting ready to leave the station for good, it's hard to know precisely where to focus one's critical gaze amid the scattered carnage. Iraq and the economy obviously stand near the top of the list, with civil liberties and human rights close behind. Education and health care deserve mention as well. Indeed, the Bush legacy is one that will take us decades to unravel in its fully disastrous dimensions.
Unsurprisingly, the final days of the Bush era are being spent in two distinct yet related ways. The first is "legacy management," with the cabal pounding the points that America has been kept safe since 9/11 and that liberation has come to millions in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are touting their national security record and beginning the revisionist process of placing the Bush Administration in the category of sage saviors in difficult times.
At the same time, they are ramming through a number of policy initiatives that will have further devastating impact for years to come. While some of this may be dismantled by the incoming Obama team, a large portion will be difficult to disentangle barring a showing that it has expressly been "overtly political" in its genesis. This regulatory standard sets the bar high for undoing some of the worst of Bush's policies.
Among the latest in this sad litany are the rolling back of Medicaid benefits (particularly cruel at a time when unemployment is at a generational high) and the potential evisceration of the Endangered Species Act by allowing federal agencies to decide for themselves whether projects such as dams and mines would harm such species, without the input of conservation biologists and other experts. The draft of this proposed regulation would also "bar federal agencies from assessing the emissions from projects that contribute to global warming and its effect on species and habitats," the Associated Press reported.
And that brings us directly to the third piece of the Bush train-wreck triumvirate in these waning days: increasing pollution (and by implication, the rate of climate change) by rolling back Environmental Protection Agency regulations on emissions. For all the justified angst about Iraq, the economy, and torture, this one has the potential to yield the most devastating long-term impacts by pushing the biosphere to the brink of irreversibility and ushering in a new era of power plants that are immune to future oversight.
In early December 2008, it was reported that the EPA was working on regulations to allow increased emissions from older power plants while also rolling back existing air quality regulations for national parks and wilderness areas. The Bush Administration's proposed new rule would "allow plants to measure emissions on an hourly basis, rather than their total yearly output. This way, plants could run for more hours and increase overall emissions without exceeding the threshold that would require additional pollution controls," McClatchy reported. This "industry-friendly rule" was challenged by three computer models showing that it "would increase carbon dioxide emissions by 74 million tons annually . . . roughly equivalent to the total annual CO2 emissions of about 14 average coal-fired power plants."
Two weeks later, the EPA "ruled that new power plants are not required to install technology to reduce carbon dioxide emissions," reported the Washington Post. "During the Bush administration, the EPA has rejected the idea that greenhouse gases should be regulated like soot, smog precursors and other kinds of air pollution, despite an April 2007 Supreme Court ruling that said carbon dioxide fit the definition of a pollutant that could be regulated under the Clean Air Act."
"Could" and "must" amount to different thresholds in the Administration's worldview. The problem again is that in order to easily overturn such regulations, it must be shown that they were expressly politically motivated, a difficult task. As with warfare in which plans for dominion and resource control are couched in the language of democracy and freedom, so too are environmental regulations aimed at undermining longstanding protections often framed in terms of efficiency and economics. The Healthy Forests Act is a prime example of this Bushian environmental doublespeak, naming things in precisely their inverse.
While this is nothing new for politicians, the Bush Administration deserves special mention for its blatant and repeated use of the tactic. Indeed, back in April 2008, the President-eject waxed at length in this regard, achieving a doublespeak fluency that even Orwell might admire:
"Climate change involves complicated science and generates vigorous debate. Many are concerned about the effect of climate change on our environment. Many are concerned about the effect of climate change policies on our economy. I share these concerns, and I believe they can be sensibly reconciled. Over the past seven years, my administration has taken a rational, balanced approach to these serious challenges. We believe we need to protect our environment. We believe we need to strengthen our energy security. We believe we need to grow our economy. And we believe the only way to achieve these goals is through continued advances in technology. So we've pursued a series of policies aimed at encouraging the rise of innovative as well as more cost-effective clean energy technologies that can help America and developing nations reduce greenhouse gases, reduce our dependence on oil, and keep our economies vibrant and strong for decades to come. I have put our nation on a path to slow, stop, and eventually reverse the growth of our greenhouse gas emissions. In 2002, I announced our first step: to reduce America's greenhouse gas intensity by 18 percent through 2012. I'm pleased to say that we remain on track to meet this goal even as our economy has grown 17 percent."
Unfortunately, as reported by ClimateProgress.org, the U.S. Energy Information Administration's final report for 2007 showed that "total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were 1.4 percent above the 2006 total," and concluded that "Bush has overseen a rise in greenhouse gas emissions of nearly 5% from 2001 to 2007, a roughly 0.8% increase per year." Continuing in this vein, the Center for Public Integrity observed that "in 2007, the United States released 106.7 million more metric tons of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases than it did the previous year, raising the total to a record 7,282.4 million metric tons."
The legacy managers will have as hard a time spinning Bush's environmental record as they will with Iraq and the economy. Perhaps a photo-op at a newly unregulated coal-fired power plant will do the trick, with the lame-duck President in a hazmat suit standing under an auspicious banner proclaiming "Emission Accomplished."