In a presidential campaign where the candidates were often criticized for being virtually indistinguishable from one another, there was one issue which created relatively little confusion for voters: the environment. The territory clearly belonged to former vice president Al Gore '69, who took every opportunity available to boast about his work on the Kyoto Accords, to point to his unflagging support of land preservation in the West and to rave about his "seminal work" on global warming. George W. Bush could do little than flounder in his wake, offering reassurances that paled in contrast to Gore's exuberance and which seemed irreconcilable with Bush's own support for big business.
Since his election, however, President Bush has worked hard to prove his critics wrong, implementing a number of initiatives designed to prove that a vote against Gore had not been, as Gore liked to imply, a vote against the environment.
First, there was the prominent placement of environmental issues in Bush's nationally televised address to the joint session of Congress last month. He promised to accelerate the cleanup of toxic brownfields and proposed making a "major investment in conservation by fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund" (a fund under the auspices of the United States Department of Agriculture). Bush also pledged $4.9 billion in resources over five years for the upkeep of national parks, a remark ostensibly designed to sooth critics who feared that Bush would attempt to unravel Clinton's last-minute executive orders involving these "national treasures."
On the heels of the speech, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), under its new director Christie Whitman, declared last week that it will proceed with plans to cut diesel exhaust from big trucks and buses by 95 percent. This proposal maintains a major Clinton administration rule that environmentalists worried Bush would try to weaken; the announcement dovetailed nicely with the Supreme Court's decision to reject big industry's attack on the Clean Air Act.
But what Bush--or rather, what the American people--must realize is that it isn't so easy being green. Yes, the proposals regarding brownfields and land conservation made in his speech are admirable ones. Yes, the combination of renewed efforts by the EPA to cut diesel emissions and the Supreme Court's decision (a moot point, given that the White House has virtually no jurisdiction in the matter) means that America's air will be clean in years to come.
However, there's a whole lot more to "the environment" than these narrowly focused issues. And there's a whole lot more to Bush's frenzy of environment-friendly activity than is discernable at first glance. The glow of a few small successes cannot be allowed to obfuscate the larger problems which Bush has yet to confront, nor the poor decisions which have already been made.
For at the same time as Bush claims to be championing land conservation and clean air, his budget proposal includes an estimated seven percent cut in EPA spending over the next year. Under the circumstances, it is difficult to reconcile such a drastic reduction in EPA funding with Bush's grandiose pledges to continue many of the agency's programs at full strength. True, some of the cuts have been balanced by the shifting of federal funds to the state level. But given the collective action problems associated with many environmental issues (like clean air), this shift may wind up helping different regions of the country at the expense of hurting others. Without a strong EPA steering national initiatives in these areas, many states will have little incentive to pursue the programs on their own.
Then there is the question of the people whom Bush has chosen to head up environmental policy in his new administration. As a native of New Jersey, I was shocked at the selection of Whitman (formerly the Republican governor of New Jersey) for EPA director. The appointment clearly had less to do with Whitman's experience in the field than with political maneuvering: Whitman wanted a cabinet position, but Bush was leery of allowing anyone with such a strong pro-choice stance to get too close. The EPA position provided a sensible compromise from the standpoint of protecting the Republican party line, but a risky move when it comes to protecting the environment.