The environment

Bush's pro-industry policies are hastening the end of the polar bears -- and maybe the planet.

Published January 22, 2003 8:03PM (EST)

Acid rain, an epidemic of asthma, a proliferation of mosquito-borne viruses, the extinction of polar bears -- when chronicling the possible disasters that may result from the current presidential administration's environmental policies, it's difficult to know where to start, or stop.

Watchdogs are working themselves into a growing frenzy. The Bush administration is the biggest threat to America's environmental laws since many of the laws were first written in the 1970s, according to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"America's environmental protections have been challenged before, but never have they faced a threat as far-reaching, insidious and destructive as the one posed by the Bush administration and the new Congress," says Greg Wetstone, the director of advocacy for the group, who co-authored the report.

Bush is moving on a number of fronts, including trying to weaken laws requiring environmental impact statements, pushing logging and mining in national forests and wildlife refuges, and challenging California's attempt to require car manufacturers to introduce more fuel-efficient cars to the market. But just one example, his approach to the Clean Air Act, is sufficient to demonstrate what lies around the bend.

Operating under the black-magic theory that weakening regulations is the key to making pollution disappear, the Environmental Protection Agency is now allowing old, dirty power plants and refineries to expand and modernize while continuing to operate with 1950s-era polluting technology.

This subversion of the Clean Air Act, Wetstone says, will result in "pollution increases, acid rain increases, respiratory problems, asthma, and sadly people will die. There is tremendous science from the very agency that is moving forward to weaken these programs documenting the number of deaths associated with increased pollution levels."

Even worse, say many environmental advocates, is the Bush administration's complete lack of action on global warming.

1998 was the warmest year on record, and 2001 was the second warmest year, according to Sierra Club lobbyist Debbie Boger.

If greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, the average mean global surface temperature of the earth will rise anywhere from 2.7 to 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the next 100 years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Global Climate Change, a leading international consortium of scientists monitoring the issue.

The Bush administration recommends more study before it will agree to do anything about global warming, such as increase fuel-economy standards or regulate polluting industries. According to Boger, the U.S. produces 23 percent of the world's global-warming emissions, although it has only 4 percent of the world's population, and some 40 percent of the country's global-warming emissions come from power plants, while another 33 percent come from cars -- two industries that enjoy the warmest regard and protection from the Bush administration.

We don't have to wait 100 years for a scenario of environmental doom to play out. The effects of climate change are already being felt dramatically at the poles. In the Arctic the polar ice sheet is shrinking, and taking longer to freeze up each year.

While the average global temperature increase in the last 100 years has been 1.26 degrees Fahrenheit, in the Arctic the upward change has ranged from 7.2 to 9 degrees, according to the Intergovernmental Panel. The shift is more dramatic at the poles because ice reflects solar heat. As more ice melts and fails to refreeze annually, the growing ocean surface, which is darker than ice, absorbs more heat, explains Lara Hansen, an ecologist with the World Wildlife Fund. So as the ice sheet shrinks, its disappearance has a multiplying effect.

In 100 years, there will be no more polar bears roaming the Arctic ice sheet in search of ringed seals, because there will be so much less ice to roam, according to University of Alberta biologist Andrew Derocher. Bear numbers have not yet declined, but individual bears are already showing weight loss and decreased fecundity.

Phenologists, scientists who study the climate-related cycles of plants and animals, predict that all sorts of natural cycles will change, from bird migration patterns to when alpine flowers bloom. Plant and animals species will seek higher elevations, searching for temperatures they're used to. "But if you already live on top of a mountain, like pikas or marmots, there will be nowhere to go," says Hansen.

As temperatures rise, mosquitoes will live longer and range farther, leading to the further spread of mosquito-borne illnesses, such as the West Nile virus, according to Boger.

The Bush administration isn't responsible for causing global warming all by itself, but its near-total determination to avoid doing anything that could slow it down or reverse it, combined with its systematic attempt to weaken landmark environmental regulations, may ultimately end up making it more culpable than most administrations for future environmental disasters. It's too bad; does Bush really want to be remembered as polar bear public enemy No. 1?

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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Environment George W. Bush Global Warming