Bush's seven deadly environmental sins

How Bush made a mockery of the nation's environmental laws and values -- and what Obama must do to get us back on track.

Published November 8, 2008 1:21PM (EST)

Somewhere up north, a polar bear, on a melting ice floe, is wiping its sweaty brow, thinking, "Fewer than 80 days before these oil freaks are out of office." It hardly bears repeating that George W. Bush's record on the environment makes his own father look like Teddy Roosevelt by comparison. By taking environmental policymaking away from scientists, and turning it over to industry cronies, Bush has made a mockery of the nation's environmental laws and values.

Bush's myriad environmental sins could have him serving penance for years. But we decided to highlight seven of his most deadly. We also invited leading environmentalists to outline Barack Obama's mission for cleaning up the nation's land, water and air.

Bush Sin 1: Blew hot air on global warming
By refusing to agree to mandatory greenhouse gas emission reductions, the Bush administration gave major developing nations, such as China and India, carte blanche to do the same. After all, why should these growing economies do anything about global warming when the one of the world's biggest greenhouse gas polluters and richest nations couldn't be bothered?

"The most shameful thing we've done of all is to walk away from the international debate on climate, which has crippled the debate and caused everyone else in the world to think that we're hypocritical and deluded," says Bill McKibben, author and climate activist. "The Chinese have all the coal they need to destroy the atmosphere by themselves to get rich, and we have no moral objection as to why they shouldn't just go ahead and burn it, because that's precisely what we did."

They don't call it global warming for nothing. The result: eight precious years wasted in the fight against global warming as we watched carbon-dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere shoot up, while scientists' predictions about the speed and severity of global warming became increasingly dire.

Obama mission
Signal that the United States will change its shameful record on global warming -- even before taking office. Attend the international climate talks in Poznan, Poland, this December, and electrify the rest of the world with a promise that the U.S. is serious about reducing greenhouse gases. That could set the stage for the major climate negotiations to come in Copenhagen, Demark, in December 2009, when a climate treaty to succeed Kyoto needs to be hammered out.

Bush Sin 2: Failed to regulate greenhouse gases at home
Bush's vows to veto legislation that would limit greenhouse gases have consistently undermined Congress' feeble attempts to do anything serious about global warming, such as capping emissions.

Bush's Environmental Protection Agency refused to regulate the greenhouse gas CO2 as a pollutant, even after the Supreme Court ruled that CO2 is a pollutant and the EPA can regulate it. So while California has passed a law regulating tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases, the state still needs a waiver under the EPA to put those regulations in place. It hasn't gotten it.

Obama mission
Uphold his campaign promise to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. How? One key component: a cap-and-trade policy that auctions pollution credits to polluters, with the proceeds going to fund clean-energy programs and habitat protections.

"People are going to try to use the financial situation to argue against these policies," says Chris Mooney, author of the "The Republican War on Science." "I'm really afraid that the financial crisis is going to be used as a club to intimidate people who want to pass a cap-and-trade bill, because they're going to argue that it's going to hurt the economy."

Obama must make clear to Congress that cap and trade is important to him. To underscore his commitment, he should make high-profile scientific appointments to his administration, and unleash the government scientists who have been muzzled under the Bush administration.

Daniel Kammen, professor and director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley, asserts that Obama should develop a national task force for the implementation of a cap-and-trade framework. With three regional greenhouse gas markets already emerging -- New England/Atlantic, the Upper Midwest and the West -- the task force could help determine if we need a single national market or the expansion of those three markets.

Obama should order the EPA to issue a waiver to California to allow its regulation of C02 at the tailpipe to go into effect. Many other states are then likely to adopt the California regulation.

Bush Sin 3: Failed to develop clean energy sources
Remember when Bush promoted the idea that we'd all be driving around in hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered cars by 2020? Fat chance.

Bush has paid lip service to futuristic fuels like hydrogen and cellulosic ethanol, and to renewable sources of energy like solar, wind and geothermal, but his administration has failed to push those products to market. Meanwhile, he's lent regulatory support to old-school polluting industries, such as coal and oil and gas. With no federal mandate to reduce greenhouse gases, the country has largely been content to burn up the atmosphere with those dirtier, cheaper sources of energy.

Obama mission
Get 1 million plug-in hybrid cars on the road by 2015 and ensure that 25 percent of our energy comes from renewable sources by 2025. Weatherize 1 million low-income homes annually for the next decade. Create 5 million new clean-energy jobs by strategically investing $150 billion over the next five years to catalyze private efforts to build a clean-energy future. Just as he promised during the campaign.

Federal energy-efficiency programs would create green jobs and save American businesses and taxpayers money in the long run. Van Jones, author of "The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems," says Obama should create a loan fund to help cities and states finance the weatherizing and solarizing of millions of buildings across the country. Customers could pay the money back through the energy they saved on their bills.

Such a program could reduce our greenhouse gas pollution, while putting the country's idle construction workers to work and stimulating the economy. "These aren't Space Age George Jetson jobs. These are hard-hat, lunch pail and work boot jobs," says Jones. It's an immediate green solution for a down economy. "Any green solution that has a tendency to raise prices right now will be very tough politically. You want one that actually lowers prices."

The program could also inspire the public. Offers Joel Makower, executive editor of GreenBiz.com and author of "Strategies for a Green Economy": "There's a desire by Americans to come together for some greater cause that's not simply protecting us from the terrorists, and something that's much more empowering and proactive and exciting."

Bush Sin 4: Abandoned endangered species
Not once during the Bush administration has the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service voluntarily sought to list a species as endangered or threatened, offering it more protections. All the high-profile listings, such as polar bears, have come about after the government has been sued or petitioned by environmental groups and citizens.

"They've destroyed the capacity of government biologists to do their jobs," says Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "There has been a huge assault. They've monkeyed with the science, forced many scientists out, starved budgets, prevented research findings from being shared, and prevented scientists from commenting to the media."

The administration also tried to force through regulations that would allow government agencies to build roads or start new mining projects without consulting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about whether it would harm endangered species, a process known as "self-consultation."

Obama mission
Recognize that "self-consultation" is a conflict-of-interest oxymoron. And do as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists say. Currently, the service has 252 species, from the Pacific sheath-tailed bat to the Arizona tree frog, that are candidates for listing as threatened or endangered. "It's not like you have to go in and do a bunch of research. You could come in very quickly on Day One and say: 'We'll make a commitment to list every single one of those species in 24 months," says Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Bush Sin 5: Carved up the American West for oil and gas excavation
It's been "Drill, baby, drill," all right. A whopping 35,000 drilling permits have been issued for onshore federal lands during the past seven years. More than 80 percent of those were for natural gas production.

Since Bush took office, an area slightly larger than the state of Kentucky has been leased for oil and gas drilling on public lands in the United States; almost 27 million acres have been designated to be plundered for their hydrocarbons. Yet many of those acres, and ones still under lease from the Clinton administration, aren't being developed.

"Why are we leasing additional acreage in the West, when there are tens of millions of acres under lease which aren't being developed?" says David Alberswerth, a former Clinton administration official who worked on oil and gas leases for the Department of the Interior, and is now with the Wilderness Society.

Obama mission
Curtail the number of leases sold. Protect wildlife, air and water around existing projects. Restrict drilling on crucial wintering range for elk. Close a bizarre loophole that allows oil companies to be exempt from some clean-water regulations.

Make good on the "use it or lose it" approach to oil and gas leases. Require oil companies to develop the 68 million acres of land -- over 40 million of which are offshore -- that they have already leased and are not drilling on. Don't open up more federal land to drilling when the companies aren't making full use of the lands already available to them.

Bush Sin 6: Not seeing the forest or the trees
The Bush administration never met a tree that wouldn't look better as a 2x4 in Home Depot, or a wilderness area that wouldn't look better with a road running through it. In the name of fire protection, the Bush administration implemented Orwellian "Healthy Forests" policies, dedicated to "thinning," also known as logging, national forests. "That was their effort to blame environmental laws and regulations for the big fires that happened back in the early part of the decade," explains Mike Anderson, senior resource analyst for the Wilderness Society.

One of the administration's first policy actions was to try to rescind the Clinton administration's eleventh-hour "roadless rule," which protects 58.5 million acres, about a third of the national forests. The Bushies have been fighting it ever since, both in the courts, and with their own regulations.

However, the legal and regulatory morass has kept the administration busy, and prevented many acres from being marred with roads or logged. As of January 2008, nationwide, there have been only seven miles of new roads, and about 500 acres of logging, that would violate the roadless rule since January 2001, according to Anderson.

Obama mission
Stand by the Clinton roadless rule and "keep over 58 million acres of national forests pristine," as Obama promised. Drop the opposition in court cases to the rule. While working to ensure protection of those lands permanently, prevent logging in them now by drafting a conservationist policy statement to federal land managers, instructing the Forest Service to not allow logging in, say, the hotly contested Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

Bush Sin 7: Choked our clean-air standards
In the name of industry, the Bush administration has spent the past eight years trying to weaken clean-air standards, including attempting to water down "new source review" regulations on coal-fired power plants. "They've tried to do this in a dozen different ways, and the courts have fought them down, time and time again," says Pope of the Sierra Club.

And they're still at it. Even now, the administration has proposed two rules that would weaken clean-air standards by allowing power plants to increase emissions without adding pollution controls, and by permitting more pollution near national parks, which it's racing to finalize before Jan. 20, 2009.

Obama mission
Uphold the Clean Air Act and reverse the Bush administration's ongoing attempts to chip away at clean-air standards. And regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act, as the Supreme Court has allowed.


By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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Barack Obama Energy Environment George W. Bush Science