The environment is paying for Bush's election

Vice-President Dick Cheney, when he was in Congress, even voted against the Safe Drinking Water Act
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Here's a slogan the US Democratic Party could use in 2004: "Bush puts the mental into environmental." Or how about: "Dump Bush, not arsenic into our drinking water." George Bush's policies toward the environment are so divorced from sanity that it is hard to describe them in a way that doesn't sound like satire; but, as the President prepares to appoint Michael O Leavitt, the Governor of Utah and long-time dissolver of environmental legislation, as head of the USA's Environmental Protection Agency, we really ought to try.

Sometimes Bush's extreme decisions simply seem to be a matter of skewed priorities, where he places very short-term energy gains and hard cash for big corporations over very long-term (and often incalculable) environmental costs. For example, there are enough energy resources under the state of Wyoming to fuel the US for just 18 months. Most people would not judge it worth taking huge risks for this; not Bush. He has introduced a massive programme of coal and gas mining that is trashing a 20,000 year-old ecosystem and will require the drilling of 51,000 wells across the landscape in the next 10 years alone.

All this, just so Bush can, in the words of one Wyoming protester, "keep the fossil-fuel party going for a few more months". This fossil-fuel party is emitting so much carbon dioxide that it is risking the lives of us all; we will wake up with a terrible headache.

Wyoming is just one of many places where Bush is prepared to destroy the environment to get to fossil fuels that will destroy the environment some more. The only reason Bush has not yet met his pledge to expose the Alaska Wildlife Refuge to some Halliburton-style lovin' is because he was blocked even by a Republican Congress.

Bush has adopted a deliberate strategy of sabotaging any international agreements that would hinder his freedom to commit these acts of environmental vandalism. His administration particularly objected to the fact that the Kyoto treaty (formulated by over 160 nations) exempted many developing economies from having to cut back their emissions; but why, when the US uses 42 per cent of the motor gasoline in the world with only 4 per cent of the world's population, should the onus be on desperately poor countries to reform first? Yet Kyoto is now virtually dead thanks to Bush.

All the while, Bush has tried to present his measures as actually, really, deep down good for the environment. By ditching Kyoto, he claimed, the US economy would grow faster - and therefore more environmentally-friendly technologies could be developed! Everyone's a winner, as Delboy would say. The satirical magazine The Onion published an eerily plausible article in which Bush announced plans to drill for oil in America's national parks in this way: "Places like Yellowstone and Yosemite were once pure, unspoiled wilderness. But over the course of the last 10 million years, we have allowed them to become polluted with toxic fossil-fuel deposits. It is time to end this terrible neglect."

The list of environmental atrocities committed by Bush goes on and on: only last week, he announced that he was giving thousands of industrial plants exemptions from even basic pollution controls. Bushites hold the wackiest, most far-out interpretation of environmental issues in the US, which is already the most enviro-sceptic nation on earth. For example, Dick Cheney, the extremely influential Vice-President, was one of 21 members of the House of Representatives (out of 435 members) who opposed even the Safe Drinking Water Act.

This kind of behaviour is underpinned by an intellectual case so flimsy that it is not taken seriously by anyone but the hard-right and employees of the oil industry. These paid lackeys have made a concerted effort to present the strong evidence that global warming is caused by human actions as a "controversial theory". One or two rogue environmentalists have made their fortune by backing this view. In fact, there is an extremely broad consensus behind the theory in the scientific community; when Bush says we must wait for "more research" before we act vigorously, he is simply stalling.

It is true that there have been natural fluctuations in the world's climate over millennia, and it is possible the current changes are just as natural; but most people are inclined to err on the side of caution when so many extremely eminent scientists warn us that this is almost certainly not the case. For the oil industry and its friends to argue that all these scientists are "interested parties" eager to talk up global warming in order to get more research grants is just silly; if they are looking for evidence of blatant profit-mongering at the expense of truth, they should look a little closer to home.

However, although Bush is uniquely awful, it is worth remembering that the Clinton-Gore record on the environment was pretty dismal. This is partly due to selfishness on the part of many Americans: everybody else should give up their gas-guzzling SUV, but not me. Americans cannot be allowed to continue with this mindset. This doesn't mean they should ditch cars - that day will never come. Bush himself dedicated a large portion of his last State of the Union speech to the viable alternative: developing cleaner, hydrogen-fuelled cars. Yet for this to happen, far, far more investment is needed, and fast.

This could easily be a popular crusade in America. An amazing 42 per cent of US citizens made a donations to an environmental group in the last year; they would be happy to know their tax money was being used for this purpose. Polling shows that the environment is one of Bush's most vulnerable areas. A recent Gallup poll found that 51 per cent of voters think Bush is doing too little on the environment. (The same poll found 7 per cent who think he is doing too much. Who are these people? What do they want Bush to do - offer cash incentives for Americans to pick up petrol canisters and burn down every forest in the country?)

Therefore this is a failure in part of political leadership but primarily yet another problem that flows from the corporate occupation of the US government. When big corporations effectively fund both political parties (and often fund both simultaneously, thus making their cash-for-favours totally explicit), it is very hard to press for legislation that would defy their interests, even where a majority of citizens want it. US democracy has ceased functioning on one of the most basic issues of human safety and self-preservation.

It is especially terrible to have this kind of behaviour from the only remaining super-power at a moment when environmentalists can, for once, boast some good news. This summer it was confirmed by the widely-respected American Geophysical Union that the international treaty banning CFC chemicals is working. The ozone layer that protects all human life from the sun's rays is actually recovering: the level of ozone depletion has fallen from 8 per cent a year before the ban to 4 per cent now.

It will take 50 years to recover fully - but this is concrete evidence that when human beings act together, we can reverse damage to our planet. This should be a moment of hope for humanity; but any cheering will be drowned out by the sounds of drilling, the crashing of distant trees, and a low, smug Texan snigger.