Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Don't Forget the Environment

A couple of years ago, I was hopeful that environmental causes would turn out to play a significant role in the next Presidential election. That was before 9/11/01. It also was before the Patriot Act, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, widespread unemployment, and the soaring budget deficit. Now, it seems that financial and security concerns are going to eclipse the issue of environmentalism. With the economy in a precarious position, it will be easier for big polluters to argue that they cannot afford the cost of environmental controls. This is nonsense, of course.  As far as economic arguments go, there is no long-term benefit to foregoing pollution control. It always costs more to clean up a mess than it does to avoid making the mess in the first place. Expansion of environmental controls could create jobs, something sorely needed right now.  In addition to the economic issues, there is a serious ethical issue, too.  Everyone expects their neighbors to take care of their own trash. No one would tolerate a neighbor who routinely dumps his or her garbage over the fence into someone else's lawn.  Yet that is exactly what these big polluters are doing.

With this in mind, let us try to find out where Mr. Bush stands on environmental issues. Understanding that there are many such issues, let us focus on a single one: CO2 emissions. A summary of his statements, regarding environmental issues, can be found here.  Look at what he said shortly after he was elected:

Abandons campaign pledge to reduce CO2 emissions
Responding to President Bush’s decision not to support regulating carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, US and European environmentalists said yesterday that one of his main arguments has been debunked. Bush said he would not seek to regulate so-called greenhouse gas because, in part, the Clean Air Act does not consider carbon dioxide a pollutant.
Environmentalists said Bush had ignored a finding by more than 3,000 international scientists who concurred that the gas is one of the main causes of global warming. Last week, satellite data showed evidence that greenhouse gases were indeed building up in the Earth’s atmosphere.
In New England, Bush’s abandonment of the campaign pledge to propose regulating carbon dioxide emissions probably will have limited impact, because the region is less dependent than elsewhere on power plants fired by coal or oil. Administration officials said Bush had made a mistake in the campaign by promising to regulate carbon dioxide.
Source: Beth Daley & Robert Schlesinger, Boston Globe, p. 3 Mar 15, 2001

In contrast, a more recent statement, now all but forgotten, is this:

President Bush has committed America to an aggressive strategy to meet the challenge of long-term global climate change by reducing the greenhouse gas intensity of our economy by 18 percent over the next 10 years.
Source: Campaign website, www.georgewbush.com

This statement can be found via the Wayback Machine using this link. Notice that this link dates back to January 11,2003. Just one year ago.

If you think this is confusing, wait until you see what the Natural Resources Defense Council has to say about the recently-passed “Clear Skies” initiative. This is a set of amendments to EPA regulations that appear to set back the substantial progress we had made on air pollution between 1970 and 2003. I am old enough to remember what air pollution was like in 1970. I grew up in Ypsilanti, Michigan, near a few major auto plants and related industries. My brother and I used to sniff the air on the way home from school, and guess at what the AQI was. Then we would watch the evening news. They routinely reported the Air Quality Index, usually right after they gave us that day's body counts from the Vietnam War. After a while, we got to be pretty good at guessing the AQI just from the smell. I relate this anecdote just to remind people how serious the problem was. Although Mr. Bush must remember 1970 as well as I do, he seems to have forgotten the lessons from that era. This is illustrated in the following excerpt from the NRDC site:

5. How does the president's Clear Skies plan aim to combat global warming?
It doesn't. Despite mounting evidence of the urgency of this problem, the president's plan fails to include a single measure to reduce or even limit the growth of carbon dioxide, the chief pollutant causing global warming. This is a serious mistake that will have serious consequences. If new legislation is passed affecting the electric power plant industry, plant owners will use it as a blueprint for the type of investments they make in coming years. Failing to include reductions in global warming pollution in that blueprint now will only raise the cost and difficulty of achieving them later.

So, we see that, before the 2000 election, Bush initially promised to take steps to reduce CO2 emissions, then changed his position; after the election, he claimed he was going to take steps to reduce CO2 emissions by 18%, then a few months later, he submitted a plan that would have no impact on CO2 emissions.

Now, as is customary here at The Corpus Callosum, I will look at this specific, technical information, and try to connect it to a general concept. Politicians often are criticized for “flip-flops.” What is a flip-flop? A flip-flop is reported when some underpaid or unpaid staffers dig through old reports, trying to find some damaging material on he opposition candidate. If they look hard enough, they eventually will find that the candidate took a particular position on a topic at one point in time, then later stated that had a different position. A flip-flop is usually reported without any particular analysis of the issues. It is as though the mere fact that a person changed his or her mind is somehow evidence of something bad. Personally, I despise this kind of rhetoric. If you have an argument to make, you should spell it out. You start by presenting evidence, and end with a conclusion that is supported by that evidence. Just pointing out the existence of a flip-flop accomplishes nothing. In fact, if a person becomes aware of some new evidence, or constructs a different way of interpreting evidence, he or she can and should have a change of position. That is a sign of integrity; not a weakness.

Mr. Bush's positions on CO2 emissions did not exactly flip-flop. It was more of a flippedy-do-floppedy-da-floop. According to what I just said, though, that alone is not evidence for anything. If he were able to cite reasons for his change of position, backed up by verified evidence, I would have no quarrel with his shifting of positions. However, the evidence for global warming and the relationship between global warming and CO2 emissions is reasonably solid at this point. I will not belabor this point; Scientific American kindly posted an extensive review. Suffice it to say that the science pertaining to global warming has not done any flippedy-do-floppedy-da-floops in the past three years.  (Although a recent book by Bjorn Lomborg claims otherwise, his arguments are soundly rebutted in the SciAm article.)  So, although the existence of a Bush flippedy-do-floppedy-da-floop is not in itself particularly damaging, the lack of scientific support for these acrobatic maneuvers is, in my opinion, reason to question his veracity and his credibility.

 This is a weakness that can and should be exposed in the run-up to the next election.