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Mr. Bush’s “All Clear” Signal

Does changing one single letter in a word constitute a cover-up in U.S. environmental policy?

February 19, 2002

Does changing one single letter in a word constitute a cover-up in U.S. environmental policy?

You have to hand it to President Bush. He is one hell of a politial ballplayer. His recent announcement on the environment, for instance, was a big swing for a grand slam designed to clear four important political bases.

First, he wanted to please his many supporters in U.S. industry. Next, his goal was to appease the environmental community. His third consideration was to avoid displeasing the American public — and fourth was his attempt to square his policy with world opinion.

And yet, for such a big swing at a key issue, the actual change in U.S. environmental policy in Mr. Bush’s new plan is rather tiny.

In fact, it can be boiled down to a little spelling change that covers a lot of ground: namely, swapping the letter “n” in “clean” for the “r” that makes it “clear.”

As a site for announcing his initiative, the president’s team carefully chose the offices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The symbolism was not lost on the public-at-large. After all, emissions are responsible for greenhouse gases that destroy the atmosphere. Thus, these emissions contribute to global warming — and rising sea levels as well.

Mr. Bush’s new “Clear Skies” initiative was described by the White House as “the most significant step America has ever taken to cut power-plant emissions.”

What was especially remarkable were the precise numbers furnished by the White House about the effects of its initiative. Published reports cited the plan’s claims to cut sulfur-dioxide emission from power plants by 73%, nitrogen-oxides by 67% — and mercury by 69%.

This invites one obvious question: Given the complete lack of reliability in its own budget surplus forecasts, one wonders how the Bush Administration can make such environmental forecasts with any sense of accuracy. The obvious worry has to be that these targets will prove as far off the target of the budget surpluses — which vanished in next to no time.

Thanks to the president’s announcements, we now have a numeric target for decreased emissions. These days, as the case of Enron’s demise makes plain, there’s a new American fad — number-crunching without the straitjacket of a balance sheet. Merely announcing numbers, it seems, is considered to be real enough for some businesses — and the media that cover them.

Even more questionable, perhaps are the methods that will be used to achieve such promised results. These targets are going to be met by setting voluntary goals for industry. In other words, no hard targets. Miss them, and there won’t be any hard feelings. And foreget the notion of penalties. Why worry?

But beyone this dimension, one has to admire the Bush team’s brazen reversal of long-established standards in the world of policymaking. Once upon a time, governments set policies to move the nation ahead.

Then came Ronald Reagan with his ideas of rigorous deregulation. George W. Bush is now finishing the job — by elevating the notion of volunteerism to the rank of a near-constitutional principle.

In Mr. Bush’s world, volunteerism replaces agenda setting in all areas — outside of defense matters, of course. When it comes to the domestic sphere — and especially social and environmental policymaking — volunteerism is heavily in vogue. It is fast becoming a full-scale substitute for policymaking as we once knew it.

Thankfully, though, one has to admit that the new initiative is truthfully labeled. Calling it “Clear Skies” — instead of “Clean” Skies — as once was the custom in the field of environment — is enough of a hint. After all, when coal miners prepare a blast, they signal a warning. When the blast is over, they signal “all clear.”

Essentially, signalling a blast in U.S. environmental policy is what Mr. Bush has accomplished. The U.S. is under attack globally for its opposition to greenhouse gas remediation. The White House plan provides a numeric fig leaf. Now, policymakers and retrograde elements in the U.S. business community can hide behind Mr. Bush’s targets.

If accountability is lacking in Mr. Bush’s plan, so is a sense of urgency. The timeline for voluntary emissions plan sets its targets for 2018. That’s a full six years after the deeper cuts in emissions demanded by the 1997 Kyoto agreement on climate change would have been implemented.

Yet, it is not only time that Mr. Bush’s plan is buying. Observers ranging from Greenpeace to the Pew Center on Climate Change have already noted that — far from reducing emissions from their 1990 levels — Mr. Bush’s plan would actually increase U.S. emissions by over 20% from those levels.

Mr. Bush’s decision to substitute the letter “n” for the the letter “r” comes as a great relief to U.S. industry. What used to be clean skies are now clear skies.

The switch of one letter may please U.S. industry. It may also keep domestic opinion — which remains undisturbed by Mr. Bush’s March 2001 rejection of the Kyoyo Protocol — in line. Yet, it’s hard to imagine that the environmental community and world leaders who continue to try and work within the actual cuts demanded by Kyoto have forgotten how to spell “clean.”