From cabinet appointments to policy initiatives, much about environmental politics in George Bush the Younger’s administration is depressingly familiar. We’ve seen this show before, when Ronald Reagan, his secretary of the interior James Watt, and company rode into Washington intent on rolling back the federal apparatus for environmental protection. Yet much has changed in the ensuing two decades. As comfortable pro-environment tactics of lobbying and litigation have grown less effective, new forms of citizen environmental activism are emerging. Economic globalization has also blurred the boundaries between domestic and international environmental problems, confirming the old saw among environmentalists that everything is connected to everything else. The struggles may be the same—resisting regulatory rollback, preventing the plunder of the public trust, expanding the right to know and participate. But the terrain on which they occur has shifted substantially.
Bush’s appointments offer a clear sign of where the new administration is headed. His energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, was targeted by the League of Conservation Voters as one of its “dirty dozen” in the 2000 election (with the voters of Michigan apparently agreeing). Interior Secretary Gale Norton once argued before the Supreme Court that “land use control is beyond the regulatory power of Congress because it is outside the scope of interstate commerce.” Some straw-grasping environmentalists looked to the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Christine Whitman, as a moderating influence, pointing to her suburbanite-pleasing efforts as governor to protect New Jersey’s dwindling open spaces and tout “smart growth.” But Whitman slashed her state’s environmental protection budget by almost one-third, cut back on enforcement, cozied up to business by pushing the idea of “voluntary compliance,” removed a thousand chemicals from New Jersey’s right-to-know list of toxic substances, and abolished the state’s environmental prosecutor.
With its team in place, the new administration has made its goals clear: to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, expand market rights to pollute, and reverse Bill Clinton’s eleventh-hour actions on everything from public lands to air and water quality. Bush has blamed California’s electricity crisis on environmental regulations and made it clear that a campaign promise to combat global warming by treating carbon dioxide as a pollutant was, well, a campaign promise. He reversed a last-minute Clinton decision tightening the limits on arsenic in drinking water—overturning the level recommended by the World Health Organization and reinstating indefinitely a U.S. standard set almost sixty years ago. Following the administration’s lead, Congress has rushed in with a wave of bills to do everything from lowering clean-up standards at toxic sites to boosting coal use by weakening ai...
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