This article is going to examine some of the highlights (or lowlights) of Bush’s environmental legacy from the past 8 years.
If you’ve turned on a TV in the past week, you’ve almost certainly seen George W. Bush talking about the past 8 years, the hard decisions he’s had to make, and how he did everything he could to keep America safe. You’ve also probably heard a pundit or two mention that history will be the best judge of Bush’s presidency, and in the future we’ll finally realize that the decisions he had been making were the right ones all along.
And while, sure, maybe this reasoning applies to certain decisions, particularly those relating to foreign policy, they have absolutely no validity when the discussion turns to the environment.
One of the first decisions Bush made once he took office was appointing his Secretary of the Interior, who he chose to be Gale Norton. However, the problem with Norton’s appointment was she was an attorney for a foundation that was funded entirely by mining, logging, and oil companies. This trend would continue to plague most of his administration, nearly all of whom had allegiances to organizations that opposed environmental protection, rather than supported it.
Next, in March of 2001, while most European countries were prepared to start cutting their greenhouse gases and get behind the Kyoto Protocol, Bush announced it was “dead”, and that Americans had no place for it. Although his justification at the time was that backing Kyoto would hurt the American economy, in retrospect it may have been inevitable anyways.
By the time May rolled around, Vice President Cheney felt comfortable enough in his position to announce his new National Energy Plan, that included speeding up the process of drilling on public lands, despite some of the areas being protected lands, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Of course, on September 11th, everything else came to a standstill and the attention of the entire world was turned to terrorism. However, a topic that was too often ignored was the dangerously high levels of toxins in the area surrounding Ground Zero after the twin towers fell. In fact, 2,000 tons of asbestos and 424,000 tons of concrete were turned to dust, and stuck in the air for months. What exactly does that translate to? A person who had volunteered at Ground Zero for 48 hours saved the shirt that he wore, had it tested, and found traces of zinc, mercury, antimony, barium, chromium, cobalt, copper, lead and molybdenum. 62% of the people in the area suffered respiratory problems, and 46% that only lived nearby reported consistent respiratory problems. Now, this in and of itself doesn’t incriminate George Bush. But the White House put enough pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that they were forced to knowingly mislead the public about the air quality in the area, and eventually told everyone it was safe to walk through the area, even though it certainly wasn’t.
In 2002 alone, Bush passed legislation to increase coal burning by 79 million tons, denied global warming was a real concern, forced the EPA to remove global warming from their reports, allowed drilling in National Parks home to endangered species, and at the beginning of 2003, increased logging production and even stated it was “good for wildlife and endangered species”. Shortly after this, the head of the EPA resigned.
Over the next few years, the Bush administration carried out more of the same, with only a few roadblocks, such as Hurricane Katrina, to get in the way. They passed legislation weakening rules on air quality, toxins, sewage, health standards, and even the number of reports required of chemical facilities to produce. All the while, passing more drilling permits, more logging permits, and slowly taking threatened animals off of the endangered species list. Grizzly bears, wolves, and polar bears were all removed from the Endangered Species list between 2007 and 2008 because admitting the species is endangered puts an onus on the government to take steps to protect it. In these cases, it meant admitting that logging was bad, and that global warming was real.
Oh, and remember Gale Norton? The woman he appointed as his Secretary of the Interior? Somewhere in 2006 she dropped out from under his administration, and picked up a high paying job as general counsel for Shell Oil.
In these cases, history won’t be the judge. It won’t decide whether his decisions had an overall better impact on the world, because we can see right now they didn’t. In fact, in early 2008, he ignored the Supreme Court’s ruling that studies needed to be conducted to determine if CO2 was a threat to the public health. He denied them, and then months later had the EPA reverse their decisions on smog level warnings, air quality, global warming threats, and just about anything else that seems like it would be a no-brainer to benefit the public health.
Bush’s defense for never protecting the environment was he was putting the economy first. But, as is blatantly obvious now, he wasn’t protecting that as much as he should have either. Last night, in his final address to the American public, Bush said he had “always acted with the best interests of the country in mind” and that although some may not agree with the decisions he has made, everyone should agree that he “was willing to make the tough decisions”.
I think, all that we can say for certain right now, is that he was willing to make the wrong decisions when it came to the environment, and that we’re the ones who will have to deal with those decisions for the years to come.