Yankee doodles

...or is it going to be some dandy green picture of a USA under the born-again Bill Clinton, out to realise the American Dream?

Published: Wednesday 15 January 1997

Yankee doodles

-- (Credit: AP/Charles Krupa)right after Bill Clinton announced his new cabinet on December 20, 1996, after his re-entry for a second term as the us President, the hardliner Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich called for a "truce" among the House members regarding new issues and policies. Although the us presidential campaign last November was "less about policy than about progress", us citizens are hoping to witness the advent of an administration that considers investments in environmental protection and energy efficiency as investments in wise economic growths -- or at least promises to. With the proclamation that "the age of government is over" and that "local" solutions are in, the Clinton team, observers feel, should go beyond mouthing the words in its style and syntax.

It was two years ago that the Republicans gained majority in Congress and set out to rewrite us environmental rules. Ever since the Grand Old Party (gop) captured a majority in the House in 1994, it has turned all the convenient regulations available, into whipping boys. In August 1995, Senator Bob Dole created a bedlam by attempting to push the Regulatory Reform Bill through the House of Representatives. Pronounced as being "shamelessly anti-green and pro-business" by Democrats and the nation's green brigade, the bill was the primary theme of the Republican agenda of the Congress in September 1995 (Down To Earth , Vol 4, No 8).

And if this was not enough, the Republicans manoeuvred an "appropriations bill" to cut the cost of the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency (epa) by a third. And there is little doubt that this denied the epa the money it required to enforce the laws governing air and water pollution. The Clean Water Act, 1974, and the Endangered Species Act, 1973, ended up being the gop's punching bag - as if to satisfy its quest for a 'reform' aimed at "all things environmental" - put across with cold detachment.

However, that the bills sailed through the House smoothly enough due to the compromises made by the Democrats, almost unabashedly, smacked of a slip-up that was visible since Clinton first assumed office. But this led to certain interesting and expected developments: 50 Republicans broke ranks to join the Democrats to escape public wrath.
Pocketbook pickings But everything has not been hunky-dory for Clinton. During the campaign season, the gop bitterly accused the President of trying to mask liberal policies with middle-of-the-road rhetoric. "I think that the President is going to talk in the centre and govern on the left and hope the country never picks up the difference," said Gingrich last January.

Reacting to Clinton's second term survival chances, Republican National Committee chairperson Haley Barbour said, "Republicans agree that working people in this country pay too much in taxes. Unlike Clinton, we believe government spending, higher taxes and excessive regulations result in higher interest rates, lower wages and fewer jobs. That's why Republicans passed the first balanced budget in 26 years, passed tax relief for families and for economic growth, and passed regulatory reform. That's why Republicans refuse to be coerced by Clinton into a 'pretend' balanced budget. Republicans won't wink and nod at the taxpayers, then turn their backs and cut a phoney deal with Clinton that won't balance the budget."

Barbour added, "We challenge him to balance the budget, provide tax relief for families and for economic growth, and genuinely reform welfare... The Republican Congress already has done the hard work. They already consulted the American people for the best solutions, turned them into laws and passed them. All Clinton has to do is sign the Republican balanced budget into law."

It is a fact that the us electorate has been focusing exclusively on the economy and on 'pocketbook issues', since almost early 1992. It is the electorate's forgotten fervour for green laws, raked up much before, that is now causing pain to the nation's green brigade. In a survey the same year, when voters were asked to choose between protecting wildlife and jobs, 41 per cent preferred to protect wildlife and 36 per cent preferred protecting jobs. The media, of course, suggested that the two goals of protecting wildlife and jobs cannot coexist. This may be justified in that the Clinton administration's compromise between the timber industry and the environmentalist community once again broke down.

But in a recent study, it has been found that 62 per cent support the view that saving the environment would actually save money in the long run. In states like Florida, where this view has a 70 per cent support, the term 'managed growth' has crept in. This says a lot about the willingness on the part of the Floridians to balance their needs for jobs and environmental protection. In Virginia, leaking storage tanks of petroleum have caused an uproar and in Ohio, the construction of incinerator stacks has resulted in strong protests.

Although for years, the mentality of the citizens and the us government could be expressed by the phrase "not in my backyard", the public has learned a great deal over the years. Today, the voters are no longer eager to simply stand and watch the destruction of rainforests and wetlands as they did before, referring to the same areas merely as 'forests' and 'jungles'! According to another 1992 survey titled The Health of the Planet , just 11 per cent of us voters had mentioned environment as the top problem facing their nation. The figure was 29 per cent in Mexico, whereas in Canada, only nine per cent seemed to consider environment as a major problem. The study found that 65 per cent of Americans were willing to pay higher prices for the items they bought so that industry could better protect the environment.

In any case, after being barraged with mainly emotional messages for a prolonged period, today the us citizens do agree that the environment needs a caring touch, even if certain jobs are threatened. A majority of both the Republicans and Democrats agree to this view. Now, since in all these three northern hemisphere countries - us, Canada and Mexico - air pollution is of most specific concern, the us electorate, of late, has been interested in clean air and water in their own community. Again, although us citizens are still focused on 'pocketbook issues', critics do not see them ready to back off from environmental commitments.

In an assessment of the previous Clinton administration, voters had given Clinton his second highest marks for the environment (the highest was for health care) despite the fact that he barely raised the subject since assuming office. Republicans realised that Democrats entered the environmental debates with a real advantage: 64 per cent of the electorate showed more confidence in Clinton and the Democrats in Congress to handle the issue, while only 18 per cent displayed confidence in the Republicans in the Congress.

This is despite another 1993 poll which showed that 47 per cent of the voters believed that if it came down to a choice between protecting jobs or the environment, Clinton would definitely protect jobs. Only a third (33 per cent) of the voters felt that the President would go all the way to protect the environment. This obviously reflected the fact that although Vice President Al Gore was associated with all environmental issues. Clinton's image surely did not look comfortably compatible with all that is green.

By Flag, mom and apple pie
The number two man of us politics, Gore, who, expect observers, would emerge as the future leader by ad 2000, is not likely to adopt any unpopular political stance. During the campaign, Gore said that while Bob Dole offered himself "as a bridge to the past... Bill Clinton and I offer ourselves as a bridge to the future". Addressing the Democratic National Convention in Chicago on August 28, 1996, Gore said, "They (Republicans) want to give free reign to lobbyists for the biggest polluters in America to rewrite our environmental laws, allowing more poison in our air and water, and then auction off our natural wonders piece by piece. That's why they want to replace Bill Clinton..."

Among elected officials, Gore's environmental record is considered clean. In June 1992, he chaired the us Senate Delegation to the Rio Earth Summit in Brazil. In October 1993, he helped the administration develop a comprehensive national strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Gore was also instrumental in breaking the deadlock on the national wetlands policy and forging a partnership between the government and industry to develop new-generation fuel-efficient vehicles.

True, President Clinton was short on rhetorics about environmental causes in his last economic speech, but his proposals for an 'energy tax' and his budget priorities go a long way, dramatically shifting the turn of the old debate over environmental issues. The President's earlier budget showed that he wanted to use the powers of the government to invest in environmental technologies and a variety of initiatives - energy efficiency, public transit, water treatment, restoration of waterways and parks, and other activities that would spur job creation.

"The American people understand how important it is to protect the environment and grow our economy. And they have been waiting too long for a leadership that will confront the global ecological crisis we face," Gore had said. "The work demands a coordinated, focused effort all across the government," he observed.

The old energy policy of the Republican administrations gave a free run to the oil, coal, gas and nuclear industries and, by keeping oil prices low, served to perpetuate the oil consumer's dependence on cheap fuel. Clinton's broad-based energy tax was aimed to correct the distortions of the free market, while it garnered a revenue of about $75 billion in five years to slash the deficit. This was again aimed at capping carbon dioxide which is contributing to rapid global warming.

According to the 1993 assessments of Clinton's rule, the President's 'economic stimulus proposals' were invested in a variety of environmentally protective projects to stall drastic cuts on funding by the past Republican administrations for an array of programmes like energy conservation, parks retention and enforcement of environmental laws, to name a few.

Clinton's budget, according to observers, had also began to finally cut the massive subsidies to environmentally destructive activities which contributed for decades to the national debt. For example, The budget aimed at greatly raising fees on 'grazing rights' for ranchers and others using public lands, phasing out below-cost sales of timber in national forests, and for the first time, assessing mining royalties on federal lands.

B K Shrivastava, former professor of American studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, however, declined to aver that the ball was now in the Democrats' court. He said, "The Democrats have a partial mandate as the legislation is still controlled in the House by the Republicans. Both the camps can be said to share concerns for an environmental agenda, whether domestic or international."

Within a day of being in office, Clinton had abolished former Vice President Dan Quayle's Council on Competitiveness and announced the creation of the White House Office on Environmental Policy, replacing the Council on Environmental Quality, an office that had been largely stripped off its power under the regimes of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

Former secretary of energy, Hazel O'Leary pledged to "maximise all energy conservation", and former interior secretary Bruce Babbit heralded "a new era on land management". They sounded promising enough to end subsidies for exploitation of public lands. But all this, say Clinton-watchers, had come about pretty much late and should be taken with a pinch of salt.

But then, like the mindboggling federal deficit that he inherited, Clinton has to face a massive set of domestic environmental problems still unresolved, besides thousands of hazardous waste dumps to be cleaned up and looming international challenges like global warming staring in the face of his administration.

What now?
Now the question is, what does the re-election of William Jefferson Clinton last November as the President of the United States actually spell out for us citizens as well as for the global community, particularly the Third World? It is being widely speculated that in his address to the Congress this January and the economic speech in February, his environmental agenda would assume a clearer form. This is expected to be in harmony with the famous speech of former secretary of state Warren Christopher, who exhorted to make 1997 the banner year for the environment an international agenda. This is again to relive the fact that the Clinton-Gore pair ticket won in 1992, raising hopes that the us would take a leadership role in formulating international environmental policy abandoned by Bush. Said Shrivastava, "Basically, it is the multilateral approach that the us would be adopting, keeping in mind its own market interests to assume global leadership, as well as wider interests, particularly, that of the Third World."

Last year, speaking at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University on "Leadership for the next American Century", in what the state department described as a major foreign policy address, Christopher stressed that "above all, we must recognise that only the United States has the vision and strength to consolidate the gains of last years, and to build an even better world."

He said, "Protecting our fragile environment also has profound long-range importance for our country, and in 1996, we will strive to fully integrate our environmental goals into our diplomacy -- something that has never been done before. We will further seek reductions in greenhouse gases and press for Senate approval of conventions on biodiversity and the Law of the Sea." According to him, the us will "build on the economic achievements" of the Clinton administration in areas like the Uruguay Round, the Summit of the Americas and the 1996 apec meet in Manila, the Philippines.

Amid a range of campaign promises that Clinton made in 1996, his speeches were liberally peppered with mention of achievements: agreements to preserve old growth forests in the states of Washington and Oregon, signing of the pesticide protection act, closing down toxic waste sites and declaration of the Utah monument through preservation of 0.689 million ha nature region.

There are many factors clouding clear predictions about the next four years of the Clinton administration, even as the extreme anti-environmental hubris displayed by the Congressional Republicans in 1995 generated a corrective backlash of its own in 1996. Early indications are that senior Republicans are only too well aware of their anti-environmental image and in the next four years, are planning to portray a less rigid picture of themselves. Especially, after the aftermath of the recent elections, it is important for the gop to not let the cracks within the party show. So, little wonder that Gingrich is backtracking from the hard reformism he swore by before.

From 1989 to 1992, there also have been perceptible changes in the attitude of the us public. During this period, scientists, experts and environmental activists were reporting a gaping hole in the ozone layer; the Chernobyl reactor meltdown happened; the Exxon Valdez oil spill devastated the Alaskan coast and prior to all this, the unusually hot summer in the us in 1988, sparked fears about global warming.

Last July, former under secretary of state for global affairs, Timothy Wirth, attended the climate change conference in Geneva and called for legally binding emission caps around ad 2005. Last August, the former deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbot, noted, because perils to the environment are so often international in scope, no nation can, on its own, achieve lasting solutions. Around that time Christopher also promised to establish worldwide environmental hubs. He announced that the us embassy in Jordan will be the first of these hubs followed by the embassy in San Jose, Costa Rica. These hubs will induce us diplomats to deal with environmental issues regionally, even as they act locally. The promises have to be kept, not just made.

Inputs from Sangeeta Agarwal, USA

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