Will he beat around the bush?

He may not have a clean environmental track record. But as president, George W Bush will have to tread carefully

By S S Jeevan
Published: Monday 15 January 2001

Wait and watch as george w bush heads for the White House, a wave of scepticism greets this former Texas governor. Bush arrives in Washington with a weak public mandate and a divided congress. What that will mean for the environment, is a question that is as riddled as the unending recounts and court cases that preceded his 'victory'. One thing is certain: Bush will not be able to take a hardline stance on any issue, even if he wants to.

Judging from his past, Bush has shown little interest in environmental issues. "He has displayed no normative commitment to matters of the environment or international equity," says Jeff Romm of the University of Berkeley, usa. There is a fear that he may dismantle the 'environmental legacy' of the Clinton administration. "There will be a hardening of the us position on issues such as landuse and forest 'sinks' and a stronger emphasis on flexibility mechanisms such as emissions trading," says Ujjayant Chakravorty of Emory University, usa.

Bush has often said that he seeks further scientific evidence of climate change before pursuing significant policies. Since there is substantial scientific evidence, many interpret Bush's position as one of denial or ignorance. His environmental record in Texas is abysmally poor. When he was governor, the state led all others in total emissions, note analysts. Environmentalists point to an upward spike in ozone violations since Bush became governor in 1995. Data from the us Environment Protection Agency and the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission show there were 679 eight-hour ozone violations in Texas' eight major metropolitan areas in the 1995-99 period, up from 508 in 1990-94.

As for the negotiations associated with the Kyoto Protocol, Bush has said that he would not sign it in its present form, and many are sceptical if he will ever fully support a multilateral treaty that privileges ecological health over economic growth. Additionally, the us congress is on record saying that it will not ratify the protocol unless developing nations take on immediate commitments. This hamstrung the Clinton administration and will provide justification for foot-dragging by a Bush administration. "I think a Bush administration will drag its feet on climate change arguing that any significant movement on the issue will come at the expense of economic costs that he thinks the country is unwilling to endure," says Paul Wapner of the American University. It would also mean a lower degree of enthusiasm for securing substantial funding for projects such as the clean development mechanisms (cdms). The us private sector has shown interest in cdms, as they stand to make a lot of money. They were disappointed that the cdms did not materialise in the recently concluded climate talks at The Hague.

Speaking at a presidential debate at Wake Forest University on Oct 11, 2000, Bush said: "I'm not going to let the us carry the burden for cleaning up the world's air, like the Kyoto treaty would have done. China and India were exempted from that treaty." He was only echoing what his father, former President George Bush, said at the Rio Summit in 1992, that the us "standard of living is not subject to negotiation."

Therefore, a radical change in climate change policy is certainly not on the anvil.On the contrary, there may be a concerted effort to reduce the us dependence on foreign oil and increase drilling activity in the us. Incidentally, both Bush and vice president-elect Dick Cheney have been closely associated with oil companies in the past. The federal reserve economic models are heavily impacted by assumptions about oil prices, so whether it is a us $35 a barrel or us $22 barrel will make a significant difference on the us economy in the coming months. For Bush, us energy needs are about tapping more sources for oil. This is why he campaigned on opening up the Tongass Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil exploration. "He may try to drill for oil, but Democrats will be able to stop this as polls indicate popular opposition to such a policy," feels Armin Rosencranz, professor at Stanford University, usa.

Some analysts believe that climate negotiators under a Bush administration cannot be much worse than the Clinton-Gore negotiators -- both in terms of exploiting loopholes in the 'trading' and 'sinks' proposals and in violating us diplomatic commitments by insisting on developing country participation during the first round of the Kyoto protocol. "I would expect about the same level of intransigence from a Bush administration which will result only in intensifying the sense of diplomatic fatigue among the various delegations to the talks," says Ross Gelbspan, author of The Heat Is On: The Climate Crisis, The Cover-Up, The Prescription .

One group that will benefit from the Bush presidency is the large us ngos such as the Sierra Club and the World Wide Fund for Nature. "Their best days were when Reagan and Bush were in office. Since then their funding campaigns have gone down. They stand to gain once again," feels Adil Najam, assistant professor at Boston University, usa.

Endangered Act!
The fate of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 also hangs in the balance. Over the past 25 years, the esa has been a critical tool to protect species and habitats across the country. The Clinton administration worked hard in a defensive mode over the past few years to protect the Act from being gutted. Many members of the Republicans, however, tried consistently to undermine the Act's provisions. The Democrats were largely successful -- although funds were cut that compromise full implementation of the Act -- but it will be a much different situation with a Republican administration. "Bush will probably try to gut esa, and anything remotely green," warns Tom Athanasiou of EcoEquity, a non-governmental organisation based in California.

Bush may take power away from the federal government and place it in the hands of local governmental officials. This spells bad news for the esa, as the act depends upon federal agencies to investigate petitions to place certain species on the endangered list and to oversee the implementation of regulations that actually protect species at risk. Some observers believe that Bush may not make a dent on the esa within a four-year term. "A conservative Congress failed to undermine it, so a divided Congress is less likely to do so," says Romm. He might, however, undertake strong efforts to share esa responsibilities with the states. "That may be advantageous to some regions like the Pacific coast, but could destroy all hope in others like the Gulf states and Alaska," Romm adds.

Another aspect of this is that Bush strongly believes in the rights of property owners to do what they want on their land. The esa has provisions for reducing the choices landowners have for landuse and this Bush feels is 'anti-American.' That is, private property is a sacred notion for Bush and it trumps federal environmental protection efforts.

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