The Common Good
September-October 2002

It's the Environment, Stupid

by Bill McKibben | September-October 2002

How could anyone have gotten so out of touch with physical reality?

To really understand just how out of balance American environmental policy has gotten, you need only compare the current President Bush with his father. Bush the elder was no Green, but when he was running for president in 1988, shortly after the United States had gotten its first warnings from scientists about global warming, he declared he would "fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect." As he was campaigning in 1992, he went to Rio de Janeiro for the Earth Summit (grudgingly, but he went) and there signed the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the precursor to the Kyoto accords. To top it off, he said the United States would by the year 2000 reduce its carbon emissions back to 1990 levels.

Now consider the son. Within weeks of taking office, he torpedoed the Kyoto treaty. And when his EPA prepared its periodic report to the U.N. on global warming, a document required by the convention his father had initialed in Rio, Bush sneeringly dismissed it as a product of "the bureaucracy." His new energy plan calls for increasing greenhouse gas emissions 43 percent over the next few decades.

And here's the weird part: When Bush the elder made his moves, global warming was still an infant science. He was reacting to a hotly debated hypothesis. By now, the science is as stone-cold solid as could be—it's the planet that's gotten hot, with nine of the 10 warmest years on record in the last decade. It's as if we'd gone to war to save Ethiopia from Mussolini in the '30s and then taken a pass on Pearl Harbor.

HOW COULD it be? How could anyone have gotten so out of touch with physical reality? Only because he lives in a bubble where the economy seems more real to him than the world. Where doing anything that might even mildly degrade the business climate is seen as scarier and more immediate than the consensus scientific prediction of a five degree Fahrenheit warming in the course of this century. And it's not just global warming—across the country we're suddenly drilling for gas on every available acre of federal land. Air conditioner manufacturers won a reprieve on improved efficiency. On and on and on.

And he is not alone in that bubble. His predecessor, deep down, felt the same way. "It's the economy, stupid" really was Clinton's mantra, and though he repeated the elder Bush's pledge to rein in carbon dioxide, by the time he left office Americans were spewing out 15 percent more than when he took office. When the Senate took up the question of increasing gas mileage in spring 2002, they voted down the proposal 2-to-1, even though it wouldn't have kicked in until 2015. Nineteen Senate Democrats voted no.

This bubble covers America, mostly. Overseas, people look on in wonder. Nothing we've done since the war in Vietnam has damaged our reputation as much as our insistence that physics and chemistry yield to free market economics—it's as if we wanted an international summit to coordinate reports of Elvis sightings.

But nothing's going to break through, not in this administration. Physical facts bounce off the White House. Activists turn increasingly to state and local governments. And dream about the next presidential election, when just possibly the real world might intrude again.

Bill McKibben, the author of The End of Nature and a former staff writer for The New Yorker, was the visiting scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College in Vermont and the lay leader of a small Methodist church in the Adirondack Mountains when this article appeared. The Kyoto Accords went into effect, without the participation of the United States, on February 16, 2005.

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