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Everything You Know About the Bush Environmental Record is Wrong

Executive Summary

Conventional wisdom says that George W. Bush has “declared war on the environment.” Yet actual instances of Bush anti-environmental policies are few, while the new president has received no credit for significant actions to reduce air pollution. What’s the political and media dynamic that makes everyone feel so sure that Bush is anti-environment?


“Mr. President!” the snarling journalist called out to George W. Bush at a press conference. “In the last month you’ve killed rules on carbon dioxide in the air and arsenic in the water, and proposed opening national forests to roads and drilling. Is there any part of the natural world you would protect?” Wow, how was the president going to wriggle out of that one? Turns out he didn’t have to––the exchange occurred in Doonesbury, the question hurled by the pith-helmet-wearing media caricature Roland Burton Hedley. Yet regarding Bush’s environmental policy-making, this comic-strip interpretation epitomizes the real- world media attitude, which is hostile and nearly one hundred percent negative. The comic is like most real-world environmental commentary on Bush in another way: what Roland Burton Hedley shouts is widely accepted among journalists and pundits, but nothing he says is true.

Let’s parse the Doonesbury accusation, from a panel that originally ran a few months into the Bush presidency. First, Bush has “killed rules on carbon dioxide in the air.” This refers to the White House decision to withdraw the United States from negotiation over the Kyoto Protocol. There was a lot to argue with in Bush’s action. Even if Kyoto is “fatally flawed,” as Bush declared, his withdrawal was done in a high-handed manner that failed to show respect for multilateral diplomacy; and having declared Kyoto kaput, Bush made himself look feeble by failing to propose an alternative. But in no sense did the president “kill” rules on carbon dioxide, because there aren’t any carbon dioxide rules to kill. No law currently governs this substance, either in the United States or the European Union. Neither Bill Clinton nor Al Gore, when in the White House, ever proposed any binding rules on carbon dioxide. True, Kyoto would have created greenhouse-gas rules. But even here, Bush cannot be accused of a “kill.” Clinton never submitted the protocol to the Senate, because he knew there was no chance it would be ratified; in a 1997 floor test, the Senate rejected key provisions of the Kyoto proposal by 95-0, meaning the idea failed to draw even one Democratic vote.


Gregg Easterbrook

Contributing Editor, The Atlantic

Visiting Fellow (2000-08), Brookings Institution

Author, Arrow of History (forthcoming, 2018)


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