Fortunately, national environmental policy somehow survived President George W. Bush’s first term. Now, his administration is on the verge of addressing unfinished business, bashing environmental protections with a political wrecking ball during the next four years.
The current initiative to gut the regulatory influence of the Clean Air Act is a bald strategy designed to protect manufacturing and automobile interests. The president wants to delay and/or significantly reduce pending reductions in air pollution developed by Congress in the mid-1990s. Thus, in the timeframe when these important thresholds were to be met by a range of industries, Bush is deflating momentum to structurally address poor air quality and its negative effect on public health.
The Environmental Protection Agency has suffered both a leadership and policy crisis since 2000. Particularly galling is the fact that government scientists (and independent researchers) have been continually hindered in presenting research and technical opinions on a range of environmental issues that the Bush administration opposes, such as whether global warming is a real crisis, or the actual extent of damage to coastal wetlands.
What the Bush administration wants to avoid at all costs is culpability in placing the public’s health at increased risk. The rationale for virtually all environmental policy is to prevent the short and long-term negative health impacts of pollution.
Southern Californians should be highly concerned about these efforts to reduce environmental protections. Scientific research has documented that our lung capacity is reduced by approximately 15 percent because we live in the worst air quality basin in the nation.
An example of the attack on pollution control concerns diesel emissions. The Clinton administration was nearing completion of long overdue controls on diesel pollution, which are highly toxic and heavy particulates (they do not escape the air basin), and are particularly devastating to children where busing to school is a daily reality. The Bush administration has basically halted any further regulatory action in its tracks.
One recent positive development was when the Bush administration had difficulty selecting a pro-industry director for the EPA. In a concession to moderate republicans, Bush nominated a scientist from within the agency. While the jury is out on whether the new director will restore the mission of the agency to anything remotely similar to historic levels, at least the EPA is not guided by a doctrinaire, neo-conservative anti-environmentalist.
However, without losing a step, Bush and the Republican-dominated Senate pushed through legislation to allow oil drilling in wilderness zones. And not just any precious, federally protected open space, but the storied Alaskan Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This area, already suffering from oil exploration and extraction permitted a generation ago, is now open season for the national oil industry for another 25 to 30 years.
The Bush administration remains in denial over international environmental agreements contained in the historic Kyoto Accords. Even Russia has approved this treaty. Both the Clean Water and Clean Air protections are under constant attack. In the Bush world, global warming does not exist, in spite of overwhelming international evidence. Only a few moderate republicans are the difference between complete abandonment of fundamental environmental protections during the next four years. This may not be enough to resist the dismantling of four decades of environmental progress in a country that has not done enough to defend the environment.
David Diaz, Ph.D., is a professor in the Chicana/o Studies and Urban Studies and Planning departments.