Bush vs. Clinton: What Is an Environmental President? : To cope with the nation's mounting ecological challenges, the two candidates offer substantially different policy perspectives

Perhaps no two presidential candidates ever have devoted more attention to the issue of environmental protection than George Bush and Bill Clinton have in recent months. But despite the continual jostling between the two, and between their running mates, over which team has the better environmental record, voters are still confused about the health of our environment, the effect of existing regulations designed to protect air, water and natural resources, and the best direction for future environmental policy.

The Cost of Doing Nothing and of Trying to Do Everything

George Bush campaigned in 1988 on a promise to be an "environmental President." Indeed, he got high marks for his environmental record in his first two years as President. He championed the Clean Air Act of 1990, which strengthened controls on virtually every source of air pollution, halted oil exploration off both coasts and ordered a government-owned electric utility to reduce pollution that clouded the Grand Canyon. Moreover, his Administration rapidly added plants and animals to the endangered species list. His appointment of conservationist William K. Reilly as chief of the Environmental Protection Agency was widely applauded.

But in recent months, as the recession lengthened its shadow over the nation's economy, the President has favored a different approach to environmental policy, one that measures environmental rules against potential job losses. The shift was first evident when Bush approved a proposal last summer that would open half the nation's wetlands to development. He removed restrictions on logging in the national forests, approved efforts by the Justice Department to relax enforcement of strip-mining laws and managed to remove from an international global warming treaty the restrictions on U.S. production of carbon dioxide. This month, speaking to loggers in the Northwest, Bush said that he wanted Congress to rewrite the Endangered Species Act to require balancing the benefits of species preservation against potential job losses.

The continuing recession has pushed the Clinton-Gore team toward a very different policy model on the environment. Gov. Bill Clinton and particularly Sen. Al Gore, who has a strong record as a moderate but committed environmentalist, reject the notion implicit in the President's recent policy statements that environmental preservation and restoration always cost money and jobs. They argue instead that the Administration has posed a "false choice" between environmental protection and economic growth and contend that a "market-based environmental protection strategy" will reward conservation and "green" business practices while penalizing polluters.

Preserving Our Resources Without Grounding the Economy

The argument over how best to protect and manage the nation's wilderness and the remarkable variety of life within it has become a lightning rod for debate over other environmental issues. Faith in the endless abundance of our natural resources--including forests, wetlands, rangelands and deserts--is a part of American mythology. But now Americans are painfully confronting the reality that our natural resources are finite, and that, long-term, our best economic interests lie in their conservation and management rather than depletion or privatization. Careful husbanding of these resources is vital not just because of their scenic value or as animal habitat. Wetlands, for example, act as ground-water filters and provide natural flood protection.

Bush has continued the Reagan-era policy of recommending timber harvesting at unsustainable levels in U.S. forests. And although he promised in 1988 that there would be "no net loss of wetlands" during his Administration, last summer he proposed a wetlands redefinition that would have eliminated protection for up to half the wetlands. In making judgments about the preservation of threatened land and animal resources, Clinton would rely more on scientific than economic assessments. For example, he supports preservation and restoration of wetlands targeted for redefinition as developable property and of ancient forests on federal lands.

Global Warming: An Issue Where the U.S. Is Vulnerable

The Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro last summer highlighted the growing international concern about the accumulation of "greenhouse gases"--including carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons, methane and ozone--that are slowly but steadily warming our planet. If it continues unchecked, global warming could produce drought in some places, flooding in others and widespread ecosystem damage. Although there is still considerable uncertainty about the pace of this climactic change, there is little doubt that the United States, with only 5% of the world's population, produces more greenhouse gases than any other country.

Even so, Bush has consistently refused to commit the United States to targeted reductions--or stabilization--of carbon dioxide emissions, even though most other industrialized nations have done so. Moreover, his energy bill, passed by Congress earlier this year, offers some financial support for renewable energy but gives much bigger subsidies to the oil industry and does little to curb demand for domestic oil. Moreover, Bush opposed extension of the solar tax credit and expansion of that credit to wind, geothermal and biomass energy development.

By contrast, Clinton proposes to limit CO2 emissions to 1990 levels and improve America's overall energy efficiency by 20%, all by the year 2000. He would establish revenue-neutral incentives to encourage energy conservation and the use of renewables, and would raise the fuel efficiency standards for auto makers to 40 miles per gallon by the year 2000 and to 45 miles per gallon in the next century. These steps make sense.

Can Economic Forces Be Harnessed to Energize Recycling?

Each day, American industries produce the equivalent of nearly 30 pounds of toxic waste for every person in the United States. Americans produce about 180 million tons of solid waste every year, about four pounds per person per day.

For his part, Bush would rely largely on new voluntary reductions of industrial toxic waste and on solid waste recycling. Clinton's approach emphasizes economic incentives for recycling, the use of recycled materials and source reduction, a national bottle bill and stricter enforcement of existing regulations regarding toxic waste disposal. Both Clinton and Bush have called for reform of the slow and cumbersome Superfund cleanup program, but neither candidate has detailed how he would change the program.

A Good Start on the Clean Air Act--and Then Regression

More than 100 million Americans now live in places where U.S. clean air standards are violated at some time during the year. Airborne toxins still cause about 120,000 deaths annually and cost up to $100 billion a year in health care and lost productivity.

Bush can take much credit for passage of the tough Clean Air Act of 1990, which, when fully implemented, will cut air pollutant emissions by 56 billion pounds annually. But his own Council on Competitiveness has in effect stalled its implementation and weakened its substance, claiming that the act is burdensome to business. In contrast, Clinton has promised to enforce the Clean Air Act.

The Clean Water Act of 1972, which was intended to have eliminated U.S. water pollution by 1985, has significantly improved the quality of our drinking water. But data from the Environmental Protection Agency indicates that rivers and lakes in as many as 35 states are still polluted. In recent years, the Council on Competitiveness has intervened to weaken laws protecting ground water and drinking water from contamination. By contrast, Clinton supports new standards for "non-point" water pollution sources, such as hillside erosion, and creation of incentives for businesses, farmers and families to reduce and prevent polluted runoff at its source. To date, however, the Clinton camp has provided no cost estimates for such "non-point" programs.

In places, both Bush and Clinton's environmental proposals lack specificity. And both are predicated on some unproven assumptions: Bush too often blames environmental policies for economic decline without sufficient justification; Clinton sometimes underestimates the short-term negative economic consequences that environmental restrictions may, in some instances, impose. Nonetheless, many of Clinton's proposals, particularly the new, more substantial tax and fiscal incentives he supports for energy conservation and waste reduction, could imaginatively and meaningfully reward environmentally sound practices by business, government and individuals. That is in America's best economic, and environmental, interests in the long term.

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