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Bush's Environmental Blow-Off

By Sam Parry
August 26, 2002

As world leaders gather for the second Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, George W. Bush is sticking close to home, seemingly focused on not repeating what conservatives view as one of his father’s political mistakes: attending – rather than shunning – the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 10 years ago.

At that summit in 1992, George H.W. Bush, known inside the Bush family as "41" for being the 41st U.S. president, came under criticism from pro-environmentalists for deciding to attend at the last minute and then showing no clear leadership or vision while there. His behavior often came across as more petulant than presidential.

The newspaper headlines reflected the negative reviews: "Bush Aide Assails U.S. Preparation for Earth Summit," "Bush Was Aloof in Warming Debate," "Bush Turned His Back on the Environment," "Democrats Say Bush Failed Leadership Tests Abroad."

But Bush-41’s diplomatic embarrassment had another consequence that Bush-43 is determined to avoid. Though halfhearted, Bush-41's acknowledgment of worldwide environmental concerns alienated many in the Republican Party’s conservative base. Their attitude toward international obligations and agreements, especially environmental ones, ranges from skeptical to hostile.

Bush-41’s stumbles on the world stage also created an opening for then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton and other Democrats who hit Bush for his lack of poise and leadership.

Though environmental progress was made at Rio, including the formative strategy that would lead to the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, environmental leaders blamed Bush-41 and his administration for many of the summit’s shortcomings and the lack of progress on a range of environmental concerns. [For an analysis of the 1992 Earth Summit, see The Earth Summit at Rio: Politics, Economics and The Environment by Rance K.L. Panjabi and Arthur H. Campeau, 1997]

So, by exposing himself in a diplomatically unfriendly setting and by having nothing much to say, Bush-41 got whacked at both ends of the political spectrum. He came across as weak to his conservative political base and as ineffectual to environmental advocates.

Taking Note

Bush-43 has noted many of these lessons from his father’s presidency, though less how to be president than how to win a second term. For Bush-43, the maxim that dominated his early administration – known as ABC for Anything But Clinton – is changing into a new political dictum – which might be called ABD for Anything But Dad.

From the drive to finish off Iraq's Saddam Hussein to the insistence on tax cuts regardless of the widening budget deficits to a showy conference on domestic economic problems, Bush-43 has, in the words of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, "tried to use his father's failures in the eyes of conservatives as a reverse playbook." [NYT, Aug. 18, 2002]

Dissing the environment is one of those lessons. On one environmental issue after another, Bush-43 has heeded the position papers of conservative think tanks and big business to weaken standards and undermine enforcement mechanisms, including breaking a campaign pledge to regulate carbon-dioxide, a leading cause of global warming. [For other examples, go to]

Yet while Bush may score some political points with his conservative base by stiffing the second Earth Summit, his absence may come at a further cost to America’s international standing. Bush’s decision to skip the summit, while many heads of state from Europe and elsewhere attend, will reinforce a growing worldwide consensus that Bush is hell-bent on a unilateralist foreign policy.

There also is a developing bipartisan recognition among senior U.S. foreign policy experts that international support is needed for the war on terrorism as well as Bush’s goal of "regime change" in Iraq. Nevertheless, Bush continues to pick fights that seem designed to offend nations, from allies to adversaries.

"The United States is at present deconstructing its alliances," observes Leon Fuerth, who was national security adviser to Vice President Al Gore. "Unilateralism, triumphalism, exceptionalism and – often – simple arrogance now mark our approach. We demonstrate by word and by deed that allies and alliances do not matter enough to constrain us. And each time we do this, we advance toward the culmination of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We will end up operating alone in the world." [Washington Post, Aug. 23, 2002]

While less direct in his criticism, Bush-41’s Secretary of State James A. Baker III makes a similar point about Bush-43’s advisers who brush aside international concerns about a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

"Although the United States could certainly succeed, we should try our best not to have to go it alone, and the president should reject the advice of those who counsel doing so," Baker wrote. "The costs in all areas will be much greater, as will the political risks, both domestic and international, if we end up going it alone or with only one or two other countries." [NYT, Aug. 25, 2002]

'Humble' Policies

Taking power in January 2001, Bush promised a "humble" and "present" foreign policy, though he offered little clarification about what he meant by those words. During his first several months in office, Bush did make clear his intent to disengage from many of the peacekeeping and peacemaking efforts that Clinton had undertaken.

Bush’s approach, especially his withdrawal from the Kyoto global-warming agreement and his denigration of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, worried traditional U.S. allies in Europe. Bush, it seemed, resented multilateral approaches to complex problems.

But the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks led to a wave of solidarity toward the United States. People around the world expressed poignant sympathy, spontaneously holding candle-light vigils in front of U.S. embassies, leaving flowers, baseball caps, American flags, and other items in front embassy gates. Opinion pieces appeared in newspapers around the world praising America for its contributions to world progress.

Even leaders of hostile countries, such as Libya, Iran and North Korea, lined up to express condolences to the U.S.

Nations of the world also took concrete action to support the U.S. Less than 24 hours after the terrorist strikes, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved a resolution condemning the attacks "in [the] strongest terms." That same day, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution calling for "international cooperation to bring to justice the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of the outrages of 11 September 2001."

Also on Sept. 12, NATO nations for the first time invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which states that "an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all." A global coalition of nations joined America in efforts to root out terrorist cells.

The palpable international goodwill reflected, too, the hope that the Bush administration would come to appreciate the value of global interdependence and cooperation. That hope was dashed, however, as the Bush administration soon reasserted its unilateralist approach to any number of issues, from formally renouncing the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to opposing a war-crimes court to blocking funding for international family planning to ignoring the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of Afghan prisoners of war.

'Rogue Nation'

Over the past 11 months, much of the international sympathy toward the United States has dissipated. USA Today ran a front-page article on Aug. 14 under a picture of protesters in London holding a sign calling the U.S. a "Rogue Nation." The article reported that "the anti-American sentiment has turned into a contagion that is spreading across the globe and infecting even the United States’ most important allies."

"A lot of people who would never ever have considered themselves anti-American are now very distressed with the United States," said Meghnad Desai, the "pro-American" director of the Institute for Global Governance at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Desai, a member of Great Britain’s House of Lords, said America has behaved arrogantly and incompetently under President Bush.

USA Today described two leading concerns among foreign leaders: a distrust of the power of the United States as the world’s only superpower and a perceived abuse of that power with the U.S. blocking initiatives aimed at developing international cooperation and agreement. [USA Today, Aug. 14, 2002]

This sentiment is confirmed by a variety of recent polls. In Great Britain, historically the closest American ally, a poll commissioned by Prime Minister Tony Blair found widespread opposition to U.S. policies. While the details were not made public, anecdotal reports indicate that Bush is more unpopular than the Tory party, which holds less than 25 percent of the seats in the House of Commons. [The Daily Telegraph, Aug. 9, 2002]

Even the conservative Washington Times took note of rising anti-Americanism in South Korea, a staunch U.S. ally. According to the newspaper, resentment is building toward a continued U.S. military presence in South Korea and toward Bush's hard-line stance on North Korea, which Bush counted as part of his "axis of evil."

"Opinion polls support anecdotal evidence of unprecedented hostility reported by many Americans, and the U.S. Embassy in Seoul is sufficiently concerned to be planning a public outreach campaign to counter the trend," reported The Washington Times, founded and financed by South Korean theocrat Sun Myung Moon. [Washington Times, Aug. 23, 2002]

Since the 1980s, Moon has been an important ally of Bush presidential candidacies, with his newspaper providing editorial support and lambasting the family's Democratic opponents. Moon's organizations also have paid money to Bush-41 for speeches and lobbying since he left the White House.

By snubbing the world environmental summit, Bush can't expect to improve his global standing. At Johannesburg, heads of state from Europe, Asia and the developing world will debate how to better balance global economic growth with environmental conservation. Among the more than 100 world leaders who will attend the conference include British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac, Mexican President Vicente Fox, Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Less than one week before the start of the conference, the White House confirmed that neither Bush nor Vice President Dick Cheney will attend. Instead, the U.S. will be represented at the ministerial level by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christie Todd Whitman. Powell and Whitman are notable choices considering they are the two agency heads often at odds with Bush's policies. Both have been rumored to be considering resignations.

Jan Pronk, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special adviser on the summit, told the environmental news agency, Greenwire, that Bush's absence will be seen as a blow-off to the rest of the world. "President Bush cannot afford not to be there. If he is mistakenly thinking he can afford not to be there, the rest of the world does not see it that way," Pronk said. [Greenwire, July 26, 2002]

Pleasing the Right

Bush's conservative base, however, is delighted. Thirty-two conservative leaders, including right-wing icons Paul Weyrich and Grover Norquist, signed a letter praising the Bush administration’s position on the summit. "The least important global environmental issue is potential global warming, and we hope that your negotiators at Johannesburg can keep it off the table and out of the spotlight," the letter said.

In line with those hopes, Bush has positioned the United States, the nation that generates the most pollutants that cause global warming, as the only developed country that has rebuffed the Kyoto Protocol. He's maintained this position despite a decade of progress in developing the science that confirms that the planet is warming.

That science is now underscored by measurable increases in temperatures and bizarre climatic events around the world. In the last century, global temperatures have risen roughly one degree Fahrenheit, roughly a two percent increase, and the pace is quickening. Forecasts for future warming over the next 100 years range from three and a half degrees to eight degrees, anywhere from six percent to nearly 14 percent warmer than today. [Time, Aug. 26, 2002]

At the poles, ice caps are melting. The ice sheet at the North Pole now averages half the thickness it averaged only 25 years ago. Coastal flooding, as predicted by global warming forecasters, has worsened. Along the coast of Louisiana, an area about the size of Rhode Island has been lost to the sea already.

The Red Cross estimates that a major hurricane along Louisiana’s coast could result in as many as 100,000 deaths due to flooding. All along the U.S. coastal areas, scientists estimate that as much as 23,000 square miles could disappear as sea levels rise. [AP, Aug. 11, 2002]

This summer, drought has devastated farmland in the central U.S. in a disaster that farmers compare to the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. Wildfires have swept through dried-out forests in the West, even in the normally damp Pacific Northwest.

In central Europe, catastrophic flooding has forced the evacuation of nearly 100,000 people and killed more than 100. Flooding also has deluged parts of Nepal, India, China, and Southeast Asia. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Czech Republic Environmental Minister Libor Ambrozek have warned that unless more is done to stop greenhouse gas pollution, extreme weather events will become more frequent. [BBC and Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Aug. 19, 2002]

Yet, Bush continues to question the science on global warming. His administration's chief response is to call for still more research on the problem.

With the U.S. by far the world’s largest consumer of natural resources and the biggest greenhouse gas polluter, America’s environmental intransigence has become one of the top issues eroding America's reputation around the world. Bush's position baffles European leaders whose domestic constituents resolutely support efforts to curb global-warming pollution.

Environmental Problems

Beyond the global-warming issue, governments will have their hands full at the Johannesburg summit. Other environmental issues include sustainable economic development in lesser-developed countries, biodiversity loss and species extinction, clean air and water, preserving forests, and protecting oceans.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, access to food is a growing problem for much of the lesser-developed world. In Central Africa, for instance, 51 percent of the population is undernourished, and in all of Sub-Saharan Africa, roughly 34 percent are undernourished. In Asia’s developing countries, the undernourished account for 20 percent of the general population.

Much of the food shortage can be blamed on poor land management. In 1996 alone, 19.4 million square kilometers of once useful land was degraded. Annually, as many as 12 million hectares of land is turned into desert as a result of poor land management. Overgrazing, deforestation, agricultural mismanagement, and fuel-wood consumption are the main culprits. [Time, Aug. 26, 2002]

Access to fresh water is perhaps an even greater problem. Since 1970, the annual use of fresh water around the world has increased nearly 700 percent. According to the United Nations, more than five million people die every year from water-related diseases. More than two billion people lack access to sanitation and more than one billion lack access to safe drinking water.

South Central Asia, Africa, Western Asia, and even Western Europe experience varying degrees of water scarcity, from moderate to extreme. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan predicts that the wars of the future will be fought over access to clean water. "Fierce national competition over water resources has prompted fears that water issues contain the seeds of violent conflict," he said.

A recent report by World Wildlife Fund International finds that human activities are consuming 20 percent more natural resources per year than the planet can naturally replenish. If humans cannot reverse this trend, WWF’s Living Planet Report concludes that standards of living will plummet in the next 30 years. The longer-term consequences for the planet are even less promising.

Despite these dire worries, Bush has decided to sit out the deliberations. Beyond his personal lack of interest, his administration has chosen to provide little leadership in framing global solutions to environmental problems or even admitting that some, such as global warming, exist. This attitude may please Bush's political base, but it also undercuts American leadership in the world.

Bush-43 seems to have taken to heart the lessons from his father's political mistakes, especially when those actions offended conservative activists. The younger Bush wants to make sure these conservatives stick with him in 2004, even if that requires offending millions of people around the world who care deeply about the environment and fear greatly for the future of the planet.

As for other political lessons, such as the value of international cooperation whether in battling terrorism or addressing looming environmental catastrophes, Bush-43 doesn't appear to have learned much at all.

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