Cleaning up America

The candidates discover the environment

MARCI McDONALD September 19 1988

Cleaning up America

The candidates discover the environment

MARCI McDONALD September 19 1988

Cleaning up America

The candidates discover the environment



The backdrop had been chosen with care. With a freshly cleaned-up Lake Erie glistening in the sun behind him, Vice-President George Bush stood on the

beach of a Michigan park 40 km south of Detroit early this month and proclaimed, “I am an environmentalist.” Then, vowing to bring a

new “conservation ethic” to the White House, the Republican presidential candidate signalled that he intends to use the environment to separate himself from Ronald Reagan. Declaring that “the time for study alone has passed,” Bush pledged to cut “millions of tons” of sulphur dioxide emissions by the year 2000 in an effort to curb acid rain.

That declaration has provoked skepticism— and even hoots of derision—from leading environmentalists. California Democratic Representative Henry Waxman, a key ally of Canada’s on the acid rain issue, interrupted his postpneumonia convalescence to denounce

Bush as a “born-again environmentalist” who had performed “a Houdini disappearing act on the environment over the past eight years.” And former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas compared the vice-president’s proclamation to bank robbers “Bonnie and Clyde coming out for gun control.” At the same time, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis—who has pledged to cut sulphurous emissions by 12

million tons over the next 10 years—labelled his rival’s invasion of his electoral territory a “last-minute conversion.”

Still, those charges of political opportunism failed to dampen the enthusiasm of many Canadian officials who are discovering that one of their country’s chief concerns has suddenly gained U.S. election-year chic. In fact, Bush’s recent three-day conservation-minded swing through the industrial northeast was only the latest indication that the environment has become one of the hottest issues in the presidential campaign. Said Paul Heinbecker, political minister at the Canadian Embassy in Washing-

ton, D.C.: “All of a sudden, the environment has moved up onto the front burner from wherever it was.” Reflecting the trend, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney himself called last week for a new “collective commitment” to protect the environment. But, as in the United States, some Canadian conservationists dismissed the move as a pre-electoral ploy.

Whatever Bush’s motives, the “new environmental consciousness,” as The New Republic weekly magazine described it, represents the dramatic comeback of an issue that, in the United States at least, has been largely out of fashion since the early 1970s. After eight years of neglect by the Reagan administration, the environment and its problems have become so urgent and trendy that even Jesse Jackson brought up acid rain in his speech to last July’s Democratic national convention in Atlanta. In the midst of a plea for party unity, Jackson declared with a biblical flourish that “neither lions nor lambs want acid rain to fall.” American anxiety about acid rain has grown steadily during the past several years. Studies have shown that it is not simply a Canadian preoccupation, but a widespread continental problem that has poisoned one out of every four lakes in the Adirondack Mountains, spread to streams throughout the mid-Atlantic states and damaged U.S. monuments. But the outcry over the continent’s water and air quality has reached a crescendo at the end of a summer during which, as Bush said, “the earth spoke back.”

Recently, Americans suffering from searing temperatures in northeastern states were shocked to find their Atlantic coast beaches awash in a tide of used syringes, blood vials and other foul medical flotsam. And record ozone levels in many U.S. cities transformed them into smog pits that made breathing difficult, unpleasant and, for some, hazardous. Said Lester Brown, president of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute: “I think for a lot of people it has just started to get £ scary. They are finding that we can § kick nature only so long before nature g starts kicking back.”

That realization has been reflected in recent public opinion polls, the guid-

ing light of an election year. A Sierra

Club survey carried out among delegates to last month’s Republican convention in New Orleans found that a startling 76 per cent favored cutting by half the sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions that contribute to acid rain. And a Time magazine poll last week showed that 70 per cent of respondents are now willing to put up with a tax increase to finance environmental protection. Those findings represent what Clifton Curtis of Washington’s conservationist Oceanic Society terms a “significant shift” in American attitudes. In 1981, the year that Reagan took office, only 45 per cent of respondents in a national poll


favored environmental improvements. Said Boyden Gray, Bush’s White House environmental counsellor: “People go through a summer like this and it focuses their minds.”

But some critics say that they are wary of candidates who appear to be clambering belatedly on the environmental bandwagon. Unlike most Canadian analysts— who predict that either a Bush or Dukakis presidency would be more sympathetic to the country’s concerns than the Reagan White House—Adèle Hurley of the Toronto-based Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain seems unconvinced about the vicepresident’s newfound commitment. Said Hurley: “I’m not prepared to give people marks just for reading polls well.”

She pointed out that Bush’s acid rain proposal is so far meaningless because—in contrast with Dukakis—he failed to specify tonnage reduction targets.

But Gray says that Bush did not want to give away his negotiating position. And he notes that, after Bush’s January, 1987, visit to Ottawa— when he declared he “got an earful” from Mulroney over White House inaction—the vice-president rescued funding for clean-coal technology promised a year earlier by Reagan. Otherwise, said Gray, “it would have fallen between the cracks.”

But Hurley says that a more telling indicator of Bush’s feelings is his choice of Indiana Senator Dan Quayle as his running mate. Quayle has consistently voted against acid rain legislation in deference to his state’s coal industry. And Bush’s vow in Michigan to prosecute polluters severely was undercut last week by one of his own top campaign advisers. William Ruckelshaus, a two-time administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced that he had been appointed head of a waste disposal company that only last month was fined a record $3 million for 1,700 toxic waste violations.

Bush has tried to highlight his former reputation as an environmentalist when he served in Congress from 1967 to 1970. But even taking into account that nearly 20-year-old record—chairing a House task force on earth resources and population and creating a Texas national park known as Big Thicket—the Washington-based League of Conservation Voters gives him only a D rating compared with Dukakis’s B rating. Chief among its charges: as chairman of Reagan’s Presidential Task Force on Regulatory Relief, created in 1981, Bush “set the tone for the Reagan administration’s attitude toward all environmental laws.”

The group also alleges that Bush led the assault on the nation’s clean-air regulations. His task force gave the White House budget office veto power over environmental regulations, with what the league calls “disastrous” results. Among other things, the league claims, the task force weakened or dismantled

34 provisions dealing with emission controls—almost all of them targeted in a letter of complaint from General Motors—later hailing the delays and cutbacks as “regulatory improvements.” Said Martin Hamburger, the league’s political director: “[Bush] really went at the process of dismembering environmental protection regulations with zeal.”

But the league faults Du_

kakis as well. Despite his long-standing commitment to action on acid rain, it denied him perfect marks because of his delay in cleaning up Boston’s severely polluted harbor. In fact, in an act of political bravado, Bush highlighted that flaw in Dukakis’s environmental record two weeks ago by taking his campaign to what he termed “the dirtiest harbor in America—the harbor of shame,” where the city daily dumps 70 tons of sewage sludge and as much as 440 million gallons of barely treated sewage. Chartering a ferryboat named the Bay State—Massachusetts’s nickname—he cruised the harbor declaring:

“My opponent will say that

he will do for America what he’s done for Massachusetts. That’s why I fear for the country.” Only three weeks earlier, Dukakis had launched construction of a $6-billion sewage treatment plant with his own publicized ride on a rented speedboat. But Bush’s campaign trip to Dukakis’s home state

succeeded in putting the governor on the defensive by hijacking one of his most secure issues.

Some critics express fear that the environment will fade as an issue as soon as the polls close on Nov. 8. But Hamburger disagrees. “The problems are too great,” he said. “The only way these issues will go away is if the

_ next president deals with

them.” And some solutions may produce a new set of environmental problems. One of Bush’s major recommendations to reduce acid rain and ozone levels is to increase the number of nuclear power facilities—a nightmare for opponents of nuclear energy. Still, most conservationists hail the prospect of either Bush or Dukakis as an improvement over Reagan, who, according to New Jersey Democratic Representative James Florio, “presided over what could be described as a lost decade of environmental concerns.”

MARCI McDONALD in Washington