Column: Earth Day is largely ignored by Bush domestic policies

(U-WIRE) ITHACA, N.Y. – “On April 22 each year for more than three decades, Americans have paused on Earth Day to celebrate the rich blessings of our Nation’s natural resources and to take stock of our stewardship of nature’s gifts. Each of us understands that our prosperity as a nation will mean little if our legacy to future generations is a world of polluted air, toxic waste and vanished forests.

“During the past 31 years, we have made progress on protecting our environment. America is truly blessed with a vibrant and flourishing environment. But with blessings, come responsibility. There is much more to do. As we celebrate Earth Day on this April 22, 2001, I encourage Americans to join me in renewing our commitment to protecting the environment and leaving our children and grandchildren with a legacy of clean water, clean air, and natural beauty.”

And so spoke President George W. Bush, environmental crusader, on Earth Day last year in his annual Earth Day address. Every day is Earth Day, right?

Wrong.

By the time he had made this speech, three months into his term, Bush had already refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, had reneged on his campaign promise to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and had revised a section of the Clean Water Act, which was formerly intended to lower arsenic levels in our drinking water.

Since last April, the Bush administration has announced one piece of legislation after another that significantly jeopardizes environmental protection and conservation efforts, unabashedly aligning its agenda with industrial interests. The administration has also used the shift in national focus since Sept. 11 to negotiate behind closed doors with lawmakers representing the mining, oil and automobile industries (to name a few) as they write our newest pieces of environmental legislation.

Increasingly, the American public has joined forces with bi-partisan groups to express support for environmentally sound policies, such as the prevention of oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge; more people are at last realizing that modifying the way we treat the planet is not simply a question of politics and that our survival – the planet’s survival – is absolutely at stake.

But the Bush administration has not caught on to this yet and shows no signs of doing so any time soon. It claims that the new Clean Skies Act, an alternative plan to the Kyoto Protocol, indicates the extent of its commitment to the environment. Environmentalists argue, however, that it does not do enough quickly enough and that it is a poor substitute for the Kyoto Protocol, which is a valid concern since it does not even address carbon dioxide emissions.

In addition, the Clean Skies Act is based on the Clean Air Act, which is highly ironic since the administration has been working to roll back the environmental protections that the Clean Air Act seeks to implement. These changes would relax the regulations on pollution caused by industrial facilities, such as oil refineries and power plants, built before 1970. Under the original Clean Air Act, these facilities were required to upgrade their pollution control mechanisms to meet modern emissions standards. Bush is trying to change this, much to the chagrin of the environmentalists and politicians who have worked to get this legislation in place.

These examples are only the tip of the iceberg. The administration continues to push back the Roadless Area Conservation Rule in response to the logging industry. It has worked on behalf of the Army Corps of Engineers to allow a kind of coal mining that has the potential to destroy mountain streams and wetlands. It has tried to prevent bans on snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park (where park rangers have begun to wear gas masks) due to pressure from the snowmobile industry. It has approved the construction of a nuclear waste dump at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain (a site near a volcano, an earthquake region and a large water table), and it has rejected legislation that prevents corporations and industries from receiving government contracts if they violate environmental and workplace standards.

The administration also recently ended an Environmental Protection Agency fellowship that provided $10 million in grants to graduate students studying environmental science, policy and engineering. For an administration that claims global warming is bad science, it seems inane to end any kind of scientific research program, much less one in a field where, sadly, policy often depends on the manipulation of data instead of common sense.

Perhaps what is most frustrating about Bush’s policies is that he is undoing the work of past presidents – including that of his own Republican father – and of countless activists and politicians who, regardless of their politics, have recognized the catastrophic results of the abuse to which we subject our planet. These activists have also recognized the leading role the United States has played in contributing to air, water and land pollution and have sought to make this nation take responsibility for the appalling amount of garbage, chemicals, greenhouse gases and waste we produce each day – a reality our president simply has not faced.

Fortunately, most Americans and many of our leaders are becoming more aware of the importance of environmental responsibility, as indicated by the Senate’s vote to prevent drilling in Alaska and the prevention of watercraft such as jet skis in national parks. But these are two small steps, and if the president had had his way, both the oil industry and the watercraft industry would be celebrating Earth Day by expanding their industrial bases instead of by trying to find ways around the new legislation.

The environmental crisis is real. It has been and will continue to be as we each recognize the threat it poses to the fragile ecosystems that sustain and enthrall us. We have caused that crisis and now must find a way to reverse and end it. If we can’t count on our leaders to do so through environmentally responsible policies, then Mother Nature’s resilience could crumble, and the people of future generations will wonder why those who came before did not work any harder to save the planet.

I’m referring to your children and grandchildren, Mr. President, the ones for whom you supposedly wish to leave “a legacy of clean air, clean water and natural beauty.” If they’re left with a legacy of any of these things, it will certainly be no thanks to you or your administration. Remember, Mr. President, every day is Earth Day.
-Lydia Breiseth
Cornell Daily Sun
(Cornell U.)

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