Readers’ advisory: There’s lots of sarcasm in here.
Last Thursday, I was listening to the words of former Vice President Dick Cheney, and was transfixed as always. The ex-Veep was speaking to a friendly crowd at the American Enterprise Institute and warning that the new president was on the verge of wrecking all of the gains of the last eight years in global security and American prestige. And if there’s one thing you can take to the bank, it’s that Dick Cheney has never been wrong, and the American people know it. If you need proof, a CNN/Opinion Research poll reported this week that his approval rating has shot up eight points since he left office. It’s now at 37 percent.
Which got me to thinking: If Obama can do that much harm in so short a period of time to the trouble-free world he inherited, wouldn’t it be easy for him to reverse all of the environmental progress made under Bush/Cheney? It could be a cakewalk. Maybe a slam dunk. Perhaps even a Mission Accomplished. So let’s take a look at a few snapshots of what’s changed since the White House got new occupants on Jan. 20.
Secrecy: Political hacks at NASA and other agencies virtually censored scientists from issuing scientific opinions on climate change and other issues during the Bush era. On his first day in office, Obama said that would be a part of the change he promised. So far, so good. But we’ll see….
Respect for science: Obama has charted a different course from his predecessor by appointing scientists to key science positions. Jane Lubchenco now runs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, home to much of the government’s climate science, its meteorology, and its fisheries and ocean policies. John Holdren is the president’s science advisor. Both have publically admitted to being scientists. In fact, Lubchenco is a past president of the blatantly pro-science American Association for the Advancement of Science. Actually, so is Holdren. Lubchenco succeeds Rear Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, an Annapolis man and Desert Storm vet who holds a Ph.D in mathematics. The admiral helped the Bush administration deny climate change, but won some grudging credit from critics for at least listening to the censorship and secrecy charges. This video shows Lautenbacher getting worked over on climate change by a retired Navy man that he outranked, Capt. John McCain. It’s further proof that enhanced interrogation rarely works.
Climate: In the 2000 campaign, candidate George W. Bush said he was concerned about climate change, and that he would regulate greenhouse gases. Less than a year after his strong second-place showing in the 2000 presidential election, President Bush was overruled by Vice President Cheney, who laid out an energy strategy that ramped up oil, coal, nuclear power, and dismissed conservation. (Sarcastic link here.) Cheney then held a series of closed door meetings with coal, oil, gas, and electric execs while nearly totally excluding environmental advocates.
Obama’s EPA has moved to regulate CO2 as a pollutant, and he has assembled an all-star team of climate advocates (Lubchenco, Holdren, former Clinton-era EPA boss Carol Browner, and more), but they’ve made substantial concessions to the coal industry as a sop to the so-called “brown dog” Democrats whose congressional survival is dependent on the coal industry. If you need more proof of Obama’s dependency on coal-state legislators, look at the high-profile suspension of four dozen “mountaintop removal” coal permits in March, and then the quiet approval of all but six of them two weeks ago.
Personnel: The poster child for Bush-era environmental policy is Jim Connaughton, President Bush’s leading environmental advisor. A former defense attorney for the asbestos industry, Connaughton led the way as Bush gifted the coal and timber industries, respectively, with Orwellian-named laws like the “Clear Skies Initiative” and the “Healthy Forests Initiative.” Connaughton brought Phil Cooney over from the American Petroleum Institute as his deputy, and Cooney got to work redacting scientific findings that might displease his former and future bosses in the oil industry. (When Cooney was outed, he found quick employment with Exxon/Mobil).
By contrast, Nancy Sutley will be Obama’s chief environmental advisor, and her role as the Enviro Czar in Los Angeles will in turn be taken by David Freeman, one of my all-time favorite eco-bureaucrats.
Packing heat on public lands: Wow. Just what America’s wildlife needs. An NRA-inspired add-on to the recently-passed bill on credit card reform lets you bring your guns into national parks and wildlife refuges. Advocated by the Bush administration, the Obama administration has postponed implementation of the law until the main part of the credit card bill takes effect in February. This is not good enough for Sen. Tom Coburn, who has threatened to add the guns-in-the-park rider to every piece of legislation in the meantime. The National Park Service may have to come up with a new slogan: “Take only pictures, leave only footprints and spent cartridges.”
One of my favorite movies is Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, where Cary Grant gets a bellyful of lead in a staged shooting at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. So I’m all for it. Someday if you find yourself enjoying the vistas of Yosemite when a desperado shoves a piece in your face, remember that he’s just protecting you from excessive credit card rates.
Endangered species: Obama has restored a federal rule saying that regulators should maybe, just maybe, listen to experts before ruling on endangered species. The Bush administration had a poster child on this one, too. Julie McDonald was a California rancher and sub-cabinet-level official for Fish and Wildlife at the Interior Department. She resigned in 2007 after altering science reports and belittling scientists’ endangered species findings -- at least one of which impacted her own personal landholdings.
For Obama, the 800-pound gorilla in the endangered species room is actually an 800-pound (or more) bear. After many months of inexplicable delay, Bush’s Interior Secretary, Dirk Kempthorne, listed the polar bear as “threatened” due to vanishing ice in its Arctic habitat. Environmentalists are eager to use a possible endangered species listing as a tool to limit climate change damage. That issue could be the “spotted owl” in the environmental battles of the next decade.
Bottom line: Obama gets high marks so far on the environment. He benefits from having followed the most abysmal environmental administration in our lifetimes, so it’s not yet strong praise. By the same measure, I’m sure the current governor of Illinois looks like a genius and statesman compared to Rod Blagojevich. So we shall see.
Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)