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Jay Ambrose: Bush’s environmental record

Third in a four-part series on the Bush legacy

Posted: January 26, 2009 9:11 p.m.
Updated: January 27, 2009 4:55 a.m.

When it came to the environment, George W. Bush as president was not just a flop, but a maelstrom of menace, and the worst of it was his motivation - an intent to please evangelical nutcases who thought the apocalypse was coming soon anyway, and the sooner the better.

Or so some observers assured us in very, very worried tones.

One of the prosecutors in this paranoid, poisonous case was no less a light than the now-retired PBS journalist Bill Moyers, who produced an article for The New York Review of Books maintaining that the belief of some evangelicals in the soon-arriving end times could give us something very much like the end times.

The piece didn't bother to supply us any evidence that the Bush people were giving special heed to some supposed evangelical wish for environmental destruction.

Mainly, after offering up these bigoted conjectures, the article attacked administration stances on particular policies with analysis little more refined than what you would expect in an overstated, one-sided press release from a belligerent advocacy group.

Thus it went during the Bush years, with screeches and howls from the supposedly enlightened supplanting anything truly clarifying.

Might we now, with the Bush era concluded, do something different, something as logical as looking at what's actually happened to the environment during his tenure?

I asked Steven Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute to give me a hand in the assessment, and this student of the subject secured information from the Environmental Protection Agency. Here is what it shows.

From 2001 to 2007, we had reductions in all kinds of nasty stuff in the atmosphere. The national mean ozone level declined by 5 percent.

Fine particulates dived 9.5 percent. Lead, says Hayward, went down 56 percent, even though it was "already very, very low." Nitrogen dioxide? Down 20 percent. Sulfur dioxide is down 24 percent and carbon monoxide 39 percent.

"Emissions and ambient levels of other air toxics, not as thoroughly monitored, also appear to have fallen about 5 percent during the Bush years - all during the time in which Bush was supposedly 'gutting' the Clean Air Act," Hayward wrote in an e-mail.

He then gives us this surprise. Greenhouse gas emissions were held more in check during the Bush administration than during that of Bill Clinton and his ultra-alarmist VP sidekick, Al Gore.

The increase during the first seven years of the Clinton-Gore years was 7.6 percent, but just 4.6 percent for the first seven years of the Bush administration.

Bush was bashed on this issue because he wouldn't go along with the Kyoto treaty that would have solved nothing - it left out China and India - but could much earlier have left our economy in something like the mess it's fallen into now.

The European countries that did sign the treaty understood its economic perils, which is why most of them then ignored its provisions. One study says that for one measured period, Bush controlled emissions better than most of these countries did.

What seems unknown - at least among enviro-worrying critics - is that Bush invested billions in research on new technologies and that the United States did make some notable advances in wind and solar energy.

Clearly, there is always room for dispute on whether different policies might not have been preferable on these and other environmental issues from the ones Bush adopted, but what the public should know is that the criticism of Bush in these areas, as in so many others, frequently went beyond reasonableness, and that his environmental record on a host of matters is more than defensible.

It appears to be very good.

Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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