Bush vs. Kerry—on the Environment

When the Bush administration issued an important change in policy recently, virtually acknowledging that global warming is real, it was news to President George W. Bush, who was unaware that any new program had been announced. Earlier, he had dismissed another global warming report from his own administration as “from the bureaucracy.”

But just because the President is disengaged doesn’t mean the Bush White House isn’t taking a stand on science. As Canadian environmentalist and author David Suzuki describes it, the administration has often ignored or tried to change objective scientific data if it doesn’t agree with its conclusions.

“From stem cells to missile defense to nuclear weapons to climate change, the Bush administration has stuck to its ideological guns,” Suzuki writes. “Up until this summer, for example, official White House policy has been to deny the human role in global climate change and to tow the oil industry line of waiting for ‘more research.’ Bush also raised the ire of researchers by instituting highly restrictive embryonic stem cell research policies—policies that have even drawn fire from Nancy Reagan.

“Meanwhile, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has documented dozens of examples of times the Bush administration seems to have altered or suppressed scientific findings to suit its agenda. Since February, more than 5,000 scientists have signed a UCS statement accusing the administration of misusing science. The list includes 48 Nobel laureates, 62 National Medal of Science recipients and 127 members of the National Academy of Sciences.”

k°?d Kerry have gone head-to-head on environmental issues and science policy. Their exchange is printed in the September issue of the prestigious journal Nature. The fact of the exchange has been widely publicized, but not what they actually said. Bush’s answers, in particular, directly contradict the charges from the Nobel laureates and other distinguished scientists.

For instance, Bush was asked, “Recent months have seen various charges of political bias against scientific panels that advise the U.S. government at different levels. What would you do to ensure that your administration receives genuinely impartial advice?”

His reply: “My administration has a strong commitment to the highest scientific standards in decision-making. On issues ranging from climate change to nanotechnology, I have sought out the best scientific minds—inside and outside the government—for policy input and advice, especially the independent National Academies. My commitment to sound, independent scientific advice is unwavering.”

Leaving aside the fact that it’s impossible to imagine Bush actually talking that way, didn’t 127 members of the National Academy of Sciences think the administration is shaping scientific data to its own ends? Somebody’s not telling the truth here.

With Kerry, of course, there’s no way of knowing whether his pledge to “never utilize biased advice as a foundation for public policy” would actually be observed, but if he’s elected in November we can certainly hold him to it.

Just so you know where the candidates stand: Bush, among other things, supports an increase in nuclear weapons funding, enthusiastically embraces missile defense, is bullish on fusion power, wants to “modernize” the Endangered Species Act by “avoiding unnecessary regulation”; is for stem cell research as long as it doesn’t cross a “fundamental moral line”; thinks we’re doing everything we can to stop the spread of mad cow disease; and sticks to the position that there’s still “considerable uncertainty” about climate change.

Kerry would “end the pursuit of a new generation of nuclear weapons”; opposes rapid deployment of missile defense; supports unrestricted stem cell research; sees fusion power as part of an energy plan that will “tap America’s initiative and ingenuity”; wants to leave the Endangered Species Act alone; pledges “to make sure biotechnology is safe for human consumption and safe for the environment”; and opines that “the scientific evidence is clear that global warming is already happening and rising levels of global warming pollution are making the problem worse.”

Nature asked the candidates if Americans “need to change their lifestyles and consume less?” Bush said, “America in a very real sense has changed, not by consuming less, but by consuming and producing smarter. We have proven that economic growth makes possible the environmental progress our country has achieved and will continue to achieve in the future.”

Suzuki believes that Bush’s answer “suggests that massive consumption levels are fine because they are ‘smart.’ This makes no sense. Producing and consuming smarter means doing more with less—less natural resources and less waste.” For the record, Kerry ducked this question, offering only that he would “reverse the four years of environmental neglect by the Bush administration.” He’s not about to go on the record as encouraging Americans to consume less.

Most Americans don’t go into the ballot box with environmental questions uppermost in their minds. They care about green issues, definitely, and overwhelmingly self-describe as environmentally concerned, but polls show they cast their votes based on other factors. Worse, they accept superficial platitudes and assurances that the environment is being respected, often relying on sound-bite images from television commercials or partisan blasts from talk radio. President Bush would appear to be counting on that as he heads into November.