A Higher Power Informs the Republican Assault on the Environment
Jubilant Republicans may imagine that the most significant harbinger for America’s future was the banging of a gavel on January 6, opening the 108th Congress. Finally, GOP partisans may conclude, they call the shots.
But it may be that the Earth itself is in charge. In 2002, the second hottest year on record, scientists saw Arctic Ocean ice coverage shrink by more than at any time since satellite measurements were first made a quarter century ago. And, they say, continued melting could leave the Arctic nearly ice-free by summer 2050.
Americans need to pay attention to the winds of change blowing in from the Arctic, then decide just how much Republican environmental policies contradict clear messages relayed by our planet. Our leaders could be viewing the world through a distorted lens, with their corporate worldview and sometimes their fundamentalist Christian faith guiding them to an interpretation of reality based not on scientific fact, but on dogma.
The federal government—with Republicans in control of the White House, Congress and the judiciary—has launched the largest rollback of environmental laws and regulations ever. The Bush administration seems determined to undo much of the good done since Earth Day 1970, when 20 million Americans defended the planet in the biggest mass demonstration of U.S. history.
The New Leadership
Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma is poised to become Bush’s lieutenant in the assault. As new chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, he unseated Independent Jim Jeffords—an environmental champion who advanced legislation to curb global warming.
Inhofe, by contrast, is a Big Oil backer who once characterized the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as "the Gestapo bureaucracy," and has earned a zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) three years running.
Under Inhofe, hearings to oppose Bush’s anti-environmental agenda are improbable, as are subpoenas for
administration documents divulging shoddy science or corporate complicity. "Teddy Roosevelt is rolling over in his grave," Alys Campaigne, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said in the Bureau of National Affairs "Environmental Report."
Bush and Inhofe will likely move to modify or overturn the National Environmental Policy Act. This Magna Carta of environmental law demands study, disclosure and public comment on the environmental impacts of federal projects. Bush has already demanded "excessive red tape" be hacked from the law, fast-tracking road and airport construction and cutting the public out of the democratic process.
The President is also attacking the Clean Air Act of 1970, another cornerstone of environmental law. Late last year, Bush proposed rules to weaken the Act’s New Source Review, which requires the installation of state-of-the-art pollution control equipment in the modernizing of factories. The new rules allow industrial air pollution to continue at levels that, according to the American Lung Association, now kill 10,000 Americans annually.
Bush’s proposed "Clear Skies" Initiative also undermines air quality. "Clear Skies" won’t enhance the air at all, but will further pollute it, says NRDC. Bush’s "Healthy Forests" initiative likewise suffers from Orwellian doublespeak, felling Western forests to save them. Disguised as a measure for curbing wildfires, the plan invites logging companies to cut healthy trees in national forests while reducing public oversight. Ironically, the probable cause of recent catastrophic fires is global warming, a problem that many Republican lawmakers deny.
California last year passed the nation’s first law to control greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles. But the Bush administration has virtually gone to war against the state’s environmental initiatives, seeking to extend oil-drilling rights off the California coast and to overturn regulations requiring automakers to sell zero-emissions vehicles.
This Congress will likely discontinue the requirement that corporate polluters contribute to Superfund, leaving taxpayers to pay for toxic waste cleanup. Both Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. supported Superfund; the younger Bush is the first Republican President not to back reauthorization.
Congressional Republicans blocked many of President Clinton’s judicial appointments, leaving over 100 federal judgeships open. With the Senate Judiciary Committee now in GOP hands, the courts could take a hard swing to the right, putting the environment further at risk. The U.S. District Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C. holds almost exclusive jurisdiction over environmental law, hearing cases concerning federal authority, involving the powers of the EPA, for example. Senate Republicans blocked two Clinton appointments to the court, setting the stage for a bench packed with conservative judges who, appointed now, could shape environmental law for decades.
The GOP’s War on the Environment
The reasons behind Republican anti-environmentalism have often been stated but deserve review: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are former oil men who believe in the efficiency of the marketplace. Market conservatives tend to see environmentalists as either frivolous tree-huggers or dangerous monkey-wrenching eco-terrorists. They dismiss good environmental science as the doomsaying of the loony left.
Almost by definition, they lack an understanding of such concepts as sustainability, carrying capacity, biodiversity or webs of interdependence. And of course, promoting any policies that go against immediate economic goals would put the administration up against strong corporate interests. The American auto industry, for example, remains a powerful economic engine in many states; if SUV sales are keeping domestic automakers afloat, the automakers will resist spending millions to impose tough new fuel efficiency standards on the vehicles.
Hence, the power of corporate campaign contributions. Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law group, reports that in the 2000 campaign, Bush-Cheney and the Republican National Committee received $44 million in contributions from the fossil fuel, chemical, timber and mining industries—far more than was offered by these interests to all federal Democratic candidates and party committees combined.
A Higher Power
Nevertheless, beyond all these more obvious anti-environmental motivations there lies a more deep-seated inspiration. Difficult as it may be to believe, many of the conservatives who have great influence in the Bush administration and now in Congress are governed by a Higher Power.
In his book The Carbon Wars, Greenpeace activist Jeremy Leggett tells how he stumbled upon this otherworldly agenda. During the Kyoto climate change negotiations, Leggett candidly asked Ford Motor Company executive John Schiller how opponents of the pact could believe there is no problem with "a world of a billion cars intent on burning all the oil and gas available on the planet?" The executive asserted first that scientists get it wrong when they say fossil fuels have
been sequestered underground for eons. The Earth, he said, is just 10,000, not 4.5 billion years old, the age widely accepted by scientists.
Then Schiller confidently declared, "You know, the more I look, the more it is just as it says in the Bible." The Book of Daniel, he told Leggett, predicts that increased earthly devastation will mark the "End Time" and return of Christ. Paradoxically, Leggett notes, many fundamentalists see dying coral reefs, melting ice caps and other environmental destruction not as an urgent call to action, but as God’s will. Within the religious right worldview, the wreck of the Earth can be seen as Good News!
Some true believers, interpreting biblical prophecy, are sure they will be saved from the horrific destruction brought by ecosystem collapse. They"ll be raptured: rescued from Earth by God, who will then rain down seven ghastly years of misery on unbelieving humanity. Jesus" return will mark the Millennium, when the Lord restores the Earth to its green pristine condition, and the faithful enjoy a thousand years of peace and prosperity.
American fundamentalists number in the tens of millions, but not all of them believe literally in this apocalyptic vision, cautions Joan Bokaer, an expert on the religious right and formerly of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy at Cornell University. Some, no doubt, don’t dwell on environmental issues, but many do hold views antithetical to environmental protection.
One powerful fringe group, the Reconstructionists, doesn’t speak of the "End Time" at all, Bokaer notes. They put the onus for the Lord’s return on their own political activism. Reconstructionists say Christ will only return when a righteous nation acts to purge unrepentant sinners and applies biblical law to its populace. They want to spread the Gospel in a political context, making the Bible the foundation of U.S. jurisprudence. That includes an end to environmental regulation.
Reconstructionists believe the Lord will provide, and their view is laid out in America’s Providential History, a religious right high school history textbook: "The secular or socialist has a limited resource mentality and views the world as a pie… that needs to be cut up so everyone can get a piece," write authors Mark Beliles and Stephen McDowell. "In contrast, the Christian knows that the potential in God is unlimited and that there is no shortage of resources in God’s Earth. The resources are waiting to be tapped."
In another passage, the writers explain: "While many secularists view the world as overpopulated, Christians know that God has made the Earth sufficiently large with plenty of resources to accommodate all of the people." Fossil fuels and forests are like the loaves and fishes, Reconstructionists say, miraculously multiplying for true believers.
Such misinformed viewpoints would be of little import except that, in the 1980s, they began permeating the Republican Party. That’s when Republican strategists—eager to broaden the party’s narrow base of wealthy corporate supporters—partnered with religious right leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who agreed to politicize their followers and bring them into the GOP, according to Bokaer.
Working through fundamentalist, Pentecostal and charismatic churches, the Christian Coalition has promoted right-wing Republican candidates by mailing voter guides at election time—30 million in 1994; another 45 million in 1996; and 70 million in 2000 to support candidate Bush, reports the watchdog group People for the American Way.
As it turns out, politicians who ally themselves with the religious right are also rabidly anti-environmental. Those who score high with the Christian Coalition almost invariably score low with LCV.
According to the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, 178 House members in the last Congress allied themselves with the religious right, earning barely a 15 percent average approval rating with LCV. Of 44 senators given an 80 to 100 percent approval rating by the Christian Coalition, the average LCV approval rating fell below 10 percent.
In the 108th Congress, Republican leadership hails almost exclusively from the religious right, scoring a perfect 100 percent with the Christian Coalition, but getting barely a four percent average approval rating from LCV.
Among the religiously motivated leaders are Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Assistant Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and Majority Whip Roy Blunt. DeLay has bluntly said that The Almighty is using him to promote "a Biblical worldview" in American politics, says the New York Times.
Also among those holding an extreme fundamentalist perspective is Inhofe, reports Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "When we win this revolution in November, you"ll be doing the Lord’s work, and He will richly bless you for it!" Inhofe declared at the Christian Coalition’s Road to Victory Conference last October.
And George W. Bush? He and Attorney General John Ashcroft are both born again. According to The Nation, Bush’s "walk with Jesus" began in 1985 when Billy Graham visited him in Kennebunkport.
The Republican Party platform in Bush’s home state warns of what to expect from a federal government guided by religious right radicalism. The Texas platform "reaffirms the United States of America as a Christian Nation," and seeks to nullify the separation between church and state. It would abolish the EPA, and the Departments of Energy and Education. It dismisses global warming as "myth." And it promotes public school education "based upon Biblical principles," not upon secular humanism, which teaches Darwinian evolutionary theory and a scientific worldview.
Texans have paid the price for their leaders" anti-environmental stance. During George W. Bush’s time as governor, the state gained the honor of having the dirtiest air in America. It also ranks 47th in water quality, and has the seventh-highest rate of release of toxic industrial byproducts.
In the early days of the current administration, the news was full of Bush appointments of foxes to guard the hen house. Gale Norton, a mining industry lobbyist, became Secretary of the Interior. Steven Griles, a lobbyist for Big Coal, was appointed Norton’s second-in-command. Now, the Washington Post reports an even more disturbing trend: Bush "has begun a broad restructuring of the scientific advisory committees that guide federal policy." These largely anonymous committees of scientists, lawyers and academics make recommendations vital to determining health and environmental risk.
Replaced, for example, were 15 members of a 17-person Department of Health and Human Services committee that assesses the impacts of low-level exposure to environmental chemicals on human health. New Bush-imposed panel appointees include chemical industry advocates and a California scientist who helped defend Pacific Gas and Electric Company against the real-life Erin Brockovich.
More troubling is the case of W. David Hager, one of Bu
sh’s nominees to the influential Food and Drug Administration panel on women’s health policy. Hager, says the New York Times, has a resume "more impressive for theology than gynecology." Hager emphasizes the restorative power of Jesus Christ in one’s life and recommends specific Scripture readings to treat headaches, eating disorders and premenstrual syndrome.
The administration has repeatedly turned a blind eye toward good science. When the National Academy of Sciences came to Bush in 2001 with a report saying that global warming was real, serious and human-caused, he ignored it. When the EPA sent a 2002 report to the United Nations saying that global warming will result in "rising seas, melting ice caps and glaciers, ecological system disruption, floods, heat waves and more dangerous storms," Bush rejected it as a document "put out by the bureaucracy."
Marty Jezer, writing for the online Common Dreams News Center, notes that "One has to go back to the Stalinist Era of the Soviet Union to find such a display of political arrogance and ignorance of science." That’s when Trofim Lysenko told Josef Stalin that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and Gregor Mendel’s theory of heredity were wrongheaded "bourgeois science" not suited to a communist state.
Lysenko’s theories were practiced on collective farms on a massive scale, displacing traditional agricultural knowledge, and killing millions in the Russian famine of 1931 to 1933. His beliefs were exported to China, says Joseph Becker, author of Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine. Farmers were told that seeds of the same species act like "comrades," and wouldn’t compete with each other. Chinese farmers were ordered to plant up to 15 million seedlings per 2.5 acres, rather than the scientifically proven 1.5 million, helping bring on the 20th century’s worst famine. An estimated 30 million people starved to death between 1958 and 1961.
In a move to blunt new U.S. global warming research, Bush has launched a four-year study to ascertain "precisely how much climate change between 1950 and now was human-caused." Prominent climate experts, including Princeton University’s Michael Oppenheimer, say the study may merely rehash issues most scientists consider settled. "The danger is that while they’re continuing to do the research, the window of opportunity to avoid dangerous global warming is closing," says Oppenheimer.
The anti-science movement has also extended itself into the classroom. Last fall, the Texas Board of Education rejected several environmental science textbooks, including one entitled Environmental Science: Creating a Sustainable Environment. Critics forced the book ban primarily on ideological grounds, calling the text "vitriol against Western civilization and its primary belief systems." Another science book was approved only after the publisher agreed to remove entire sections on climate change.
In 2000, the Kansas school board briefly removed Darwinian evolution from the state’s science standards and tests, while similar campaigns have been pushed in over 20 states, says People for the American Way. Last spring, two Republican congressmen from Ohio, John Boehner and Steve Chabot, pressured their state’s school board unsuccessfully to introduce creationism disguised as "Intelligent Design" into school curricula.
Should efforts to de-emphasize the teaching of evolutionary theory actually succeed, one wonders how we could hope to confront tough environmental problems. How, for instance, could we train scientists to fight the virulent new strains of bacteria that have evolved resistance to potent antibiotics? Or, another example: In his book The Beak of the Finch, science journalist Jonathan Weiner tells how the U.S. cotton industry is threatened with collapse because of Heliothis virescens, a moth that has evolved total resistance to all pesticides.
Frustrated entomologist Martin Taylor notes the irony of the equivalence between the Southern Cotton Belt and Bible Belt. "It’s amazing," Taylor notes, "that cotton growers are having to deal with these pests in the very states whose legislatures are so hostile to the theory of evolution. Because it is evolution itself they are struggling against in their fields every season. These people are trying to ban the teaching of evolution while their own cotton crops are failing because of evolution. How can you be a creationist farmer anymore?"
For those who think the teaching of environmental science is safe in our schools, or that evolution vs. creationism is a dead issue, listen to this comment from Tom DeLay, one of the most powerful men in Congress. He suggested that the Columbine, Colorado school shootings occurred "because our school systems teach our children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial mud."
DeLay agrees with Ford executive Schiller that, despite the fossil evidence, the Earth is only thousands of years old. Such willful ignorance of science informs the religious right approach to the environment, and the embattled Earth will bear the consequences.
GLENN SCHERER, former editor of the environmental commentary service Blue Ridge Press, is a freelance writer in Ithaca, NY. A version of this story previously appeared in Salon.com, and appears here courtesy of the publisher.