Front Porch Blog

George W. Bush, Environmentalist?

Steven Hayward, a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, reported this week on NPR’s Living on Earth that the president has been striking a different tune on energy and environmental issues of late.

Mike Allen [from Time] reported that he was talking to a senior White House official who said that Bush was getting ready to do a 180 on climate change and describe it as in the old cliché as a Nixon in China moment. The actual quote that appeared was that only two oil men could get all the players to the table, including the oil and auto industry, to broker some large and grand compromise on this.

And I’ve heard separately from people who have had casual lunches or dinners with Bush recently that one of the things he’s changed his mind about was environmental issues.

Now let’s put this in the context of the recent elections.  Most of us have taken Bush’s post-thumpin’ willingness to work with Democrats with a near-lethal dose of salt, but there may actually be something to it, if, like many presidents before, he spends his final two years giving greater consideration to his legacy.  While it’s clear Bush considers Iraq as central to his legacy, an increasingly loud chorus of voices around him are saying that 8 years of inaction on global warming could be the legacy he is most remembered for.

Here’s what retired Republican Congressman Sherwood Boehlert said on the same episode of NPR’s Living on Earth:

“I point out to the detractors in my party that even the President of the United States concedes that global warming is for real. I’ve talked to him about this subject one on one. And I’ll tell your listeners just what I’ve told him. I’ll say, “Mr. President, every time I talk with you on a sensitive issue that might be divisive like global climate change, I always feel better after talking with you.” And then I pause for effect. “It’s your staff that screws it up.” And he usually laughs. But I really do feel that he gets it more than some of his staff people get it. And no president wants to leave after two terms in the White House without a sense that history will treat him well. And this is one area where I think the President has an opportunity to address, in a responsible way, something that is important to all Americans and I just have a gut feeling that he’s going to do it.”

So… What if the president really is willing to play ball with the democrats on energy and the environment in his final two years (it may be the ONLY place where they could even hope to find common ground)?  Will the Republicans in Congress play ball (at least 10 of them in the Senate, that is)?  Republicans who are concerned about the results of this year’s elections might actually be willing to, as there’s little question that the environment was one of the big winners of the election.

From the defeat of Richard Pombo and dozens of Republicans with awful environmental records, to the replacement of James Inhofe with Barbara Boxer as the Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, it’s a new day for those of us working for an energy future in that makes sense.

Let’s review some of the results of the election:

1. Environmental groups, led by Defenders of Wildlife, were instrumental in defeating legendary anti-environmentalist Richard Pombo.  Rarely has the ability of environmentalists to flex electoral muscle been so convincing.

2. Voters in Southern Arizona just elected Gabrielle Giffords, whom the Sierra Club calls an environmental champion, and Jerry McNerny, who defeated Pombo, is the first alternative energy expert in Congress. He’s a wind energy engineer.

3. John Tester, who defeated Conrad Burns of Montana in the senate, is an organic farmer.

4. Washington State passed an initative requiring that a major portion of the state’s electricity come from renewable power: 15 percent by 2020.

5. California Democrat Henry Waxman now chairs the House Government Reform Committee, and his investigations into the last 6 years of energy policy will help to further discredit the power of big energy companies.

6. A whole host of the congressional darlings of the energy industry were just voted out of office.  A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the biggest recipients of coal industry money in both the house and senate were in danger of losing their seats.

Of the top 15 recipients of Coal Industry campaign contributions in the House, 6 lost their seats and several more squeaked by.  Coal darlings that lost there seats were:

Murphy, Tim (R-PA, #1 in contributions from big coal, 2005-2006)
Ney, Bob (R-OH, #2 in contributions from big coal, 2005-2006)
Hart, Melissa (R-PA, #8 in contributions from big coal, 2005-2006)
Pombo, Richard (R-CA, #9 in contributions from big coal, 2005-2006)
Hostettler, John (R-IN, #11 in contributions from big coal, 2005-2006)
DeLay, Tom (R-TX, #15 in contributions from big coal, 2005-2006)

Those that barely held on to their house seats were:

Davis, Geoff (R-KY, #3 in contributions from big coal, 2005-2006)
Cubin, Barbara (R-WY, #5 in contributions from big coal, 2005-2006)

Things didn’t go any better for the coal darlings in the senate:

Santorum, Rick (R-PA, #1 in contributions from big coal, 2005-2006)
Allen, George (R-VA, #2 in contributions from big coal, 2005-2006)
Talent, James M (R-MO, #3 in contributions from big coal, 2005-2006)
DeWine, Mike (R-OH, #6 in contributions from big coal, 2005-2006)
Burns, Conrad (R-MT, #14 in contributions from big coal, 2005-2006)

And Jon Kyl (R-AZ, #8 in contributions from big coal, 2005-2006) didn’t exactly cruise to victory, though his final victory margin was healthy.

As it turns out, that may be attributable to more than bad fortune on the part of the coal industry.  Mike Bocian, an Associate Vice president at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Firm, said in another interview with Living on Earth:

“We did a survey immediately after the election, and if you look at those voters who voted for the Democratic candidate but considered voting for the Republican, the number one concern that they had about the republicans is that they did nothing about the oil companies and the high gas prices. The voters learned about and were extremely frustrated that their Congress and their President had given large tax breaks to the oil companies at a time when gas prices were extremely high and the oil companies were making billion dollar profits.

That was one piece. The second piece was the positive side: the investment in alternative energy. And the voters believe that we are decades behind on investing in alternative energy and ending dependence on foreign oil and they haven’t seen the commitment they’re interested in on that issue.”

So, with many of the biggest allies of coal out of the picture, the will to suffer the inevitable PR nightmare of filibustering alternative energy bills and climate change legislation may not be sufficient.  Then again, the prospect of Mitch McConnell as minority leader makes that considerably more likely.  Regardless, nothing would help Democrats in 2008 more than Republicans falling on their swords to protect Big Coal and Big Oil.

My view is that we should do everything we can to invite and encourage the President to work with us.  While some may find the prospect of helping Bush salvage his legacy distasteful, the prospect of continuing in the wrong direction on energy and climate, at a time when a whole new generation of coal-fired power plants are proposed over the next few years, is far, far worse.  

For the sake of our children and our planet, all hail President Bush the Environmentalist.





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