Environment Gridlock

By Victor, David | Newsweek International, February 23, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Environment Gridlock


Victor, David, Newsweek International


On climate issues America is less a nation than 50 different states, moving at wildly different speeds.

One effect of the new Obama administration's global charm is that America could be let out of the environmental doghouse. The Obama plan to restart the economy is stuffed full of green incentives, and the new president has earned global cheers for his promise to cut the gases that cause global warming. But hope and change are not easy to implement in Washington, and the first big disappointment is likely to come later this year when the world's governments gather in Copenhagen to replace the aging and ineffective Kyoto treaty.

Pundits have been talking down the Copenhagen summit on the theory that the current financial crisis makes 2009 a tough time for governments to focus on costly and distant global goals like protecting the planet. In reality, the greenish tinge on nearly every economic recovery plan, even China's, show that this crisis offers green opportunity. The real reason Copenhagen will be a disappointment is that the new Obama administration can't lead until it first learns what it can actually implement at home. And delivering greenery in the American political system is harder than it looks--even when the same left-leaning party controls both the White House and Congress.

On environmental issues, America is barely a nation. Under a single flag it uneasily accommodates a host of states pushing greenery at wildly different speeds. In the 1970s and 1980s, this multispeed environmentalism propelled America to a leadership position. The key was truly bipartisan legislation, which allowed Washington to craft a coherent national approach. In fact, most of the major U.S. environmental laws did not arise solely from the environmental left but were forged by centrist Republican administrations working closely with centrist and left-leaning Democrats. Republican President Nixon created America's pathbreaking clean air and water regulations; Republican George H.W. Bush updated the air rules to tackle acid rain and other pernicious long-distance pollutants. In his more moderate second term, Ronald Reagan was America's champion of the ozone layer and helped spearhead a treaty--probably the world's most effective international environmental agreement--that earned bipartisan support at home and also pushed reluctant Europeans to regulate the pollutants.

Ever since the middle 1990s--about the time that the U.S. government was shut down due to a partisan budget dispute--such broad coalitions supporting greenery have been rare. In the vacuum of any serious federal policy, for nearly a decade the greener coastal states devised their own rules to cut warming gases. The United States as a whole let its green leadership lapse. (At the same time, the project to create a single European economy has shifted authority in environmental matters from individual member states into the hands of central policymakers in Brussels, where a coterie of hyperrich and very green countries have set the agenda.

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