Clearing the Air


From the reaction of environmentalists, you would think that George Bush had just announced that he wants to raze Yellowstone National Park and put a big smoke-belching factory on the site.

"It just shows that the Administration is still more concerned about polluters' profits than protecting the Earth from global warming," said the Sierra Club's Daniel Becker. The Worldwatch Institute's Christopher Flavin pronounced the President "a disappointment."

So what did Bush say to irritate the eco-elite? Well, he called for cautious but "thoughtful" action dealing with "climate change." And he repeatedly stressed that his policy would be "consistent with economic growth and free market principles." Shocking, huh?

Environmentalists demand immediate and far-reaching plans to combat climate change. James T.B. Tripp, general counsel of the Environmental Defense Fund, for example, insists on "a massive energy Marshall plan" to stop the greenhouse effect. But Tripp's call to limit oil imports and subsidize new alternate sources of energy is one of the more moderate plans pushed by the eco-alarmists. Richard Houghton and George Woodwell of Woods Hole Research Center have a more radical program for "50 percent reduction in the global consumption of fossil fuels, a halting of deforestation, a massive program of reforestation."

At the heart of this debate are two fundamentally different approaches to environmental policy. The eco-elite considers the environment above any other human concern. They want absolutely pure air and water and demand that the government enforce strict and detailed guidelines to achieve that purity. In this particular case, they demand a big government program to solve a problem that may not even exist: Climatologists have cautioned us that there is no clear-cut evidence of global warming.

The problems with this approach are two-fold. First, we cannot have absolute purity unless we dismantle industrial society. Manufacturing inevitably produces wastes. If we set our goals too high, if we try too hard to stop pollution, we can destroy our economy and ourselves. Consider, for example, the suggestion that we cut fossil fuel consumption by 50 percent. We just can't do this without eliminating the cars and planes and factories that burn fossil fuels.

Environmentalists seem to long for some Edenic past free of superhighways, smog, and toxic wastes. But the truth is that despite all the pollution around us, life expectancy is up, infant mortality is down, and our health is better than ever. The key to living longer is more economic progress, not less. We would be fools to give it up.

Second, even if their ends were more reasonable, the environmentalists' methods are lousy. Assuming that some central planner in Washington can dictate the best way to reduce pollution is ridiculous; these guys can't even deliver the mail on time.

But George Bush has offered a different vision of environmental policy. Recognizing that a clean environment is not the only thing people value, he speaks of the need to balance ecological concerns with economic progress and set realistic goals for cutting pollution.

Realizing that government doesn't have all the answers, he has shown a willingness to use market forces to clean the environment. His clean air bill, for example, sets emissions goals for coal-burning plants but allows polluters to decide how to meet the goals, a strategy long favored by economists. This approach forces polluters to search for the least costly ways to control pollution.

Most of us have concerns a little more mundane than saving the world. We are raising children, paying mortgages, and trying to get ahead in life. We want clean air and water also, but we must balance it with these other concerns. The eco-elite may not understand this, but George Bush does.