Bush vs. Kerry on the Environment

by Michael G. Livingston

How do Bush and Kerry stack up in terms of the environment? Who should environmentalists support? Or should they support neither one?

There is no doubt that Bush is terrible on the environment. Bush has worked hard to be the worst environmental president in the last 100 years. Among Bush’s achievements:

  • He has helped his capitalist buddies to plunder the country’s natural resources. As president, Bush has overseen a 70% increase in oil and gas leases on public land, promoted massive timber sales from national forests, and tried to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling.
  • He has cut funding for environmental programs and environmental law enforcement. As president, Bush has spent only a fraction of what is necessary to maintain our national parks,  has virtually destroyed the Endangered Species Act by not funding its provisions, and has made it easy for power plants to pollute by cutting funds needed to enforce the Clean Air Act.
  • He has shut out the public from participation in environmental decisions. As president, he has tried to “streamline” the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA is sometimes called the Magna Charta of the environmental movement. NEPA requires that governments and industries study the environmental consequences of their actions before taking action. NEPA permits substantial public input when projects could cause harm to the environment. Streamlining entails the reduction or elimination of Environmental Impact Statements, an important part of the NEPA process, and public input.
  • He has gutted environmental laws using the courts and administrative regulations. The most egregious example of this is the relaxation of the Clean Air Act by redefining what triggers a New Source Review in coal-fired power plants. Old coal-fired plants, responsible for most of the acid rain and mercury pollution in our air, are required to install new equipment to reduce pollution when the plants are upgraded. By allowing major renovations to be considered routine upkeep, the Bush administration has permitted power companies to continue to operate these heavily polluting but extremely profitable plants.

So Bush is bad, very, very bad. How about Kerry?

Kerry has a lifetime environmental report card of 96% from the League of Conservation Voters, a mainstream environmental group. This is one of the highest lifetime records in the Senate. He has a track record, starting as a lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, of supporting the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, defending ANWR, supporting funding for environmental law enforcement and cleanup, and opposing global warming through, for example, pushing for increased fuel efficiency standards in automobiles. Kerry’s record explains why so many environmental activists are such strong supporters. Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, said that “John Kerry’s record on the environment is impressive by any measure and reveals a sincere personal interest in the issue.”

It should not go unnoticed that the mainstream environmental organizations have rather low standards for their “friends.”  Betsy Loyless, the political director of The League of Conservation Voters, for instance, considers anyone who votes pro-environment 60% of the time or more to be solidly pro-environment. According to Ms. Loyless, the average score for Senators in 2003 was 41 percent. An analysis of the 107th Congress, using the League of Conservation Voters data, shows that only about 42% of the members in both the Senate and the House of Representatives can be considered pro-environment, even using the low standard of 60% support or higher. Is it any wonder the environmental crisis deepens everyday.

There are real differences between Bush and Kerry on the environment. Does this mean anyone who cares about the environment should rush out and vote for Kerry? The Democrats and most environmentalists would say yes. I would argue no. Here’s why.

First, Democrats from districts with weak environmental movements, such as Representative Dick Gephardt or Senator Ernest Hollings, have very poor environmental records. Republicans from areas that have strong environmental movements, such as Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both from Maine, tend to have good environmental records.

Second, the higher you go, the worse on average you are on the environment. Presidents have worse records on the environment than senators, and senators have worse records than representatives. One of the few senators who could match Kerry’s record in the Senate was Al Gore. As part of the Clinton-Gore administration, he did relatively little for the environment until the end of the second term, when the Clinton-Gore administration developed a number of regulations that were overturned by the Bush administration. (Regulations that are not codified in actual laws can be changed by administrative fiat.) The environmental movement spent eight years feeling betrayed by Al Gore. They seem to have forgotten that fact, or want us to forget it, in the run-up to November 2.

Third, the respective environmental records of Bush and Kerry are not the only factors environmentalists need to consider. An equally important, if not more important, factor is what political strategy will advance the environmental movement and save the planet. In spite of massive popular support, the environmental movement has been losing ground since the mid-1970s. There are a number of reasons for this. As the rate of profit has fallen, corporations have tried to reduce costs by attacking organized labor, outsourcing, and reducing the cost of environmental regulation. In addition, corporations were initially caught off guard when the environmental movement reemerged in the 1960s. But one of the most important reasons for the failure of the environmental movement is its crisis of leadership and strategy: The movement has tied its fate to the Democratic Party and has used lobbying and legal proceedings as its main tactics. The Democrats sometimes give the environmental movement what it wants, but not when that interferes with the fundamental well-being of capital. A case in point is NAFTA, which was vehemently opposed by most environmentalists and was supported by most Democrats, including Kerry.

What the environmental movement needs is a mass action strategy that includes independent political action—independent, that is, from control by the corporations and financial institutions of the monopoly capitalist system. It is only when the environmental movement breaks with the Democratic Party—and all parties committed to the capitalist system, the system that places profits before human needs—and organizes masses of people around an effective political program that we will see substantial gains. Here is one environmentalist who will not be voting for Democrats this November 2.