Thursday, July 31, 2003

Earthly Politics

I read two articles in the Wall Street Journal over the past two days that left me feeling somewhat bi-polar on the Bush administration and the environment. Yesterday's article (you'll need a WSJ.com subscription to get this) on Karl Rove and Klamath River dispute gave me that same depressed, creepy feeling after watching the "Parallex View" with Warren Beatty at 3 in the morning. Rove, after extensive polling and strategic research on the farming political base in the West, got the Interior Dept. to change its policy on the regulation of water levels so that meaningful amounts of water could be diverted to farmers in that region of Oregon. The results: a political pick-up among farmers and 30,000 dead salmon (the picture of thousands of dead fish in inch deep water said it all). The Interior's own scientists had warned against this, but the politics prevailed. Now, I never expected this President to be particularly good on the environment, and I will continue to support him because on the issues of national defense (among others), he is lights out compared to the choices. But it's very dissappointing. When choices are made as between stark human needs and the environment, decisions have to be made. You hope that all factors are weighed and the long term impact studied. But this was about one thing only: politics. All in the effort to appease a group that would unlikely have ever turned to a Democratic party far more focused on environmental issues. Yes, these political choices are made everyday; nothing new here. But this one has an ugly result that at least to me seems so unnecessary and cruel.

And then...instant Prozac. Today's WSJ op-ed, by the environmental correspondent for The Economist, talks of the creation of an integrated fact gathering system developed with the assistance of 30 other countries. The purpose is to gather data over 10 years in order to establish a baseline state of the ecosystems today in order to understand how natural and human factors effect these ecosystems. Oddly enough, despite lots of work, the state of global environmental data is "pitiful." Rich countries have pretty good information on their own environment, but that is not the case at all for poor countries. And so far, the various countries of the world have not worked together to change this. Why? Politics.:
So why haven't we done more? A decade or two ago, the answer might have been the lack of technology. Now there is no shortage of sophisticated satellites, oceanic sensors, or supercomputers. Nor is funding the main issue. Just last week, the Bush administration announced over $100 million more for observation as part of its new climate science policy. The real problem has been politics. Developing countries like Brazil never trusted the spy satellites of the rich world. They feared that the prying eyes in the sky would humiliate local governments by exposing the true state of their forests or, worse, would somehow help multinationals steal their natural resources. Europe has always been suspicious of the role played by America's military in running the country's satellite systems for civilian earth observation, communications and global positioning. In turn, the U.S. has tried to bully Europe into abandoning or at least modifying its ambitious Galileo satellite system.
Bush, here at least, is changing the political reality. This is about overcoming politics to find out information that will help us globally to make the right decisions. At the very least we will have the data with which to try.

I will never accuse this president about being all politics. On terrorism, among other things, it is clear that he is serious (deadly so) and will make decisions that are extraordinary. There is no comparison between him and his predecessor, a man so fluid in his principles that the choice of bathroom may very well have been the subject of extensive polling. But while Bush is capable of making, and does in fact make, great decisions, it is clear he is not above being bought when convenient. And for him, the envirnoment may be fair game. I just hope, that the good he does here greatly outweighs the bad.

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