Tuning Out Environmental Gore

Steven Hayward

January 1, 2004

It is richly ironic that former Vice President Al Gore would choose MoveOn.org as the venue for a speech blasting the Bush Administration over the environment, for this is one subject about which the left won’t ever “move on.” Earth to Gore: No one is listening.

To the amazement of environmentalists and the media, President Bush’s approval ratings on his handling of the environment have stayed near or even above 50 percent throughout his presidency, despite the mountain of adverse headlines in the media, the nonstop fury of the political environmental groups, and the huge generic party advantage Democrats have over Republicans as the party best able to protect the environment. At no point in Bush’s presidency has his “disapprove” rating on his handling of the environment trailed his approval ratings. The most recent Newsweek poll, taken last week, found 44 percent approving of Bush on the environment, with 40 percent disapproving and the rest undecided. This is exactly where his ratings stood when he took office three years ago. In fact, Bush’s environmental poll numbers are very close to President Bill Clinton’s poll numbers for the comparable point in his first term, which must drive Gore out of his mind.

It would be difficult for Gore and his environmental allies to turn up the rhetoric any higher. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has said “George W. Bush will go down in history as America’s worst environmental president.” This will certainly come as a relief to Ronald Reagan, the previous undisputed champ of environmental ruin—at least according to environmentalists in the 1980s. In fact, there is nothing said about Bush today that wasn’t said about Reagan in the 1980s, and nearly all of it turned out to be wrong. (Air pollution fell fastest in the 1980s.) Maybe this is one reason people have stopped listening.

Gore’s complains that “The problem is that our world is now confronting a five-alarm fire that calls for bold moral and political leadership from the United States of America. With such leadership, there is no doubt that we could solve the problem of global warming. After all, we brought down communism, won wars in the Pacific and Europe simultaneously, enacted the Marshall Plan, found a cure for polio and put men on the moon.”

The trouble is that the Clinton administration itself estimated that the cost of the Kyoto Protocol to the American economy for just one year would be more than twice the total cost of the moon project and the Marshall plan put together. This is the reason President Clinton did not submit the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate for ratification, or lift a finger to implement it.

This is why in 1998 the National Environmental Trust blasted the Clinton administration for its “intransigence,” for “abandoning the core principles of the [Kyoto] global warming treaty” and for “abandoning any pretence of living up to its rhetoric about cutting global warming pollution.” And in a speech in April 2002, Eileen Claussen of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, one of the leading advocacy groups for urgent action on the issue, had harsh words for the Clinton administration: “Finally, I’d like to offer a special posthumous award to the Clinton administration. For talking big about climate change on the international stage but doing next to nothing about it at home, I present the Clinton White House with the award for best costumes.”

Gore and MoveOn.org are hoping that everyone will forget this inconvenient fact about the Clinton-Gore record. The distinguished economist Thomas Schelling wrote last year that while Bush may not have made the best choice in rejecting Kyoto outright, but given the political and economic realities “Bush at least avoided hypocrisy.” As Eileen Claussen’s comments suggest, that’s one thing that we can’t say about Clinton-Gore.

Meanwhile, there are signs environmentalists might not be all that happy with a prospective Howard Dean White House. The Los Angeles Times reported in a recent headline that “A Pragmatic Streak Colors Dean’s Green Credentials.” “Dean’s 11-year record as governor,” Times reporter Eric Slater wrote, “suggests he is much more a pragmatist on environmental issues than an ideologue, a centrist who often catered to business interests first, addressing the accompanying environmental concerns later.” Uh-oh: better keep those hysterical press releases ready for President Dean. Lucky for them Dean’s name has the same number of letters as Bush, making it a simple matter to switch them.

Steven F. Hayward is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, and author of the annual Index of Leading Environmental Indicators.