The environmental president?


IF THE "environment president" mentioned the environment in his State of the Union address, I missed it. He talked a lot about the Persian Gulf. He had a throwaway line in there about his "national energy strategy," though he squandered the real moment after the war, pushing for drilling the Arctic instead of conservation and efficiency.

That was about it. There was no bold initiative, say, to retool the sagging defense industry, to redirect it to combat pollution -- and profit handsomely -- with innovative, made-in-America technology. There was no notice that, with the Cold War won, global environmental threats still loom.

There was no call for a "new world order," for a coalition to fight this common enemy, for plans to keep the air healthy, growth sustainable and the population stable.

Perhaps January 1992 isn't the time. In New Hampshire, Pat Buchanan is running an atavistic campaign against the president. The economy is sour. And environmental issues aren't likely to be voting issues, except among the anti-nuke folks still fuming over the state's Seabrook nuclear power plant.

But if the "environment president" presumes to lead on the environmental front, there's still time -- and opportunity:

* He can drop some of the knee-jerk, anti-regulatory rhetoric. President Bush's crowning domestic achievement, in fact, may be his leadership in breaking the deadlock that had developed over extending the Clean Air Act. It's not as strong as it could be. But it shows clearly the role of enlightened rule-making when the public's health is at stake.

* He can publicize his support for budget increases at the Environmental Protection Agency. Until Ronald Reagan mugged it, the EPA was a proud, cutting-edge organization. Not only that, it was popular. Now the president wants to deploy it to fight pollution along the Mexican border (to defuse environmental objections to his free-trade agreement), clean up the infamous Boston Harbor and help neutralize the mess at atomic weapon plants. Tougher regulation in the first place would have spared taxpayers several hundred billion dollars in cleanup costs at those contaminated sites. But it's time to get on with the job.

* He can soften the administration's stance against international family-planning efforts, even ones that allow the option of abortion. It is cynical to strike a "pro-life" pose while subverting programs to help impoverished countries control life-threatening population growth. As a member of Congress, Mr. Bush was an advocate of population planning. He doesn't need to go that far now. All he needs to do is get out of the way. Indeed, as an array of contraceptive services becomes available in a country, experience shows that the incidence of abortion declines.

* He can put to rest the John Sununu-spread notion that environmental improvement, "eco-efficiency" or whatever you want to call it, is an economic drag. Mr. Bush's own chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, Michael Deland, says that the economy grew by leaps and bounds while industries were under orders to clean up smokestack emissions, lead was ordered out of gasoline and so forth. There is consensus, in fact, that Germany and Japan began gaining in the productivity race because they got smart about energy efficiency.

* He can stop being a party-pooper regarding the U.N.-sponsored Earth Summit that is coming up in Brazil in June. Next month, 100 nations are meeting in New York to hammer out a treaty to limit the threat of global warming. So far, the United States is something of an odd man out: It produces a quarter of the world's "greenhouse gases" but is reluctant to join the growing list of industrialized countries that say only strict targets and timetables can truly reverse the trend.

* He can talk turkey and take some risks. In his 1989 inaugural, the president wasn't afraid to say that citizenship takes work. He called for "duty, sacrifice, commitment and a patriotism that finds its expression . . . in pitching in."

Americans rise to a challenge. Once they led the world in confronting environmental threats. They can do it again, given the facts, the stakes, the incentives -- and a game plan laid out by an "environment president."

Rick Nichols is a member of the Philadelphia Inquirer's editorial board.

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